Exposing children to art and music can reap profound academic benefits, and public schools have traditionally embedded drawing, music appreciation, drama, and even dance within the school day. Back-to-school lists include art smocks and magic markers, as well as composition books and pencils. 

But now, public schools, in New Jersey and elsewhere, confront an onslaught of curricular straightjackets in the form of standardized course content and assessments that stress math and reading to the exclusion of other disciplines. School boards and administrators don’t hum Bach cantatas; instead, they hear the siren song of testing and accountability. 

Districts are further distracted from well-rounded programming by relentless fiscal and political pressure to decrease costs and reduce payroll, not add specialized instructors. If districts do add a course, it’s more likely to be another section of algebra rather than Art Appreciation. Indeed, the National Center for Education Statistics tracked changes in arts education from 1999–2000 to 2009–2010 and concluded that No Child Left Behind has resulted in sharp drops in art and music instruction.

New Jersey, however, is the outlier.  A 2012 report issued by the NJ Arts Education Census Project entitled “Keeping the Promise” found that 97 percent of our schools have arts programs, an increase from five years ago. Among its conclusions:

  • The number of NJ students with daily access to the arts has increased since 2006.
  • Well above 90 percent of NJ public schools use appropriately certified arts specialists as the primary providers for music and visual art instruction.
  • More than 90 percent of NJ public schools collaborate with community arts organizations. 

However, the report warns:

  • The majority of NJ public schools fail to offer instruction in all four arts disciplines: art, music, theater, and dance. In theater instruction, less than half of schools use certified specialists. In dance, the percentage is under 40 percent.
  • Per-pupil spending in support of arts education has declined by 30 percent at the elementary level and by 44 percent at the high-school level.

The director of the NJ Arts Education Census Project, Bob Morrison, notes that “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.”

“Keeping the Promise” examined each of NJ’s 2,500 public schools and created a “NJ Arts Education Index.” This index, which runs from 0–1,  measures the breadth of art offerings, student participation, teachers, instruction, facilities and resources, policies and professional development, involvement with community resources, and supervision and assessment. A “1” means that the school has demonstrated “a complete effort on every aspect of art education.” However, “an index of ‘1’ is nearly impossible to attain and no school in our study did so.” A score on the low end represents a weak arts program defined by poor student participation, oversight, and resources.

Let’s see how this plays out in one case study: Johnson Park Elementary School in affluent Princeton (Mercer County). This school received a score of .57 on the Census index, which is quite high compared to other schools both within and without Mercer. But check out Trenton City’s Robbins Elementary School, five miles away.  This school received a score of .36, on the low end of the spectrum.

You can check out your school’s index score on our website and, most likely, be reassured of your district’s commitment to music and theater and art. But, as “Keeping the Promise” reminds us, access to arts education is yet another lens that offers a view into the disparities between richer and poorer public school districts in New Jersey. 

Laura Waters is an NJ school board member and author of the blog NJ Left Behind. The views expressed here are her own.