With NYC School Reforms, a Plan for Arts Programs?

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Graphic: How Four Arts Disciplines are Taught in NYC High Schools

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has put education reform at the top of his agenda, with a particular focus on universal pre-kindergarten, charter schools and after-school programs. But last week there was other news about the city's schools that may trouble education advocates: high school students aren’t getting nearly enough arts.

An audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that two-thirds of students don’t meet state guidelines in the arts. Many students last year did not receive the required amount of hours of instruction while others were taught by non-certified teachers. The state sets these guidelines as conditions for funding.

The Department of Education disputed some findings of the audit but agreed with the comptroller's recommendations that it needs to do a better job at monitoring arts instruction.

The audit also underscored trends that date back to the 1970's budget crisis in New York City, when money for arts education was eliminated. Over the next 20 years there was no system-wide arts education; many schools relied on outside nonprofit groups to fill in the gaps. In the last decade, some arts programs have been restored, but quality varies from school to school, depending on the commitment of principals, teachers and parent body and the involvement of outside providers.

Ben Chapman, the education reporter at the New York Daily News, called the state of arts education "a mixed picture." He noted that the city's own annual Arts in Schools Report finds that the level of arts instruction has been flat or slightly improving over the past several years. But some educators, parents and students believe that the arts are being cut, or at least being ignored.

"I think that some schools are doing fine and other schools are struggling to include arts education as they focus on the core subject matter of math and reading," said Chapman in this podcast.

Mayor de Blasio campaigned on a promise to establish a four-year goal to ensure that every student receives arts education that meets the state's guidelines. The new audit provides a template as well as added pressure to deliver on this front.

Arts advocates, meanwhile, will need to convince the public and policy makers that their work matters. "Up until this point they haven't really done that," said Chapman. "It's a tough sell, but that's what they need to do."

Below: This chart shows the percentage of New York City high school students who received arts instruction in four different discplines between 2008 and 2013. While visual arts instruction largely held steady between 2008-2013, music, dance and theater instruction declined.

According to the Comptroller's audit, some schools lack certified arts teachers. In 2012-13, 72 percent of high schools reported having at least one full-time and/or part-time certified visual arts teacher; 44 percent reported having at least one certified music teacher; 22 percent reported having at least one certified theater teacher; and 16 percent reported having at least one certified dance teacher.