Susan Riley | July 2013

The True Cost of an Arts Education

Everything has a cost.

When you stop for a minute and look around at the things we own, the things we rent, and the experiences we share, it all came at a cost.  Houses, vacations, and even rain (which is supposed to be free, but in Maryland comes with a tax): each collect a toll.  They constantly remind us of this in public education. And, they tell us technology and the arts are too expensive.  We are told that there is no money for professional development or updated materials and resources.  And, they tell us that teachers’ and administrators’ salaries and benefits take up 80% of the budget,  thus deprive our students from all of the advantages they could have.

And so, budget cuts commence.  We induce furlough policies, we hold off on providing necessary professional development for teachers, and the arts are decimated.  After all, we must provide our students with the essential components of an education: reading, writing, and math.  These are our most valuable players because these are the tested areas which show up on school report cards and will earn you more money – or less – from the state based on your performance.

Our schools now look like shells that once held a majestic pearl but when opened are disappointingly empty.  We measure students, but how do we know what they actually learned?  How do we know if the classes we offer relate to our students’ worlds?  We preach teaching 21st century skills, but do we have the opportunities to apply those skills?

Does any of this sound familiar?

What we fail to realize when we analyze budgets and “cut costs” is that we have an opportunity cost for everything we keep. In addition to, anything we cut.  For every time we invest in reading and cut the arts, we are investing in mechanics and losing the opportunity to apply those mechanics.  For every time that we provide another math course that does not include inquiry, integration, and hands-on applications, we are losing the opportunity to make that math come alive and inspire deep understanding and connections for our students.

While cutting arts education may sound like it inflicts the least amount of damage to students and their education, the opportunity costs we incur from losing the arts and their way of bring the standards in all areas to life is too great a burden to bear.  We are stripping our students of the very processes which allow them to thrive in a 21st century global society if our only answer is to cut the arts.

To be fair, we should take a look at the true cost of an Arts Education and what opportunity costs we may need to absorb in other areas to keep these subjects in our core curriculum.  Let’s see if we can start a list (join in, by the way, if you have more to add):

The True Cost of an Arts Education

1. Cost: Limited time from all subjects.

By adding the arts into our schedule, we are taking time away from other subjects.  The Flip: The arts offer the opportunity to put into practice the skills learned in other content areas and synthesize them deeply.

2. Cost: Students will need to purchase instruments, arts supplies, or other materials to participate. The Flip: This is not a simulation.  This is a real, honest-to-goodness tool that students can use to share their message and connect with the world.

3. Cost: Arts teachers take up valuable space on the salaries/benefits table in the budget.  The Flip: Arts teachers are some of the only people in a school to access a student’s innate talents and bring them to their full potential as human beings.  Priceless.

4. Cost: By including the arts, we take away from learning in state-mandated tested areas.  The Flip: By investing in the arts, students have the ability to problem-solve, think critically, analyze, synthesize, and perform in all areas. Including those by state-mandated tests.

Before we get out the scissors and pass them around the budget table to cut out arts, technology, or other “non-essential” items and areas, we need to take a look at what cutting will cost us.  Are we doing what’s best for kids?  Are we providing them with opportunities that will help them on their path to success or are we cutting our nose to spite our face?  The true cost of our choices will live as a legacy with our students forever.

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan