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Landmark study tracks school theatre growth

November 28, 2012


The Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) has released a new national survey of the state of high school theatre in the United States. The 2012 Survey of Theatre in United States High Schools, created in partnership with Utah State University, was published in a special edition of EdTA’s quarterly journal, Teaching Theatre. The issue (volume 24, number 1), was released in both print and digital formats. The print edition was mailed to EdTA’s nearly 5,000 members; the online version is available to anyone who logs on to Teaching Theatre Digital. The digital edition of Teaching Theatre also marks the first time the journal has been available online.

The new survey, conducted by Utah State University theatre professor and researcher Dr. Matt Omasta and a staff of USU graduate students, is the first comprehensive study of the field since 1991. The 1991 Theatre Education in United States High Schools (Teaching Theatre, volume 3, number 1) was also sponsored by EdTA, under the guidance of staff member Kent Seidel.

The survey included two questionnaires—one for school administrators and one for theatre educators. Omasta’s team invited all regular public schools in the United States with enrollment of at least 200 to participate in the survey. Responses were tallied from 1,245 of them. They used the 1991 data and questionnaires as a baseline for comparison to analyze how secondary theatre education has changed or remained the same during the twenty-year interval. The 2012 survey also compares its data to a 1970 study conducted by Joseph Peluso.

The findings of the survey include data on participation in drama programs, student and faculty demographics, employment of theatre teachers and teaching artists, faculty qualifications and assessment, the theatre curriculum, production activities, perceptions of the value of theatre programs, social issues and subject-matter appropriateness, budgets and finances, facilities, and technology and new media.

The special issue of Teaching Theatre features commentary by Omasta, researchers Dawn Ellis and Johnny Saldaña, and Teaching Theatre editor James Palmarini. Given the space limitations of the printed Teaching Theatre edition, supplemental survey data is available on Schooltheatre.org.

An overview of the data presented by Omasta at the 2012 EdTA Conference is also available online.

Among the data results, the 2012 survey found that:

  • 76 percent of schools offer courses in theatre during the school day, and 89 percent offer extracurricular production activity. Both numbers are up significantly since similar studies that were conducted in 1970 and 1991.
  • Production budgets are also up. The average cost of mounting a musical on a school stage is $7,394. The average production budget for a non-musical full-length play is $2,451.
  • Full-time theatre teachers work an average of just under fifty-four hours a week.
  • 20 percent of theatre teachers said that at least part of their evaluation was linked to test scores or other assessments of student achievement.
  • 18 percent of teachers report that a script they intended to produce has been the subject of a community challenge or negative administrative review in the past two years. The most frequently mentioned titles: The Laramie Project, Urinetown, and Rent.

EdTA Executive Director Julie Woffington said the survey was an important step forward for both theatre education and the Educational Theatre Association. “We know that policy makers make data-driven decisions and that they need reliable research to do so,” she said. “EdTA is committed to providing facts and figures that validate the field of theatre education and help to shape theatre programs that better serve our students. We would like to see every student in America have access to theatre education.”

Sandra Ruppert, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Arts Education Partnership (AEP) said the study is an important opportunity to further explore the role of theatre education in America’s schools. AEP, a leading force in arts education advocacy for the last several years, recently launched ArtsEdSearch, a database featuring a wide range of recognized PreK-12 arts education research, including theatre. “This survey can help us to better understand the importance of an arts education for helping students develop the essential skills that are necessary for adapting in an ever-evolving economy,” said Ruppert. “Coupling this data with the Department of Education’s FRSS arts education survey, the policy communities can focus on where arts education is occurring, where it is not, and what barriers are keeping the arts—theatre included—from our students. All of this is helping build a basis on which to craft thoughtful and informed policy.”

Lead researcher Omasta will continue to analyze the survey data in the coming months, with plans to post it on Schooltheatre.org as it is completed. His most immediate work will focus on creating a follow up survey that addresses whether or not the schools that opted to participate in the study are significantly different than the ones that didn’t. “This is generally considered the hardest potential error of data reliability to explore,” he said. “It requires you to get data from the people who didn’t respond.” Omasta and his team of graduate students plan to randomly select a small number of schools that didn’t participate in the first survey to determine whether the survey answers are similar or different from the original respondents. “If they are similar, then we can more safely say that the data in the study does in fact represent the total population of schools in the country.”