What the U.S. Can Learn from European Schools About Arts Education

The Launch Competition at SXSW EDU introduces attendees to several early-stage edtech startups. The startups pitch their product to a panel of judges, who decide on a winner to receive a check for $2,500 and, of course, exposure on an international level. This year, the ten finalists presenting at Launch represented very diverse interests within the edtech landscape. There were products ranging from virtual reality-enhanced reading apps and applicant tracking software for school districts.

I got a chance to sit down with Lauma Kazaka and Toms Rusovs of finalist Solfeg.io after the competition and talk to them about their program, music, and arts education in Europe. Solfeg.io is a program that allows students to play modern songs together by listening to and reading music in real time. The parts of the songs are broken out so that students can learn how to play melodies, chords, etc. Each song can be adapted by classroom size and available instruments. Students also have access to the program at home, so they can practice on their instruments. Many even form their own bands for fun, and because the program includes tons of popular modern songs, students feel like rock stars and are totally engaged in learning music.

I asked Lauma and Toms upfront about whether a program like Solfeg.io really had a chance to take off. After all, arts education in the U.S. is steadily declining. A publication from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that visual art programs declined by 4% between 2000 and 2009 and that only 3% of public elementary schools offer dance and drama programs – being replaced by test prep and academic subjects. The Solfeg.io founders believe this is unique to the U.S.. They’re having great success using the program with schools in Europe, and have recently branched out to schools in Asia. Hearing from them about the benefits of music education got me thinking about what the U.S. can learn from Europe when it comes to teaching the arts.

Arts Education in Europe

It would be impossible to summarize every arts programs across all of the countries in Europe. Let’s take a look at Finland. The country’s schools have been widely researched because of their academic success on the PISA exam. In Finland, the arts are interwoven throughout the elementary curriculum and are not taught as individual subjects until middle school. Arts education and classes hold the same value as academic classes in Finland. The schools are centered around educating the whole child, encouraging play and creativity, and are well-funded by the government.

Arts Education in the U.S.

Arts education in the U.S. depends on the school and district. Music is widely taught in elementary school, as 94% of public schools have a designated music class. The other arts subjects are more often reported as being integrated into academic subjects. Arts programs are most often funded by special grants. When those grants run out or aren’t renewed, arts programs are cut.

Major Arts Education Takeaways

When I spoke with Lauma and Toms about how they might sell their program in the States, considering the decline of arts education, they spoke to the research. “Besides being proven to improve motor skills and spatial reasoning, music education increases test scores and decreases aggression,” explained Lauma. Indeed, in a 2007 study, it was shown that elementary students enrolled in stellar music education programs scored 22% higher in English and 20% higher in math compared with students who had low-quality music education. And a 2016 study showed the music education can temper aggressive behavior.

What Would It Take for U.S. Schools to Include More Arts

The stats have it. Music education shouldn’t be an afterthought. So how do we ensure quality arts education in U.S. schools? It’s an uphill battle. Here are some necessary changes.

1. Increase school funding.

Federal and state governments keep cutting education budgets. Arts programming is the first to go because it’s not a tested subject. As we know, “what gets assessed, gets addressed.” Which leads to…

2. Diminished focus on standardized testing.

So long as reading, math, and science are the only subjects tested in elementary schools, other subjects won’t get attention. Even when teachers are in support of additional arts education, the mandates and programs that they’re focused to comply with take up any extra time that may have gone to music, art, drama, or dance.

3. Increase training or support to make arts integration simpler.

With no additional time for the arts, teachers are forced to integrate it into the academic subjects. Elementary teachers are already required to teach multiple subjects as it is. They need help to create opportunities for the arts in their existing curriculum.

4. Start focusing on the whole child.

This one might be coming true sooner than we think. Soft skills and SEL are a big trend in education right now. We’re seeing mindfulness programs, yoga, and play-based curriculum in schools all over. If education in the U.S. shifts to educating the whole person, then arts education might begin to be treated with greater value.

For now, arts education is not a priority in the U.S. educational system. Hopefully, as technology like Solfeg.io makes it easier to bring arts into the classroom, our students will still be exposed to engaging, creative subjects. And maybe, in the future, the arts will make a comeback.