New Era Coming for Arts Education in the Commonwealth

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Backpacks, sneakers, and haircuts aren't the only new things you'll find in school this month. The 2017-18 school year also marks the first-time districts across the state will be operating under new state education guidelines written in response to Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bipartisan federal education law passed in 2015. 

Last year, a coalition of arts education advocates, including MASSCreative, successfully pushed proposals that broaden student access to "a well-rounded education." Its passage marks a much-welcomed embrace of the idea that the "whole child" should be educated after 20 years of an ever-narrowing curriculum.

The ESSA guidelines adopted by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) prioritize arts education for students across the Commonwealth. Under the new DESE plan, every school district will soon include data on access to arts education on their school and district "report cards." This will make it easier for parents, students, and other members of the community to see what their schools are doing, and compare them with other districts.

In the 2015-16 school year, less than half of high school students in Massachusetts took an arts class. This is discouraging given that an ever-growing body of research shows that arts education contributes to lower dropout rates, improved academic performance-including in math and reading-and higher SAT scores. And 2011's Reinvesting in Arts Education report of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities noted that arts engagement fosters better habits of mind such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and independence.

State education leaders have also committed to revising the Arts Curriculum Framework, which has not been updated since 1999. Curriculum frameworks are the guides districts and schools use to develop local curricula and to determine a quality education in each subject area. This is yet another step toward ensuring all Massachusetts students can reap the benefits of arts education.

Embracing the arts in this way does not mean that we are abandoning the quest to educate students at the highest academic levels. It means that we are furthering our mission to educate students to their highest potential.

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