An Unfinished Canvas: Allocating Funding and Instructional Time for Elementary Arts Education


Gallagher, H.A., Campbell, A.Z., Esch, C.E., Malin, H., Mayes, N., & Woodworth, K.R. (2008). An unfinished canvas. Allocating funding and instructional time for elementary arts education. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.


In California, budget shortfalls and competing priorities have interfered with the state’s goal of providing each elementary student with sequential, standards-based arts instruction in each of the four core arts disciplines: dance, music, theatre, and visual arts. Across the nation, many states and schools are facing the same challenges to providing arts education. Yet some jurisdictions seem more likely to have comprehensive arts programs in public elementary schools. This study investigates policies that help make these programs possible—specifically, policies related to time and funding resources.

For this study, SRI conducted case studies of 10 elementary arts programs in jurisdictions that are known to have policies that are more conducive to the provision of arts education than California. This report describes how these programs stand apart from the typical arts education offerings in California public schools. The study’s aim is to provide California policy-makers and educators with examples and lessons from other jurisdictions that have been more successful in providing all students with access to arts education. These examples and lessons are particularly important at this time, when California has made new investments in arts education: In 2006, the state committed an unprecedented amount of funding to arts education, including $500 million in one-time funds for arts and physical education and $105 million in ongoing funding.

This study builds on an earlier study of arts education in California, conducted by SRI in 2006 on behalf of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. For that study, SRI fielded a statewide principal survey, analyzed statewide databases, and conducted in-depth studies of 31 schools to understand how arts education is implemented in California. The report resulting from that study, titled An Unfinished Canvas. Arts Education in California: Taking Stock of Policies and Practices(Woodworth et al., 2007), provides general data onthe state as a whole, as well as more detailed information from the sample of case study sites.

An Unfinished Canvas found that California is far from meeting its own standards in arts education and that elementary schools in particular are failing to provide a standards-aligned course of study in all four arts disciplines. (Only about 10% of California elementary schools actually meet state requirements.) The study also showed that California is lagging behind other states. Not only are California’s elementary schools less likely to offer arts instruction, but those that do offer it for less total time. In those California elementary schools that offer arts instruction, only 32 and 28 hours per year of music and visual arts instruction are provided, respectively, compared with 46 and 44 hours per year nationally.

An Unfinished Canvas also made it clear that the greatest barriers to elementary arts education are inadequate funding (84% of principals identified this barrier as moderate or serious) and insufficient instructional time (also 84%). The latter is a particular issue at the elementary level because of school scheduling; without set class periods, elementary schools have greater discretion over how time is apportioned and typically do not set aside dedicated time for arts instruction. Furthermore, arts instruction at the elementary level is frequently delivered by classroom teachers. Classroom teachers typically lack the training necessary to provide sequential, standards-based arts instruction, therefore making such instruction less likely to occur (Guha et al., 2008). Another frequently cited barrier (reported by 75% of principals) is the pressure to improve test scores in other subject areas such as reading and math. California’s accountability system pressures teacher to allocate the greatest amount of time to a subset of subjects that have the most influence on their school’s achievement rating and consequently less time to the arts and other subjects.

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