In June, the Department of Education issued a report documenting the effects of COVID-19 on American students. The report notes that the pandemic has deepened inequities in the education system and has been particularly harmful to the educational development of underprivileged and at-risk youth.
The report also states that “nearly all students have experienced some challenges to their mental health and well-being during the pandemic and many have lost access to school-based services and supports.”
The specific effects of the pandemic will only be understood over time, but it is clear even at this early stage of research that our nation’s children have suffered a great deal. Even those who did not contract the virus or experience its more immediate horrors will need new opportunities for community-rebuilding, self-expression and healing as they reenter their more traditional academic and social lives.
Creativity is a skill. It is foundational. So much can be built on creative writing, the visual arts, music, drama and dance that will allow children not only to survive our tumultuous times, but also to thrive. It is a particular misfortune, therefore, that the pandemic struck during what may be a historic low point in arts education.
The National Endowment for the Arts’ most recent Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that after a steady trend of increased arts education in the 20th century, access to arts education has been declining for the past three decades. In another national survey, more than half of educators reported that the arts were receiving less instructional time and resources. Only 12% and 10% reported similar declines in English and math instruction, respectively.
In 2018, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences convened a Commission on the Arts to examine the state of arts education in the United States, and to assess the need for greater support.
We were pleased to be asked to chair a distinguished community of 38 other artists, scholars and activists, all of whom contributed their time and expertise to this multiyear effort.
Although we did not predict a pandemic, we understood at the outset that the arts, and by extension the skills and capacities that the arts teach, were in jeopardy. We consulted dozens of reports and all of the available data and focused our discussions on the challenges of access to arts education in public schools.
The resulting report, Art for Life’s Sake: The Case for Arts Education, offers ample evidence for the attributes, values and skills that come from arts education, including social and emotional development, better school engagement, and a more vital civic and social engagement. It also offers concrete recommendations to improve educational policy at the local, state and national levels.
While 88% of Americans agree that arts education is an essential component of a well-rounded education, the arts remain undervalued among policymakers, who tend to treat them as a complement to other subjects, as electives, or as frills. They are none of these things.
Most troubling, declines in arts education continue to reflect the persistent inequities in our educational system. Students in high-needs schools and historically underserved populations have been hit the hardest.
Though white students have experienced virtually no declines in arts education since the mid-1980s, African American students have experienced reductions of 49%, and Hispanic/Latinx students have experienced reductions of 40%. Numerous local audits have found that schools serving low-income students often provide no arts education or lack an arts teacher.
Solving these problems, which are so deeply embedded in the education system, will not be easy. Our report lays out a set of six ambitious goals:
- Making the arts a vital part of every child’s education.
- Elevating the role of the arts through data, research and accountability systems.
- Ensuring arts education funding is adequate and equitable.
- Recruiting, developing and supporting arts educators.
- Expanding arts education collaboration and partnerships within the arts education ecosystem.
- Restoring federal leadership in the arts.
Each of these will require a renewed commitment among educators, policymakers, parents and other partners, to ensure that future generations will have the same educational opportunities as past generations — if not more and better opportunities.
Even if the pandemic were eradicated tomorrow, our nation still would face a variety of persistent crises and competing priorities. Arts education may seem like an unlikely topic to rise to the top of that list. But we believe that few things are as important to the emotional and intellectual health of our youth, who have been confined and held back by the COVID-19 lockdown.
Arts education, properly supported and available to all, can play a vital role in our recovery, and help usher in a new day in America, especially for children in our hardest-hit communities.
John Lithgow is a Golden Globe, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor and author whose recent credits include “The Crown” and HBO’s “Perry Mason.” Deborah Rutter is president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Natasha Trethewey is a professor of English at Northwestern University and a two-time U.S. Poet Laureate.
As published in the Chicago Tribune on November 4, 2021