Middle schools weakest in arts, too, city finds in annual report

One in five city eighth-graders graduated from middle school last year without completing the state’s basic requirements for arts education.

That data point is one of many contained in the city’s Annual Arts in Schools Report, which tallies arts instruction, staff, and spending.

At an event for arts advocates this morning to launch the report, Department of Education officials emphasized that schools’ time devoted to and money spent on arts instruction held steady or increased since last year. But they said there remain major areas where improvement is needed.

“We have to do more work with middle schools,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott, echoing a sentiment he has expressed many times since launching an initiative aimed at boosting the city’s lagging middle schools last year. He said the department would convene a special committee to study arts in middle schools and make recommendations for changes.

Just 81 percent of last year’s eighth-graders graduated having fulfilled the state’s arts requirement of one credit in two different disciplines. In 2010, that figure was 85 percent. And the requirements are weaker than what the state originally set out: Walcott said the city had gotten a waiver from the state to allow dance and theater classes to count toward the graduation requirement, in addition to music and visual art.

“Lots of students will never have the opportunity to apply to a rigorous high school program” because they do not have adequate preparation in middle school, said Gregg Betheil, the department’s director of school programs and partnerships.

One possible recommendation of the committee, Walcott said, could be to introduce more screened arts programs at the middle school level.

Equity of access has arts advocates concerned, too. Eric Pryor, executive director of the Center for Arts Education, said in a statement that even though there are some positive signs in the arts report, “the opportunity gap that exists in city public schools has barely budged, leaving far too many students without access to quality instruction in the arts.”

The issue persists in high school. “We are seeing a decrease in the ability of schools to offer multiple arts disciplines,” said Paul King, director of the Department of Education’s arts office.

The Center for Arts Education joined other arts advocates this fall in calling on the city to expand its accountability system to include arts instruction. Only then, the groups said in a recent letter, will schools feel compelled to offer quality arts programming to all students.

King said today that he thought academics have edged out the arts at some middle schools. “I think middle schools are under incredible pressure” to post academic improvements, he said. “It’s an issue of scheduling and prioritization.”

The solution, King said, was to “shape school leaders’ thinking” so they understand that arts instruction can boost student performance in other subjects, by engaging students and providing a different avenue for literacy work.

A major obstacle to making changes in middle schools or elsewhere is the city’s budget situation. According to the report, 62 percent of principals citywide reported to the department last year that they faced serious challenges in budgeting for arts education. And even though schools slightly increased their spending on the arts, they actually shed teachers.

In the tough budget climate, schools have turned increasingly to outside organizations to provide arts programming, King said, with the number of arts organizations working in city schools up by 25 percent since the first round of budget cuts in 2008. While much of the instruction provided by external partners is strong, he said, the department cannot say which organizations do the best job.

“It’s something we don’t have the capacity to effectively monitor,” King said, adding that developing standards for assessing whether students have learned in their arts classes is a project the department has only just started to tackle in an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education.