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National Endowment for the Arts Focuses on Equity in Education

Matisse Math Lesson.JPGThe National Endowment for the Arts is marking its 50th anniversary this year with a slew of initiatives that highlight the state of the arts in the United States. 

The NEA has funded arts education programs since its inception. In 2014, NEA released a comprehensive new strategic plan for arts education, which includes new grants for groups trying to impact arts education in large systems like districts and states.

Over the course of the anniversary year, "we'll be having a meaningful conversation about the arts," said Ayanna Hudson, the director of arts education for the Arts Endowment. "We'll work to broaden the public's understanding of what the arts are and expand the number of people participating.

There are also a few specific anniversary programs for young people: The Arts Endowment is creating a new songwriting program for high school students in early 2016, adding a new component to a poetry contest, and highlighting arts stories from across the country.

Education Week spoke with Hudson about the state of arts education, measuring the impact of the arts, and more. 

On the state of arts education: 

"When we talk about the status of arts across the country, one tool we use is the fast response survey system conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. The last survey covers the 2009-10 school year and provides a snapshot of arts education.

It's a mixed picture. The vast majority of elementary and secondary schools offer music—close to 90 percent. But that still means about 1.3 million public school students are not receiving music instruction.

If you look at visual arts, it goes down to 83 percent. That means there are 4 million students without access.

And if you look at theater and dance, it drops dramatically.

Students who attend high-poverty schools are the students who don't have access. There's a real equity gap. So we have to strive to make sure we're creating equal opportunities." 

On how the NEA is trying to address equity gaps:

"A high percentage of our grants go to support underserved communities, whether that's direct learning grants, which provide opportunities for knowledge in the arts, professional development grants, teaching artists. It's close to 50 percent. We have a keen interest in serving underserved communities."

On the NEA's overall approach to arts education:

"For us, it's a three-legged stool: Passionate teachers integrating the arts, arts specialists trained in teaching the arts, and partnerships with teaching artists and community artists to further deepen and enhance the work of the classroom teacher and the arts specialist."

On measuring the impact of arts education

"We just gathered a group of our grantees for a conversation about measuring change over time. There's an overall interest in things like social-emotional well-being—things we know arts has an impact on. So we're looking at things like engagement, behavior referrals...that was the first time we'd really done that, where the grantees [from different cities and regions] got to sit down to have a dialogue."

On a few projects that are taking a systemwide approach to improving arts education:

Ingenuity Incorporated, out of Chicago, is a citywide collaboration to bring arts education to all students across Chicago Public Schools...The NEA is funding cloud-based data collection, which helps arts organizations use data to partner more effectively with schools. Their use of data is really innovative.

In Austin,Texas, there's something called the creative learning initiative. Similar to Chicago, the network includes government, arts, business, and philanthropy to develop a 10-year plan. Schools are receiving funding to help map the gaps [in which schools and students have access to arts]." 

On challenges facing arts education

"[U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan has framed access to arts education as a civil rights issue. Millions of students have limited or no access to the arts.

To highlight  the positive side of how the field's addressing that, I mentioned the arts education partnership, a national leadership investment we make that's jointly funded with the U.S. Department of Education.

The partnership has recently adopted an action plan to ensure that arts is part of the conversation on college and career.

The Education Department also recently released a letter demonstrating how Title I funds can be used to support the arts."

Photo: Students at T.S. Cooper Elementary in Gates County, North Carolina, learn math concepts by creating original artwork in the style of the artist Henri Matisse as part of the A+ Schools Program supported by the NEA. (Via Michelle Mazan Burrows / National Endowment for the Arts)

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