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The Third Annual NYCDOE Arts in the Schools Report: Cognitive Dissonance

This week the NYCDOE released its third Annual Arts in the School Report. Along with about thirty colleagues primarily from the arts field, I attended the report presentation at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

The document itself must be applauded for all the work that went into it. In this difficult economy, the mere existence of this report must be given its due.

The point of this blog entry is to push the NYCDOE to dig deeper, for the sake of our students and their families.

If you want to read the really good news, here’s the press release. It’s a work of art in the very rosy picture it portrays. Of course, that rosy picture is at the core of what disturbs many people I know outside of the NYCDOE. It just doesn’t completely add up. One colleague said to me right after the presentation that he felt very confused. Another said that it was counter-observational. Another recognized some of the data issues outright and said that it was a rather artful piece of politics. Hence the cognitive dissonance.

Okay, if you read the press release, as I said, you can get the good news. And yes, there is some good news in the report, but, one cannot gloss over the not-so-good news.

Here’s some of what you won’t read in the release:

1. The report says nothing about equity. There
are no demographics on income, race, etc. For a school district that
looks at this data in other areas as part of their focus on ending the
achievement gap, the divide between what is looked at in the arts and
what is looked at in ELA, math, and graduation rates is rather
remarkable.

2. The data on middle schools calls into question the reliability of some of the report’s findings. People are scratching their heads trying to understand how more than three years of reductions in the number of certified arts teachers at the middle grades, combined with two years of deep declines in spending on services of cultural organizations and spending in supplies, instruments, etc., can possibly result in a 17% increase in the number of schools that are providing all of their students with the minimum state requirements in arts education. And, bear in mind that credit for these requirements can only be satisfied by a certified arts teacher. 

3. The declines in funding to arts education and cultural organizations are
both steady and alarming. The trend, the lion’s share of which began
before the economic crisis and any real cuts to school budgets, has
many people wondering what future these organizations have in
working with NYC public schools.

4. The report presents rather positive data on the hiring of arts teachers at the elementary levels, and overall, an increase in the head count of arts teachers by 79. This is also one of those data points that makes you wonder. Certainly, if we could see a breakdown of the number of teachers lost to attrition, the number of teachers who were excessed and placed in the ATR pool, and the number of teachers in the Rubber Rooms, we would have a more complete sense of exactly what is happening with the number of certified arts teachers in the system.

5. The report notes that overall spending on the arts went from $311 per student to $316 per student. Presumably this increase was due in large part to the cost escalation of teacher and administrator compensation. $316 per student? This data point is provided in order to refute the calls to restore Project ARTS.

Let’s look a bit more closely at this. What the NYCDOE is saying, basically, is that Project ARTS which averaged around $65 per student, as a required minimum level of spending, is now dwarfed by the big bold figure of $316 per student. This substantiates their claim that Project ARTS is meaningless. Sound right, don’t you think?

Well, first of all, this is really comparing apples to oranges. The number they are providing is some sort of average of all costs associated to arts education divided among all students. But what is the real number per student per school? What about schools with practically nothing versus schools like LaGuardia or Art and Design? What was this aggregate number during the years of Project ARTS? How much has it gone up or down in terms of real spending, while separating out the increases to teacher and administrator salaries. There are many aspects of this that need to be looked at further before opening the bottle of champagne to celebrate the demise of Project ARTS.

5. There is a lost opportunity by not comparing this report to the School Progress Reports and Quality Reviews. How are those schools that received A’s doing in arts education? This would tell us a great deal about exactly how much Arts Count, the arts accountability initiative of the NYCDOE, really counts.

6. The report has the very same Achilles heel that you see in other such reports. It relies too heavily on what was offered as opposed to real rates of participation. A school may offer art, but what percentage of students actually participate?

One way or the other, I applaud the hard work of the talented and dedicated OASP staffers and urge everyone involved to take this effort to the next important level.

Here are a few data points you may find interesting:

• At the elementary school level schools budgeted $2.5 million (73 percent) less for arts supplies, materials, instruments, etc. than 2006-07 (the first year the report was issued); budgeting to hire the services of arts and cultural organizations has declined $3.7 million (33 percent).

• At the middle school level schools budgeted $2.7 million (80 percent) less for arts supplies, materials, instruments, etc. than 2006-07; budgeting to hire the services of arts and cultural organizations has declined $2.9 million (53 percent).

• At the high school level schools budgeted $1.8 million (50 percent) less for arts supplies, materials, instruments, etc than 2006-07; budgeting for the services of arts and cultural organizations has declined $1.1 million (35 percent).

Finally, a comparison of the high school data provided in the last three Annual Arts in Schools Reports shows that there have been steep declines in the percentage of students that have taken three or more credits in the arts, from 46 percent in 2006-07 to 32 percent in 2007-08 to a low of 28 percent in 2008-09. This is particularly interesting as it raises a number of questions about a disconnect between the creation of the Chancellor’s Endorsed Diploma for advanced arts study at high school and the decline in the number of students qualifying for this diploma.

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