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Arts Education Sees Decline, Especially for Minorities, Report Suggests

Fewer American children are getting access to arts education, whether at school or elsewhere, according to a new analysis of federal data issued by the National Endowment for the Arts. What's especially alarming is that the overall decline is only part of the story: The drop is apparently most severe for African-Americans and Hispanics.

The research, part of a broader look at arts participation by U.S. adults, finds that fewer 18-year-olds surveyed in 2008 reported receiving any arts education in childhood than did those surveyed in 1982, dropping from about 65 percent to 50 percent. The report also includes survey data in 1992 and 2002, and each successive time the overall figure was lower.

The analysis includes a slightly broader pool of adults surveyed in breaking down the results by race and ethnicity, including those ages 18 to 24. Here, the data are most stark. Just 26 percent of African-Americans surveyed in 2008 reported receiving any arts education in childhood, a huge drop from the 51 percent who reported as much in 1982.

"We've moved from a half to a quarter of all African-Americans," Sunil Iyengar, the director of research and analysis at the endowment, told me. "It's now 26 percent. ... You're talking about staggering rates of decline for African-Americans and for Hispanics, too."

For Hispanics ages 18 to 24, the figure for getting any arts education plummeted to 28 percent in 2008, down from 47 percent in 1982. For whites, meanwhile, the figure was down just slightly. I won't round these figures, but it dropped from 59.2 percent to 57.9 percent.

The new report, "Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation," was conducted by researchers Nick Rabkin and E.C. Hedberg from the University of Chicago, at the request of the endowment. It's actually one of three new reports issued last week by the federal agency that aim to provide additional analysis of federal survey data first released in 2009.

Of course, the new research is not the only recent indicator that access to arts education may be in decline. For instance, a 2008 report from the Center on Education Policy, based on a survey of school district officials, suggested that arts education had been reduced since the federal No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002.

But what's different in the report issued by the National Endowment for the Arts is the focus on what young adults themselves report about their prior experiences.

Although endowment data do not distinguish between arts education in school and outside of school, Iyengar suggests there's good reason to believe that schools are a major cause of the overall decline. First, he points to data showing the decline by arts-content areas. The two largest? Music and visual arts.

"Visual arts and music we know are the most widely available arts classes through public schools," he said. "So this is actually a pretty good indicator that a lot of the decline is attributable to what's probably happening in the public school system."

Secondly, he notes the drop for African-Americans and Hispanics further suggests that schools are likely to be a big part of the change, as it's believed that for these populations, arts instruction is more likely to take place in school.

I should note that while I'm homing in on the issue of access to arts education, the larger focus of the report is to look at how that affects participation in arts events as an adult. And here, the report concludes that "having had any childhood or adult arts education was significantly correlated with attendance at benchmark arts events," though it notes that the connection is stronger for those who receive arts education as an adult.

There is plenty more data to mine in the three new studies, but I'll highlight just one more point that Iyengar brought to my attention, what he calls a "sleeper finding." And that is, in another of the new reports, the data suggest that arts education is "the most significant predictor" that an adult will engage in creating artwork or performing original artwork.

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