Theatre education advocacy: the value of research data
You hear the phrase “data-driven decision making” a lot in education—including arts education. The notion is that schools using reliable data about students, teachers, and curriculum will make more informed choices about staffing, funding, and scheduling. At least that’s the idea. Data is also a great advocacy tool for those seeking to “make the case” for arts education, along with compelling personal stories about how the arts have changed lives. Every bullet point of arts education data should be based on well-designed and executed research, ideally done with a large enough survey sample that allows the facts and figures to be considered statistically valid and therefore applicable to the broader population of students, schools, or teachers.
For theatre education, this is a challenge. While there is certainly some important research that illustrates the value of the discipline to students’ overall education, there’s simply not enough, either from public agencies like the U.S. Department of Education or commissioned studies by arts advocacy organizations. We all know arts education programs are being cut back or eliminated throughout the country—theatre included—in the wake of the recession and due to increased emphasis on tested subjects, such as math and English.
Evidence supporting theatre’s value as a core curricular subject is not necessarily going to save every program, but it can help teachers, parents, students, and other advocates gain credibility with decision-makers and perhaps jumpstart a coordinated advocacy effort that will create or maintain a class or a program in a school. The first job of every advocate is to educate your audience, and you can’t do that if you don’t know what you’re talking about. For example, it’s amazing (but true) how many school administrators still don’t know or profess ignorance that the arts are a core subject under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (otherwise known as No Child Left Behind) and therefore should be no more subject to being cut from the curriculum than any other academic area.
Landmark studies such as Champions of Change and Critical Links are still worth citing as part of a theatre education advocacy pitch, but it’s always important to include new and timely research that reflects the current state of the discipline in schools. Starting with this blog, I’m going to do a series of posts detailing some recent research studies that offer valuable facts and figures about theatre education in the United States. Some of the data will confirm what we already know about theatre education: that it can profoundly influence the academic, social, and career choices and achievement of students. In an arts advocacy pitch, you can never have enough irrefutable information regarding the value of the discipline. But sometimes it is data that paints another picture that is more telling and, in fact, can prompt both a call to action to advocates and more research in itself.
The first report I’m going to discuss does that, offering a strikingly bleak picture of the availability of theatre education for many students. The Arts Education in Public Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools 1999-2000 and 2009-10 was released April 2 by the U.S. Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. NCES annually surveys different school subject areas, creating a sort of snapshot of the discipline, using the agency’s Fast Response Survey System (FRSS). The 1999-10 survey was used as a baseline to create some ten-year interval comparison data with the new 2009-10 report (parts of the new data were gathered was gathered during the 2008-09 school year and some in 2009-10). The surveys were mailed to approximately 3,400 elementary and secondary school principals and 5,000 music and visual arts teachers. NCES did not survey theatre and dance educators, a strategy that, while not intended, has the effect of creating a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy regarding the two arts subjects. In other words, if the Department of Education doesn’t survey theatre in United States schools, why should a district or building-level administrator consider it worthy of curricular and staff time?
Some of the numbers in the FRSS report bear this thinking out:
- Only 4 percent of all surveyed elementary schools offered any specific instruction in theatre in 2009-10. In 1999-2000 that availability was 20 percent. The presence of theatre at the high school level remained relatively stable in the ten-year interval: 45 percent offer theatre as a discrete subject area (it was 48 percent in 1999-2000).
- Twenty-nine percent of elementary schools taught theatre as part of their English or language arts curriculum in 2009-10, and 46 percent indicated that it was integrated into other subject areas. Thirty-nine percent of those schools with the highest poverty concentration (as defined by the number of free school lunches provided) included theatre as an integrated subject area, compared with 59 percent of those with the lowest poverty rate.
- During 2009-10, 17 percent of elementary schools reported offering some sort of discipline-specific professional development for theatre teachers. At the secondary level, 32 percent of schools offered professional development for theatre educators in the previous twelve months.
- Of the elementary schools that reported having theatre instruction, 58 percent offered it once a week and 46 percent offered it the entire school year. Forty-two percent of drama instruction was taught by arts specialists (a considerable improvement from ten years earlier when only 24 percent of elementary theatre educators were trained specialists), and 47 percent had a district curriculum guide teachers were expected to follow.
- In secondary schools, of those that offered theatre as a curricular subject, 73 percent employed arts specialists, 64 percent of whom were full-time (the survey did not indicate whether or not these specialists also taught other subject areas). Sixty-three percent offered one or two courses; 26 percent, three or four courses; and 11 percent offered five or more courses. Low poverty schools indicated that 56 percent of schools featured instruction in theatre, while only 28 percent of high poverty schools offered it. Seventy-two percent had a district curriculum guide that teachers were expected to follow.
At the release ceremony for the FRSS report, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “It is deeply disturbing that all students do not have access to arts education today…. This is absolutely an equity and civil rights issue—just as is access to AP courses and other educational opportunities.”
Duncan is absolutely right: the lack of access and equity reflected in the FRSS numbers is the most disturbing aspect of the report. There is a lot of other data to mine in the tables posted online but, for the moment, here are my primary report takeaways:
- While it’s difficult to arrive at exact numbers, millions of elementary students have no access to a theatre education experience.
- Theatre education is alive and relatively well at the secondary schools level, though the large number of schools indicating “one or two courses” suggests that the opportunities are modest at best.
- The report fails to clarify the status of middle school students in any of the arts areas (the report includes them as part of the high school survey), which is troubling given that these students are considered most atrisk for academic and behavioral issues.
- Based on what other research has confirmed, those who would benefit the most from theatre education—at-risk students—seldom have school access to it.
- The lack of a theatre educator survey leaves decision-makers, associations, and other theatre education advocates without a complete picture of the field. The surveys of music and visual arts queried teachers about teaching load, assessment, and arts integration, among other things. Surely theatre educators would have enlightening perspectives on these issues.
Back to my original premise that school decision making is data driven: the numbers from the FRSS can be used either positively or negatively. An administrator seeking a confirmation of what he already suspected might see no reason to budget staff or funding for theatre in district elementary schools. Why take on these costs when so few other districts seem to making such investments? On the other hand, if the administrator has also been provided some data confirming, for example, that theatre improves literacy for elementary school students, given the alarming FRSS numbers, he might indeed make a bold commitment to his staff and students and make sure that theatre is available. For an advocate, I think the task is simpler: You need to counter the self-fulfilling prophecy that the FRSS’s lack of data gathering suggests, especially for younger children, and assemble the facts, figures, and stories you’ll need to change that skeptical administrator’s mind. Like Secretary Duncan said, this is an equity issue. We are a nation of arts education haves and have-nots. Let’s do something about it.
Next time: the National Endowment for the Arts study, The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies.