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What We Know — and Don’t Know — About the Status of Arts Education

Date: 11 May 2021

The photo captures an outdoor mural in the Las Vegas, Nevada, Arts District during a bright, sunny day. The artist painted the mural on the side of what appears to be an apartment complex. The mural depicts a headshot of woman against a rainbow-striped background. The woman has blue skin and has her eyes closed. Her long black hair flows from her head in all directions and transforms into computer cords with plugs at the end, evoking the Greek mythological character Medusa. Beside the mural on the right, the photographer includes a partial view of a palm tree trunk and palm fronds that seem to touch the mural. Photo Credit: Photo by <a href=

As we enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic and approach the end of a school year spent entirely within the pandemic’s shadow, we find ourselves questioning what impact changes in the education landscape will have on arts education throughout the United States. In this post, we attempt to capture a baseline status of K-12 arts education in the years immediately before the pandemic so we can return to these data later to measure changes.

One challenge we need to acknowledge is that arts education data are not universally available. Where a state does report data, it both collects and reports different types of data. For example, states define course enrollment differently, and some exclude elementary-level data from their calculations. Arkansas includes elementary-level data in its reporting and California does not. Such inconsistencies make it difficult to compare states or extract one coherent national story about arts education. However, the state data we do have show that each state has a distinct story to tell and that each needs its own policies and strategies to address specific challenges and opportunities its data lay bare. States that do not analyze or report on their arts education data will have more trouble identifying and addressing the challenges the pandemic will leave in its wake.

The Status of Arts Education in May 2021

AEP and ECS have compiled the following dashboard containing an overview of arts education data currently available in states.

First, we know that the arts education data landscape is constantly evolving as states come online with their reporting systems. We’ve compiled the dashboard above to highlight data that may allow us to gauge a pre-pandemic baseline status of K-12 arts education within individual states. The majority of data from states represented on the dashboard are part of the Arts Education Data Project, which publishes data from 30 states representing more than 75% of students in the country by the end of the year. Below, we’ll attempt to highlight some trends, although we want to stress that interstate information may not compare similar data.

Student Enrollment and Access

Nineteen states report at least some data on student enrollment in arts courses. Together, these states enroll roughly 60% of K-12 students in the United States. Twelve of those states report aggregate enrollment data for all arts courses and by individual arts discipline. The other seven report enrollment in individual courses, but they do not aggregate data. States also report out on disaggregated data like student gender, race/ethnicity, disability status, English language learner status and economic status to varying degrees.

In each of the 12 states that report by arts discipline, students are much less likely to take courses in dance and theatre than in music and visual arts. The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools report suggest that these large differences in enrollment likely stem from districts offering fewer courses in dance and theatre when compared to music and visual arts.*

Student Achievement

The Arts Education Partnership’s ArtScan database indicates that 14 of 51 states plus the District of Columbia have a policy requiring assessment in the arts. None of these states currently include information about student achievement in their state data reporting. Some arts achievement information has historically been captured and reported via the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The most recent iteration of NAEP Arts in 2016 measured achievement for a sampling of students in one grade level and two arts disciplines – approximately 4,300 eighth-grade students in music and 4,400 eighth-grade students in visual arts. The National Assessment Governing Board is not currently planning to administer another NAEP Arts.

The 2016 NAEP Arts found that:

  • No significant change in achievement overall in both music and visual arts between 2008 – the previous iteration – and 2016. Average scores in 2016 were 147 points out of a possible 300 in music and 149 of 300 in visual arts.
  • Significant score gaps for male students, students who participated in the National School Lunch Program, students in city schools and students in public schools.


Ten of the 19 states that report student enrollment data also report on K-12 arts educators; those 10 states enroll roughly 29% of the nation’s students. Another seven states report on teacher data but not student enrollment, and they represent roughly 9% of all K-12 student enrollments.

Massachusetts, for example, reports on staffing for all content areas, and viewers can filter reports to find the number of arts educators in each school district and individual school. In 2019-20, 26 districts in the state had no arts teachers, while the largest districts – Boston and Worcester Public Schools – had 270 and 251.4 arts full-time equivalents respectively.

No state data systems publish information on other arts education professionals, such as teaching artists, who facilitate arts learning experiences. Other entities, like state arts agencies, may collect these data, but state data systems do not include them.

Questions That Remain About Arts Education in May 2021

We are learning more than ever about students’ access to arts education before the pandemic, and more states’ data will be online in the coming months. Still, there’s much we don’t yet know— for example, how many students in most states had access to arts education before the pandemic or the extent to which those numbers are different now. We know less about the baseline status of students’ access to media arts than other disciplines, and Alaska is the only state we’re aware of that reports on the status of folk, traditional and indigenous arts. We also can’t easily parse how much states, school districts or individual schools spend on arts education, including expenses for staff salaries, facilities and instructional materials.

We lack information about students’ experience in the arts: how much time students spend in arts courses, their access to arts professionals other than their teachers, their level of achievement and their level of engagement in arts learning outside the school day, either in school-based extracurricular activities or in community-based learning experiences. 2016 NAEP Arts did ask a survey question about engagement in music and visual arts activities outside of school, but again, there are no plans right now to repeat NAEP Arts in the future.

We don’t yet have enough information to understand how the pandemic will impact K-12 arts education. However, in the growing number of states with arts education data systems, we can hopefully begin to track changes as they occur. For other states, our only hope is to learn from what we don’t know. People whose work made the dashboard above possible have paved the way for us to learn about the status of arts education on the state level, and future work may help us to connect and analyze data across states so we’re ready for the next crisis.

What Can We Do Moving Forward?

Good news: Almost every state likely collects arts education data without publishing them. We can’t go back in time to capture missing data, but we may be able to publicize data that is stuck in a virtual vault somewhere by using the tools and resources in the State Data Infrastructure Project for Arts Education, a collaboration between the National Endowment for the Arts and Education Commission of the States.

One such resource, a 2018 report entitled Using State Data Systems to Report Information on Arts Education, provides actionable suggestions that address many of the gaps outlined above. The report also suggests harnessing reporting requirements under ESSA to disseminate information on spending for arts education.

Steps states could take to address data gaps include:

  • Use SDIP’s Arts Education Data Toolkit to harness and report on data that’s already collected.
  • Learn from large-scale arts education data collection and reporting initiatives like the Arts Education Data Project, Florida Fine Arts Enrollment Report and Massachusetts Arts Coursetaking Report.
  • Coordinate efforts among state agencies and other entities that collect data to provide a broader picture of arts learning.
  • In states where there is an arts assessment requirement, collect and add assessment information to reporting systems.
  • As a first step toward a longer-term goal, begin to connect in-school arts data with information about out-of-school arts learning.

As we find ourselves contemplating a post-pandemic future, we aim to help states identify gaps in their data efforts and start to coordinate across states; coordination might begin with conversations among states to learn from each other and address their most pressing questions. If another global – or even statewide – emergency hits and we find ourselves wondering about its effect on arts education, we’ll have a baseline of information to help us address those effects. Such information can light the way to guarantee every child has an excellent arts education.

*Media arts are not included in most states’ arts education data reporting; where they are included, they’re often in an “other” category with additional options rather than compiled separately. Media arts have also not yet been included in national data collection initiatives like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or Fast Response Survey System (FRSS).

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