Gov. Gary Herbert wants Utah schools to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math — often referred to as STEM subjects. Proponents of the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program want to add an A, for arts, to that acronym.
The Legislature, which cut in half the state’s $4 million allocation to the Sorenson program last year, should reinstate those funds and begin increasing the amount, both because the money would be well-spent and because the program sponsors have improved their original idea to match what legislators last year said they wanted.
The arts learning program is unique in that it doesn’t take time away from the study of other subjects but instead helps elementary-school children understand language, social studies, math and science better by using music, visual arts, dance and drama to reinforce and enliven the concepts. It’s not art merely for art’s sake.
Most arts instruction in elementary school is separate from other studies. But learning is improved when they are integrated, and the Sorenson program recognizes that fact. For example, math and music are very much two sides of an academic coin. Music study helps teach the concepts of whole numbers and fractions. Some studies show the same part of the brain is used to play the piano and to solve math problems. Strengthening one skill helps strengthen the other.
Children involved in the arts program have improved their performance on standardized test scores. The program also keeps children interested in school by giving artistic expression to sometimes boring tasks. But that leads to last year’s criticism of the program by legislators who rightly said that too few Utah children are benefiting.
BTS organizers agreed and have come up with a way to expand the program to many more children. Instead of putting arts specialists into schools to implement the arts program, BTS would help classroom teachers earn arts-education endorsements so they can team up with specialists.
The BTS folks are asking for $4 million this year to expand to 130 schools. That allocation should be granted. But boosting state funding to $8 million by 2017 would allow an eight-fold increase in the number of children served to more than 350,000 or 91.5 percent of all Utah students. School districts and another Sorenson nonprofit, Art Works for Kids, would also contribute.
The program now serves about 31,000 students in 20 school districts.
The Legislature, always looking for innovation to improve education, should make this a reality.