Arts education changed the course of Dr. Fedrick Ingram’s life.
In ninth grade, while living in housing projects in Miami, Ingram, a saxophone player, planned to enlist in the military. But his band director, William McKenzie, saw an “academic way” about him and encouraged him to go to college, becoming the first in his family to do so.
Now, more than 30 years later, Ingram still talks to that band director, calling him one of his closest friends — and he followed in his footsteps. Prior to his current role as the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, Ingram was a high school band director, and he also developed close relationships with his students.
“Those are the relationships where they’ve become a surrogate father and mother,” Ingram says. “These are people who help our children in their most vulnerable spaces.”
During hours of working through a piece of music to get it just right, says Ingram, students start to see the value of what they’re doing beyond the walls of the school.
At a time when student mental health is suffering, kids need to feel successful. They need outlets that boost their confidence. When they put on a band uniform, says Ingram, “you become Superman, and people start to look at you and recognize that you have a skill” and that you’re doing something positive.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about arts education,” Ingram says. “It literally saved my life.”
Defining Arts Education
“Arts education” doesn’t look like any one thing, both in terms of content and practice.
“It can be pretty broad in terms of what you’re talking about or who you’re talking with,” says Ray Yang, the director of equity, diversity and inclusion, and special initiatives for the National Art Education Association.
The four main buckets are visual arts, music, dance, and theater, but it isn’t limited to that. And, though there are formal classes and classroom settings, arts education can take place anywhere: a museum, a community center, or online.
And arts education looks different at every age. In elementary grades, there’s the exploration of colors and shapes and representing what you’ve learned, says Jessica Sawko, director of education at Children Now. It allows students to express their knowledge through art.
Americans largely consider arts to be part of a well-rounded K-12 education, according to a 2016 survey by Americans for the Arts, with 88% agreeing that it is. And that level of agreement continued with respondents saying arts education was equally important at all grade levels. However, results differed when it came to who has access to the arts, like hearing live music, seeing live theater, visiting museums, and attending cultural arts. While the results did not see a difference between white and non-white respondents, there were disparities between those living in urban areas compared to suburban and rural areas, as well as low-income respondents.
Arts education is about trying to humanize people, Ingram says, and it has deeper roots for Black students. Music, in particular, is embodied in African American culture because the rhythms and songs survived the Middle Passage and helped enslaved people persevere, even when they faced a loss of language and culture.
For Black students, music and other visual and performing arts classes are still “a place where they find not only solace, but they find themselves because they learn to draw on characteristics that we don’t label as ‘core’: their empathy, their feelings, their ideas,” Ingram says. “It helps them to imagine the possibilities, helps them to understand the aesthetic beauty in life.”
Arts Education Leads to Higher Student Engagement and Academic Success
There are wide-reaching benefits to arts education.
In an environment where students can express themselves and their knowledge, it boosts their engagement with learning other subjects, like STEM courses.
“The integration of arts and all subjects is more consistent with how kids see the world,” Sawko says. “I don’t think kids see the world in these isolated and siloed subject areas. They see things as the integrated world in which we live.”
Research also shows that children who participate in arts education are more curious, seek out different viewpoints and experiences, and are more socially engaged, says Jamie Kasper, director of the Arts Education Partnership. This means they are more likely to vote, run for office, and volunteer, and they have better life skills, like time management and prioritization.
Two researchers at the Houston Education Research Consortium studied the benefits of arts education in 2019, largely looking at elementary schools. Students engaging with arts education had a nearly 4% reduction in discipline, a 13% increase in standardized writing scores, and an 8% increase in compassion for others.
They also saw increases in college aspirations and school engagement — like agreeing that school work is enjoyable, makes them think about things in new ways, and that they are offered programs and opportunities that interest them.
There are plenty of misconceptions around these benefits. People wrongly assume that you have to be gifted or talented in order to excel in these areas, so when they aren’t immediately, it’s easy to give up.
“Everyone practices, and everyone can gain a really solid skill within the arts, but we don’t commit to that or value it, so we push it aside,” Yang says. “It’s really unfortunate because then we lose out on so many of the additional things that the arts teach us.”
Students Need More Opportunities and Exposure
There haven’t been any concrete studies about how much time students should be spending on art education at each grade level, what staffing should look like, or what materials and facilities should be available.
But, from his years as a high school band director, Ingram saw firsthand that the more students engaged with the arts, the more they developed a meaningful attachment with the subject matter. The music curriculum bridged a gap that was missing in other courses.
“It was the analysis of music theory and trying to collaborate and make things better that allowed them to go to their science lab classes and work with other students in a way that they would not normally have had to do,” Ingram says.
But a key barrier to having measurable standards of how much arts education students should have is access to these curricula — and teachers.
“Arts educators have almost always been in survival mode,” Yang says. “We’re one of the first subjects and topics that get cut, so we’re fighting for every minute that we can get in the classroom.”