Should arts factor into a school’s rating? Illinois weighs the question

When music teacher Keira Quintero thinks of the importance of music education, she remembers Chase, a student she taught in 2014.

Chase, then a first grader, was struggling in math and reading. But in Quintero’s music class he found an outlet for his creative energy, writing a poem to the music rhythm she was teaching in class.

To Quintero, a teacher Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary in Oak Park, it was the perfect example of how music can inspire young people, including those who struggle to engage in other subjects. “If he didn’t have that opportunity, his academics could have continued to decline,” Quintero said. Instead, his achievement picked up, and even now he continues to thrive, she said.

So Quintero applauds a recommendation to factor a school’s arts education into its state ratings, along with math, reading and other core subjects.

Now Quintero and other members of the Illinois Arts Indicator Work Group have proposed that arts constitute 5 percent of a school’s total state rating. The indicator would consider student enrollment in art courses, the quality of teaching, and student opinions about the courses.

If the state board of education adopts the task force’s recommendation,  Illinois would become only the second state to use a distinct arts indicator when evaluating schools.

The fate of the arts proposal, however, is in question. As of Friday, the position of state superintendent of education, who would weigh in on the proposal, will be vacant. Superintendent Tony Smith’s contract expires on Jan. 31, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration has not yet named a replacement.

The proposal comes as part of Illinois’ efforts to revamp its school ratings system as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

While the state has an arts indicator, it currently doesn’t have any weight in state rankings. But arts educators argue that studying music or visual or performing arts develops students’ talent as well as social skills and emotional well-being, and  should be considered when evaluating schools.

This year’s state rankings could penalize schools for performance gaps between different student groups such as black and Latino students, students with disabilities, and English language learners. Last year, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for academic performance, making some of them possible targets for state intervention. An arts indicator could offer a more varied metric by which to judge schools.

Illinois is struggling to fund basic education for many districts, so the arts are not universally available in schools. But the task force promised to address that issue by distinguishing between higher- and lower-resourced districts when factoring in arts to school ratings.

If the proposal is adopted, that would be the only case where the ratings consider school resources.

Illinois then would join Connecticut as one of only two states with an arts indicator, and the only one to consider arts for both elementary and high schools. The state school board will accept public comment on the proposal until Feb. 6 at