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Who’s the Grinch who stole arts education?

While the nation’s education crisis is stuck on spin cycle, time and again we hear stories of the curative power of arts education. Yet, without explanation, there persists a disconnect between the allure of arts education and our support for it.

The latest heart-tugging case for arts education comes from three documentary films. Crescendo: the power of music follows Philadelphia and Harlem students through intensive classical music programs. Spiral Bound tracks Charlotte students fighting for public funding for arts programming. In a third film, Some Kind of Spark, we meet five students in a Saturday music program run by the famed Julliard School.

Related: Do the arts go hand in hand with common core?

While the films feature a handful of kids, advocacy groups point to sweeping benefits from arts education.

Arts education doesn’t need its resume puffed up. A clear-eyed assessment would make the arts central to education.

Americans for the Arts outlines how arts “boost learning and achievement for students.” Then Top 10 lists present screaming headlines such as: “that arts education can help rewire the brain in positive ways.”

So if there were an education stock market, we would be bullish on arts education.

Except that we’re not.

As a 2011 report from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities explains, arts education has been in trouble for more than 20 years:

Related: The push for standards is seeping into arts education

“There is growing consensus, and increasing data, about the potential for arts in schools to be a force for positive change in this transformation. Yet, paradoxically, the nation’s public schools are on a downward trend in terms of providing students meaningful access to the arts.”

So if arts education really is as holy as motherhood, baseball and apple pie, who stole it from us?

To solve the whodunit, I reached out to two of the smartest education experts around: Dennie Palmer Wolf, former director of Harvard’s Project in Active Cultural Engagement; and Jay P. Greene, chair of the education reform department at the University of Arkansas.

It turns out there is no convenient villain.

Arts education didn’t vanish. It withered.

Related: There’s no good way to know how California’s alternative schools are working

Going back to the mid 20th century, at what now looks like the heyday of arts education and arts participation, Palmer points to the impact of European immigrants.

As exporters of traditions from their home countries, they imported arts into U.S. schools and communities. Viktor Lowenfeld is among the most famous. He wrote the “single most influential textbook” in arts education and influenced a generation of teachers.

By about 1980, new cultural forces were replacing the customs from that wave of European immigrants. Then California’s Proposition 13 set off a local taxpayer revolution. Across the country, resistance to property taxes tightened funding for public schools.

Related: How the liberal arts offer the very workplace skills critics demand

At the same time, the arts lost out as states codified new high school graduation requirements. Large state universities generally aligned minimum admission requirements to these standards. As a result, market forces pushed arts out of view.

Consider the Florida ninth graders, who needed 4 English, 4 math and 3 science credits to receive the “standard diploma” – and only 1 credit in speech or art. Computer science and technology courses crowd out arts options among electives.

The net result: Education favors technical skills training over subjects perceived as fluff.

“It isn’t just the arts that are suffering from this focus on vocational training,” Greene explained. “Literature, poetry, history, classics and the rest of the humanities are getting hit along with the arts.”

Clawing back, arts advocates have overreached in asserting that arts will raise standardized test scores in math and science. It’s pretty to think so, but the evidence isn’t there.

This misstep is more about arts advocates overpromising than arts education under delivering.

Ellen Winner is among the researchers pointing out that the overreach is unnecessary; test scores aside, there is “strong evidence” that certain types of arts education help students acquire “foundational skills” that facilitate learning. Greene’s own experiments explain how the arts improve critical thinking and increases tolerance and empathy among students.

Related: Seeing in theory and practice, the impact of a liberal arts education

Arts education doesn’t need its resume puffed up. A clear-eyed assessment would make the arts central to education.

Put more cynically: Public education has struggled as arts education evaporated. Seeking better ways forward, arts-based reformation deserves a chance.

The best case I ever heard for the arts came from Berkeley public policy professor Michael O’Hare, when he was speaking to a gathering of arts funders. Pointing out public health advancements are increasing the life span of Americans, O’Hare asked: Why prolong life if it’s not worth living?

That’s what the arts do. They make life worth living. Even if your math scores don’t go up.

John Bare is vice president of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation in Atlanta and an executive-in-residence at Georgia Tech’s Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship.

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