Arts Education Has Been Slowly Declining In The U.S.

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

In the past several years, a major trend has emerged in public education. This trend is the lack of support for arts education in public schools within the United States. Arts education includes not only art classes but also extracurricular arts activities such as photography, theater, etc. Now, this trend continues to undermine the importance of arts education to students.

The first major event attributed to the decline of arts education was the Cold War. Although many see the Cold War as primarily a period of tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union which, most notably, included the space race, Cuban Missile Crisis, and a nuclear arms race, the Cold War also had an unforeseen impact on arts education. After the launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, by the Soviets, the U.S. passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958, which was a one billion dollar package to improve teaching and STEM related education. As a result, high school curriculums became more focused on STEM and analytical thinking skills as opposed to the arts which subsequently began to diminish.

One impact of the NDEA was the advent of homework in public education. Decades earlier, the anti-homework movement had many successes such as California banning homework in 1901. In 1962, however, nearly 23% of high school juniors reported doing over two hours of homework which is roughly double the percentage in the year Sputnik 1 was launched, 1957. The increase of homework meant that students had less time to focus on extracurricular activities or activities not stressed by their school’s curriculum such as the arts.

Another event that inadvertently contributed to the fall of arts education was the 2008 financial crisis. As a result of the financial crisis, the job market was very unstable in that many people did not have job opportunities or job security, especially those working in humanities or arts related fields. This caused the percentage of people who pursued humanities or arts related fields like history or dance to decrease. In fact, the percentage of people pursuing an arts degree decreased 9% from 2008 to 2017.

In order to combat the decline of arts education, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 designated art as a core subject. However, the problem of lack of arts education persists. A 2012 study conducted by the Department of Education found that nearly 97% of elementary schools nationwide do not offer theater or dance opportunities. The same study also found that a majority of elementary schools do offer visual arts or music opportunities. Even though some arts are widespread in education, the decline of arts education refers to the general decline of arts in schools which is observed by the vast majority of elementary and secondary schools without theater or dance opportunities.

Moreover, the decline of arts education disproportionately impacts communities of color. A survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that the percentage of 18 to 24 year olds who received an arts education in childhood decreased over 20% for African Americans and Hispanics from 1982 to 2008. During that same time frame, the percentage of white Americans who received an arts education remained roughly the same at over 50%.

Even though many of the actions that caused the decline in arts education were inadvertent, willful choices to decrease funding for arts education also contributes to the decline of arts education. In late June this year, Philadelphia approved a new budget, which included a 40% cut in citywide arts funding. This cut is similar to the many other budget cuts for the arts across the nation. City leaders have begun to make willful choices to reduce the arts in favor of other priorities.

Art education promotes positive mental health and can help change the way students think. A study conducted by the Be Brain Fit mental health organization and corroborated by medical professionals has shown that kids have a higher self-esteem and feel a sense of accomplishment when creating art. Moreover, art has been proven to stimulate and create connections between different parts of the brain. The study found that students with musical training tend to perform better in classes like math, language, and reading. The process of creating art promotes positive mental health by offering stress relief and improves critical thinking skills by stimulating different regions of the brain.

Withholding a severe change in the way the nation views arts education, the decline of the arts in the U.S. will only continue which would deprive kids of the potential benefits arts education could offer.

Through Teen Lenses: Do you believe that arts education is an important aspect of public education in the U.S.?

“An education that incorporates the arts provides students the ability to express themselves in a way that is meaningful to them. I have many friends who are actively involved in the arts program in their school who tell me that their music class is the best part of their day. Taking that away would essentially eliminate something they are truly passionate about and their avenue for creativity.” Keerthi Padmanabhan, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“I believe so because art will and has always been an important part of global culture, so educating children and teaching them how to manifest their own is important” Varun Khilnani, 16, Rising Junior at Poolesville High School, Poolesville, MD
“Yes because in modern society scientific innovation is given such a large preference by society that it masks art. Art has been used even before languages were created therefore, it is still needed to help convey thoughts that words cannot.” Aditya Khanna, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD