Common Core's Orphaned Subjects: Music and the Arts

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The fine arts have had a rough time in American education. The double whammy started after the economic collapse of 2008-2009 when eighty percent of school districts had their budgets cut. Few schools had robust budgets even then, but the rise in unemployment and decline in personal income meant less tax revenue and shrinking public budgets.

Then, in 2010, along came Common Core, a well-meaning set of guidelines developed to improve students' readiness for college and the workforce by raising academic standards in math and language. Meeting these standards was a way states could opt out of the cumbersome and unpopular No Child Left Behind requirements. Common Core participation also gave states a chance to win competitive Race to the Top federal grants.

Desperate to fund subjects measured by Common Core, administrators and policy-makers looked for the quickest way to slash budgets in other areas. We've heard the tune before. Scrambling for scarce resources and pressured to prepare students for STEM, Common Core, and other standardized tests, school districts declare non-tested subjects secondary in importance and cut off their funding. Music and other fine arts “electives” are often the first to go. Scales and arpeggios are jettisoned in favor of geometry and calculus.

The “elective” designation implies that music, theater, painting, and other arts are somehow disposable. But a world without them is unimaginable. Take music as just one example. From Palestrina to Pandora, music envelops us in the 21st century 24/7. Every life has a soundtrack, every team has a fight song, every country has a national anthem. Concerts and music festivals help define us, give us a shared identity and experience. Bonaroo. SXSW. The Woodstock Generation. Not to mention the experience of countless millions of amateur musicians who play and sing for their own enjoyment and artistic expression.

The arts are not electives. They are the tapestry of life.

Arts Make Smarts

Fine arts ought to be appreciated on their merits alone. Anyone who has ever seen a powerful play or admired a painting of transcendent beauty shouldn't have to be convinced that arts matter. But aside from enriching our lives, fine arts make kids smarter. Numerous studies, including those by James S. Catterall, professor at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, find that regular participation in fine arts classes raises SAT scores by an average of 91 points and improves coordination between hemispheres of the brain.

Professor Catterall finds “a strong relationship between sustained involvement in instrumental music across middle and high school and high level math proficiency in grade 12, particularly for students from the lowest income families.” Another study showed that “keyboard and vocal lessons in fact contribute to measured intelligence in six to seven year olds….The effect centered on the performance side, rather than the verbal side, of the standard IQ scale – performance items related to math, science, and spatial measures.”

Caterall's studies also indicate that low-income students with arts courses are more likely to have “attended and done well in college, obtained meaningful employment, volunteered in their communities, and voted.” Poor children, minorities, and immigrants—all likely to feel more alienated and to struggle in school—benefit more than others from music lessons and arts opportunities that give them the chance to succeed, see the value of persistence, and become part of a team. Arts classes encourage students to stay in school, develop knowledge and understanding of different cultures, traditions, and viewpoints, and nourish the creative problem solving essential for success in today's complex business environment.

Other studies reinforce Caterall's results. A report by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities reports that arts involvement in school is “linked to high attendance, reduction in dropout rates, participation in student government” and demonstrates the value of persistence. The Arts Education Partnership affirms that “children are more engaged when they are involved in artistic activities than when involved in curricular activities.”

Reversing the Trend

Arts programs have been easy targets for budget cuts for a generation. The connection between them and success in core academic subjects is not immediately obvious or widely recognized. Local media seldom run a big story when the hometown clarinet virtuoso gets a college scholarship. Sports and other non-core areas are vigorously protected by boosters and enthusiastic public relations, leaving music, theater, and the rest to fend for themselves and justify their existence, often coming up short in the budget battles.

Fortunately, some educators see the big picture and have stepped in to reverse the trend. In the depths of an earlier financial crisis in 1979, Chicago schools furloughed virtually all of its arts teachers. Programs have been gradually rebuilt since then, adding teachers and classes, developing artist-in-residence programs, and partnering with local foundations to fund more fine arts development. In 2012 the Chicago Board of Education approved a plan designating arts as a core subject, setting minimum requirements for elementary arts classes, and adding dance and theater as options for meeting high school arts graduation requirements. The district added 84 new arts teachers in a single year during the 2014-15 academic term. That's the good news. The bad news is that the funding is only through the end of 2016.

An Activist View

Arts education supporters are happy to have allies of any sort. Even so, they weary of having to defend arts classes based on how they improve core academic performance. As historian and education activist Yohuru Williams observes, “The arts impart practical employable skills from project management, team building, and effective time administration, to leadership, cooperation and collaboration. And yet, the deliberate targeting of these programs and willful mischaracterization of them as secondary to STEM robs not only students, but also parents and communities of one of the most honest, public measures of student achievement and success” as demonstrated in concerts or exhibits. He adds that classifying the arts as “soft skills” is “insulting as well as short-sighted.”

Full Circle

Williams brings up a valid point. “Soft skills” are as important in the mix as all the rest. In addition to the three Rs, 21st century business leaders will need the four Cs: critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Arts are a proven method to teach them.

And so it comes full circle. For all of the academic and career benefits there are to fine arts education, the best and most essential part about it is the opportunities it gives students to express themselves, and the beauty and worth those expressions contribute to our community every day. And the skills it gives them to look beyond the ordinary and the expected to explore new opportunities and face the future with innovation and confidence.

And to make sure the music will always be there.

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