The affluence of a community and the level of arts education in N.J. schools

Last week the New Jersey Arts Education Census Project issued its “NJ Arts Education Census,” a report and data base that measures the level of access to and participation in art and music programming offered to NJ public school students in each of our 591 districts.

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Last week the New Jersey Arts Education Census Project issued its “NJ Arts Education Census,” a report and database that measures the level of access to and participation in art and music programming offered to N.J. public school students in each of our 591 districts.

Most educators – in N.J. and elsewhere — agree that the study of art and music is a boon to children’s intellectual and creative development. However, in the last few years school boards and administrators hear not the melodious tones of Mozart but the siren song of testing and accountability. There are, after all, no current accountability measures in place for a student’s mastery of art history, no statewide assessments of music appreciation.

Districts are further distracted from well-rounded programming by relentless fiscal and political pressure to decrease costs, not add courses. And if you do add a course, it’s more likely to be another section of algebra rather than a survey of Abstract Expressionism.

So the news from the NJ Census Project is especially good: in spite of these challenges, 97% of our schools have arts programs, an increase from five years ago. (Paterson Public Schools, with almost no arts program, is the outlier) For information about specific schools, go to this database, continued in the report, which offers an Art Education Index Score for each school, as well as comparisons to other schools in the district, county, and state.

There was, however, one piece of bad news in the Census: fewer students have been participating in those widely-available art programs and, as NJ Spotlight reports, “the level of programs was starting to follow the wealth of a community as well.” In other words, the wealthier the community, the richer the arts programming.

Explained Bob Morrison, the director of the project, “there are great arts programs across all economic categories in New Jersey, but for the first time we are seeing a connection between the affluence of a community and the level of arts education.”

This seems to beg more analysis and, conveniently, the NJ Census Project includes a list of “Model Schools that exemplify excellence in art education. Over the last three years only 22 schools have been awarded this honor.

So let’s look at these exemplars in the context of community wealth.

New Jersey assigns each school district a letter ranking designating its place on a socio-economic scale called “District Factor Group” or DFG. “A” is the poorest category (think Abbott districts), with the range escalating all the way up to palatial “J.” Of our 22 model schools, there are two “A’s” (Bridgeton High School; the other is Newark Art High School, a magnet arts school), two “B’s,” two “CD’s,” two “DE’s,” two “FG’s,” five “GH’s,”, and seven “I’s.” Some range here, but over half of these model districts hail from wealthier towns.

Let’s delve a little deeper. One way to examine a district’s access to art education is to look at the number of high school kids who take A.P. courses in art and music. At Willingboro High School in Burlington County (DFG “DE”) no students advance to that level. Nine miles away at Moorestown High School (DFG “I”) 44 high school students take A.P. art. At Cherry Hill High School East in Camden County (DFG “I”), 17 students took A.P. music theory. At Camden High (DFG “A,”) not a single one did. At Trenton Central High School in Mercer County, no students take AP art or music. Seven miles away at Princeton High, 20 students enrolled for AP music theory and 40 enrolled for AP art.

The New Jersey Arts Education Census Project celebrates our expansion of arts programming, but there’s one catch: “Increased access to arts instruction does not guarantee growth in student participation.” In wealthy districts, build it and they’ll come. In poorer communities — for a variety of complex reasons — the kids just aren’t lining up. This may not be the state’s most pressing education problem, but it’s directly related to issues of equity and access that dog us from Cape May to Sussex.

 

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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