reWorking Michigan: Study Reveals Gaps in Art Education

Oct 1, 2012

A recent study finds some 108,000 K-12 students in Michigan have no access to arts curriculum in their schools.  The state mandates at least one credit in the arts as a requirement to graduate.

WKAR’s Kevin Lavery looks at how those who advocate for the arts and those who regulate its instruction might fill the gap.

The study examining the state of arts education in Michigan is the first of its kind.  It was commissioned by three arts advocacy groups and state Department of Education.  It’s meant to serve as a baseline measurement to gauge where investments and cuts are being made across the board.

The voluntary survey was given to more than 4,100 schools, though just 20 percent completed the questionnaire.  On the plus side, the study found that more than 90 percent of the respondents do offer at least one course in music, art, theater or dance.  But the findings also show 108,000 students have no exposure to any arts curriculum whatsoever.

“(The numbers are) alarming, but I wasn’t overly surprised,” says John Bracey, executive director of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, which co-commissioned the study.  As the head of the nation’s smallest state-funded arts agency – just three full time employees – Bracey understands resources are spread thin.  He says the issues schools face are less about funding than they are about access.

“Sometimes the arts teacher is going from building to building to building, and frequently it’s a teacher that’s high seniority or something that needs to move into this program because they’re wanting to offer the program,” he says.  “And so, someone has to step up.”

Bracey says because veteran teachers see the need for a holistic education, they’re often the first to volunteer to hop from school to school.  He supports a recommendation in the study that asks the Michigan Department of Education to define the certification standards for all arts disciplines.  Bracey says that means ensuring more elementary teachers in particular are qualified to teach the arts.  

Linda Forward isn’t surprised by this news, either.  She directs the Office of Education Improvement and Innovation for the Michigan Department of Education.  She takes some comfort in the notion that even if some students aren’t taking drawing, drama or dance, many schools are integrating those disciplines into their core classes.

“And that’s really important, because by integrating this in, students get exposed to the arts as they’re learning, so it becomes more relevant,” Forward says.

That leads to some other key recommendations in the study.  One calls on the state to increase professional development in arts education for teachers and administrators.  Another suggests the department identify model schools with strong arts programs that can develop best practices guides for more challenged schools. 

Historically, Michigan’s economy has been steeped in skills that support advanced manufacturing; and that course will continue.  The state’s growing energy sector, for instance, relies on the so-called STEM curricula: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  But Linda Forward insists an arts education is not incompatible with the vision of Michigan’s economic future.

“In fact, you’ll hear some people instead of about STEM, you’ll hear them talk about ‘STEAM,’ which includes the arts,” says Forward.  “So, they are complementary to each other; it gets to that creativity.  Figuring out that wind power might be useful took somebody thinking outside the box.”

John Bracey with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs says the study clearly shows there’s much to do to improve arts education in the state.  But he’s already anticipating brighter days ahead.  His office awards grants to some 500 arts and culture organizations, and he’s expecting his grants budget to nearly triple next fiscal year.

In the meantime, education officials say they’ll continue to focus on blending the arts into core classes.  That theme will be a major focus of an upcoming conference to be held in November in Lansing.