Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Friday, February 25, 2011

Talking About Declining Arts Education, Armed with New Numbers

Recapping Research: the SPPA Follow-Up Monographs, Part 1

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to listen in on a two-hour presentation hosted by Sunil Iyengar, the head of research at the NEA. The topic was three monographs the NEA commissioned to delve into the data gathered from the Survey on Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). This benchmark report, which is fielded every four years, looks at the arts attendance habits of just under 20,000 people across the country in order to understand who’s going to what, who’s not going at all, and what that all means.

In the case of these three monographs, the researchers were asked not only to delve into the 2008 data, but also to place it in context with the large trove of data gathered by the SPPA since it was first administered in 1982.

These recaps take a while, so this just covers the first one…I’ll cover the other two next week.

The three monographs were:
All of these, as well as a useful summary document, can be found at

Arts Education in America
Building off of an initial study commissioned by the NEA in 1992 that indicated that arts education was the most powerful predictor of arts attendance in adults, this study analyzed the data in the SPPA since 1982 to understand more fully exactly how central arts education is in the creation of future arts patrons.

Nick Rabkin eased us in with some basic graphs demonstrating facts we sort of already know – that those who repot having had classes in art are far more likely to report they’ve also attended arts events across the life of the SPPA, and then that general education is itself a correlated indicator of arts attendance (more education = more attendance).

Then things got interesting. Rabkin analyzed the number of art forms respondents indicated they had studied, both as a child and as an adult, and found that an increase not only in any arts education, but of a diverse arts education yielded higher average rates of arts attendance in respondents – and that the effect was even more evident with art forms studied as an adult. To pause here for a second, this seems to go against the current prevailing mutterings from some circles that the current adult generation may be simply lost to arts apathy, and that the focus should instead completely divert to children. Here’s the graph (taken from their presentation):

F1. Arts Attendance Rate Predictions Based on Amount of Arts Attendance

Taking, then, the fact that arts education is indeed quite important, Rabkin and Hedberg began an analysis of what has happened to arts education over the course of the SPPA, and indeed, over the last century.

Starting simply, they looked at the percentage of 18-year-olds in each SPPA since 1982 who said they had had arts education as children. The numbers starkly declined from a 1982 high of 64% to a low in 2008 of 49.5%. The pace of decline is increasing precipitously as well. This itself indicates something of an issue, but then Rabkin and Hedberg did something fascinating. They extrapolated the ages of each of the respondents on every SPPA since 1982, and where from there able to figure out the year at which each person turned 18. Using that as an anchor, they laid out the percentage of respondents who experienced arts education as children for every year between 1930 and 2008, with this result:

F2. Percentage of Childhood Arts Education, 1930-2008

What this graph shows is that in 1930, about 20% of children had any arts education. The number steadily rose until 1985, when it was at about 65%. It then began a consistent downward trend, passing through 50% in 2000. Per Rabkin, this downturn was precipitated by:
  • Widespread opposition to taxes associated with arts education, beginning with Prop 13 (right here in California).
  • The emergence of school reform as a high national priority. The report that spurred this reform effort was called “Nation at Risk,” and was published in 1983. It encouraged raising standards and rigorous testing, and included practically no discussion of arts education. Per Rabkin, arts education has been marginalized ever since.

A 15% decline is upsetting, but the problem is actually even more disasterous than on first look. The issue is that that decline is disproportionately affecting non-white populations, and not just a little. Since 1982, arts education for white has essentially stayed constant at about 58% of students. African-Americans and Hispanics, on the other hand, have seen a decline from around 50% of students in 1982 to half (!) that in 2008. The graph is incredibly disheartening:

F3. % of Respondents Reporting Arts Education As Children by Race

I’ve written at length about the terribly disproportionate impact of arts education cuts on non-white populations. Essentially, it is a situation of discrimination by default—schools in less affluent districts (districts where neither the local municipality nor the parents can afford to shoulder the financial burden of providing arts education to their children) suffer more than schools in more affluent districts, and less affluent districts are disproportionately non-white. As I said in an article on this subject last year:

In a country where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2006 median household income for a whlte family was 158% that of a black family and 135% that of an Hispanic family, the fact that ubiquity of arts education is directly tied to affluence means that it’s de facto tied to race.

Rabkin closed with some thoughts on the relationship between the decline in interest in the arts and the decline in arts education, and cautioned not to draw instant, direct connections between the two – at least not only in one direction. Declining arts education may contribute to declining interest in the arts, but it can also go the other way, becoming what Rabkin called “a bi-directional issue.”

Rabkin also cautioned us to understand that moaning about arts attendance and its ties to arts education isn’t going to get us very far with our legislators. In his term, he expected such arguments to be viewed as “trivial.” Rather, we need to advocate for arts education on its own terms, secure in the knowledge that instituting such reform will likely generate some increase in arts attendance in the years to come.

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