A new Government Accountability Office study claims to find that the arts have not been sidelined in our schools by the push for accountability. Or so the Dallas Morning News and Eduwonk are reporting. But the findings actually don’t support that interpretation. Indeed they indicate that minority children are experiencing deep cuts in their exposure to the arts.This finding is hinted at in the study’s overextended title: “Access to Arts Education: Inclusion of Additional Questions in Education’s Planned Research Would Help Explain Why Instruction Time Has Decreased for Some Students.” Replace the word “some” with “minority” and you have the real news out of this study. Of the 7 percent of schools that reported reducing the amount of time spent on the arts the drop was most severe in schools that serve mostly minority students—and at schools that have failed to make AYP for two years running. Schools serving low-income students lost 49 minutes per week of arts instruction, on average, in comparison to an average 31 minute loss at schools with a low percentage of poor students.
Beyond that, this study contains obvious methodological flaws that are the reason that we—and we had assumed others—didn’t jump on it when it was released in February. Most of these flaws flow from the fact that the study attempts to repurpose two US Department of Education teacher surveys. The surveys were administered in 2004-05 and 2006-07, setting the baseline for the study a full two years after NCLB was signed into law. Any curriculum narrowing that may have happened from 2002-2004 cannot be captured in this study. And the surveys were given so close together their comparative value is marginal at best.
Additionally, GAO’s study isn’t based on actual, raw data because the USDOE refused to release it. Instead, GAO worked off of data summaries compiled by the USDOE. This summarization becomes even more problematic once you realize that the report does not contain even a single sample question from the surveys. So there’s no way to assess the quality of the data—rather, the data summaries—let alone evaluate margins of error or aspects of the survey methodology.
This study is supposed to help inform additional research the USDOE intends to do in the area of curriculum narrowing. This initial foray undermines our faith in those efforts. And not just for the reasons listed above. But also because, as one commenter has pointed out, the study recommends that future research should count extracurricular arts programs as equal to in-school arts instruction. As if participating in a club is interchangeable with taking a class. Is this education research or a shell game?