California Forum

Viewpoints: Why teaching art to our children matters

Barack Obama’s presidency has been punctuated by numerous “teaching moments” in which an incident related to social injustice triggered a more thoughtful response to the underlying issues and lifted our collective awareness.

Recently, the president inadvertently created the opportunity for yet another teaching moment, with an off-the-cuff remark throwing “art history majors” under the bus while making the case for technical training as a path to an honorable career.

He distanced himself from the remark in a handwritten apology, stating that “art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”

As the leader of a statewide arts education advocacy organization, with a daughter who happens to be an art history major in college, I confess that the president’s remark hit a nerve. And so I ask, “Where is the ‘teaching’ in this moment?”

The reality is that Obama is not alone in revealing an attitude that marginalizes the significance of the arts when compared to “more serious” priorities. In recent years, as school funding in California has been drastically reduced, that attitude meant that arts education programs were often the first to be cut.

Access to arts education has been spotty. Where parents and communities could afford arts programs, those services limped along. In higher poverty areas where those resources didn’t exist, programs disappeared. Unequal access has become the new normal of arts education.

What we have wrought is not a pretty sight. Merryl Goldberg, who chairs the visual and performing arts department at California State University, San Marcos, is responsible for preparing the next generation of California’s teachers.

Yet she describes students who have a hard time identifying musical instruments, who don’t know what a collage is and who have never had the opportunity to pick up a paintbrush. A generation of students has missed out on the arts.

Why does this matter? California has a dropout rate of 13.1 percent, suggesting that too many students find no meaningful connection to their education.

At the same time, our state’s economy relies on creative industries; they account for 8 percent of the state’s GDP and for one in seven jobs in Southern California.

According to Sarah Murr, a former global citizenship community investor for The Boeing Company, “The challenge is that we have a shortage of people with the creative skills for the jobs that are needed in an increasingly dynamic and competitive marketplace.”

We now have an opportunity to bring arts education back into our schools in a significant way. After years of focus on standardized tests and a narrowing of the curriculum under No Child Left Behind, the “local control funding formula” sets new goals for local districts that prioritize student engagement, parent involvement, school climate, student achievement, a broad course of study – all things that the arts are known to contribute to.

Research documents the impact arts education can have on student learning, achievements and careers, including higher attendance rates; increased parent and community involvement; higher test scores and achievement in literacy, math skills and English Language Arts especially for English-language learners and low-income students. Art also develops skills such as creativity, critical thinking and collaboration.

In the coming months, as school boards seek input and develop their local control and accountability plans, local advocates have an opportunity to provide a teaching moment about the benefits of arts education in their district.

The California Alliance for Arts Education has created a toolkit to help local advocates be at the table for these conversations. Visit our website,, to learn more about the value of arts.

As Goldberg put it, “Every child deserves the best education possible and every parent, no matter what their background and context, wants the very best for her or his children.

“As we begin to uncover the consequences of the last 10 to 15 years of the widening education gap, I hope we begin to bank on students’ abilities and potential by investing in arts learning and professional development, and this go around: truly not leave any child behind.”