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Theater 'Alive and Well' in U.S. High Schools, New Data Suggest

Theatre education is widespread among American high schools, new survey data show, with 79 percent of those who responded offering one or more drama courses and nearly 95 percent providing extracurricular opportunities in theater. The national study also finds, however, that about half of theater educators surveyed did not major in that subject in college. In addition, theater teachers appear not to reflect the growing racial and ethnic diversity of U.S. students, the survey finds.

"Theater is alive and well and quite robust in the high schools of America," said James Palmarini, the director of educational policy at the Educational Theatre Association, which published the study results in the latest issue of the journal, Teaching Theatre. (Palmarini also is the editor of this journal.)

The research project surveyed theater educators and secondary school administrators nationwide on topics related to theater education, from the types of programs they offered to the motivations for providing theater opportunities and even factors that influence play selection.

Indeed, there is a special section on handling what the study calls "social issues" in theater, including touchy topics like abortion, drug use, and teen sexuality. The study also probes how theater teachers respond when they get pushback from administrators. I will examine these matters in a separate blog post, which also will provide a glimpse of the most popular plays and musicals produced today in high school. (Fear not, all you English majors, Shakespeare made the top 10!)

About 10 percent of the 13,000 public high schools invited to participate in the study agreed to do so. The research project was led by Matt Omasta, an assistant professor in the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University, and co-sponsored by that university and the Educational Theatre Association.

The study notes that schools may take different approaches to theater education.

"Some schools include no theatre courses for credit, but do offer students a variety of extracurricular programs such as theatre competitions, play production, drama clubs, or student theatre honor societies," the study says. "Conversely, some schools confine theatre opportunities exclusively to the regular school day. And of course, others offer no theatre programs at all."

Of the schools surveyed that offered theater courses, about one-quarter of their students took at least one such course. Beyond the garden variety Introduction to Theatre, the most common types offered are on acting and tech/design (costuming, sound and lighting design, set construction etc.). About 14 percent offer musical-theater classes, and a still smaller number offer classes in directing, the literature/history of drama, playwriting, stage management, and theater management, the study says.

The prevalence of theater education in high schools appears to have grown significantly over time, though the study was cautious about drawing firm conclusions on the matter. This is the third such national survey of theater education. The last one, in 1991, found 79 percent of schools offering extracurricular theater, and 68 percent theater courses. And going back to 1970, 63 percent reported offering theater as an extracurricular, and just 37 percent offered courses during the school day. But because the studies drew from different populations, comparisons over time could not be made with confidence.

(A federal report on arts education from earlier this year tells a somewhat different story, however. It finds that the proportion of public secondary schools offering drama/theater during the school day declined slightly, from 48 percent to 45 percent, when comparing 1999-2000 to 2008-09. More troubling, elementary level theater instruction has plummeted from 20 percent to 4 percent over the same time period, based on that report, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.)

'Good News, Bad News'

Returning to the new study, which probed theater education in far more detail, budgets for theater productions remain "relatively high" despite the recent downturn, it concludes.

"Although 65 percent of school administrators indicated that their total school budget had decreased over the past three academic years, only 32 percent of theater teachers at those same schools reported decreases in their program budgets during that time period," the study says.

The study sought to probe the perceptions of school administrators and theater educators about the role theater plays in developing students' skills and competencies. Top billing went to developing students self-confidence, with both groups of educators rating its importance 3.9 out of 4.0. Both groups also ranked interpersonal skills (communication and collaboration) and intrapersonal skills (self-discipline, self-understanding, and creativity) highly.

In addition, most indicated that theater played an important role in developing the skills needed to work with others to solve problems, such as leadership, critical thinking, and social/cross-cultural skills.

The survey also took a closer look at theater educators themselves and found they haven't changed much. Those who participated in the survey were "demographically similar to those participating in the 1991 study; the majority of respondents to both were white women in their thirties or forties who were married or in domestic partnerships." At the same time, student demographics have shifted considerably over that time period, the study says. It found that approximately 95 percent of teachers in the survey were non-Hispanic whites, while 61 percent of students were white in the schools surveyed.

As for teachers' educational backgrounds, the most commonly held undergraduate degree was in English education (29 percent), followed by theater (28 percent) and theater education (23 percent).

In an article titled "Good News, Bad News" also published in the same issue of Teaching Theatre, Dawn Ellis, the president and founder of DME and Associates, a research consulting group, examined the results.

"The ... study paints a picture of active theatre education in the majority of public schools—that's good news. Budgets for the field trend upward over the last 40 years, using inflation-adjusted figures, remaining resilient even as school budgets fell during recessionary times."

She adds, "Theatre teachers as a workforce have a more seasoned tenure than 20 years ago and are more involved in national networks than [indicated in earlier surveys in 1991 and 1970]."

At the same time, she points to some reasons for concern in the data.

"The facilities are old," she writes. "The teaching workforce remains mostly white, female, and middle-aged while the student body continues to diversify."

Another area of potential concern in the data is the use of technology, or the lack thereof.

"Teachers' overall use of technology and new media was relatively limited, considering its widespread availability," says an overview of supplemental data on technology and new media. "In fact, the only tool that at least 50 percent of teachers reported using was video-based websites (such as Youtube and Hulu)."

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