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Good News and Bad for Arts Education in New York City

A new report from the school system in New York City offers a fairly exhaustive look at trends in arts instruction, with a mix of encouraging and discouraging findings for those who believe the arts are essential to a good education.

We reporters, of course, love to emphasize the bad news, but today I'll resist that temptation and begin with what sounds promising for the arts, in part because I find it rather surprising. And that is: By many measures, access to arts education in this cultural Mecca appears to have risen considerably over the four most recent years (ending in 2009-10).

After all, it was only last month that I reported some national survey data suggesting a steady decline in access to arts education over the decades.

The school-level data from New York City shows that the amount of arts instruction appears to have grown pretty steadily at the elementary and middle school level, based on four years of data running from the 2006-07 academic year to 2009-10. Also, schools are increasingly offering multiple types of arts instruction, whether visual arts, music, dance, or theater.

For example, 60 percent of elementary schools reported providing some instruction in all four of those disciplines in 2009-10, compared with 35 percent four years earlier, when counting arts teachers and/or cultural organizations. (99 percent provided instruction in at least one discipline.) There was also substantial growth when it comes to providing instruction in all four disciplines across ALL grades in an elementary school, reaching 19 percent in 2006-7 compared with just 3 percent four years earlier.

I should note, however, that with a few exceptions, this growth seems to have plateaued between 2008-09 and the following year at both the elementary and middle-school levels. In high school, meanwhile, arts instruction mostly grew over the four-year time span, but there was generally a small drop over the two most recent years.

Of course, there's plenty of bad news for the arts, too. The overall fiscal 2010 budget for the arts in schools decreased by 4.3 percent compared with the prior year. Schools experienced a decrease in per capita budgeting for the arts from $316 per student to $301.

Not surprisingly, then, the number of certified arts teachers in the city's public schools also declined by 5.2 percent between 2008-09 and the following year, though the number of theater teachers actually rose by 16.7 percent.

On average, three-quarters of all public schools that responded to the survey reported having at least one full-time certified arts teacher.

There is truly a ton of data in this report, so I'm only skimming the surface to give you a flavor. I'll close with a press release issued by the Center for Arts Education in New York City, which saw much to be concerned about in the data.

"While there was some positive news in the report, the clear message from the data is that arts education is in the midst of a difficult storm," it says. "In addition to significant declines in arts budgets, the number of certified arts teachers in city schools is declining as well, and far too many schools are still not providing the arts instruction required according to state education law."

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