Thomas, K. M, P. Singh, K. Klopfenstein and C.T. Henry. (2013) Access to High School Arts Education: Why Student Participation Matters as Much as Course Availability. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 21 (74)


Using individual-level administrative data from the University of Texas at Dallas Education Research Center researchers developed several distinct indices of access to identify high schools rich in the arts. Findings show that high schools offering an extensive number of courses in the arts do not necessarily have high rates of student participation. This project’s approach and similar indices may help policymakers to assess the current state of arts education in their states.

Key Findings:

  • Findings show that course offerings and student participation rates in isolation are poor measures of arts access, as they proxy for school size and location.
  • Data show that many high schools that offer a large array of arts courses suffer from low student participation.
  • Data show that an arts-rich high school is identified as a large school serving a small population of disadvantaged students.

Significance of the Findings:

This research can serve as tool for other researchers who want to use administrative education data to evaluate the landscape of arts access in public schools in their states. The study can be replicated to document how access to arts education in public schools varies across states. Documenting course availability and who participates may help states to begin to address inequities in arts education access.


Researchers used student-level administrative data from UTD-ERC to develop indices of access to identify high schools rich in the arts. Data on individual student arts participation rates were aggregated to create participation rates at the school level. Researchers used exploratory factor analysis to distill multiple variables into one measure of access to arts education. This approach captures different aspects of course offerings and participation in the analysis including 1) the breadth of the program, 2) the availability of advanced instruction, and 3) the percentage of students that participate consistently over time.

Limitations of the Research:

State administrative data often lack some variables that stakeholders may find valuable when evaluating school arts programs. For example, UTD-ERC data do not include any information on arts-based field trips, arts curricula or professional development opportunities for teachers in the arts. In addition, the thresholds developed to evaluate the strength of high school arts programs are arbitrary. Researchers were unable to apply a universal definition of arts richness to the UTD-ERC data because one did not exist.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Because there is no consistent definition of an arts-rich school, engaging a variety of stakeholders in the process to establish guidelines that researchers can use to evaluate arts education programs using administrative data in their state may help further inform this topic. Examining access based only on course counts in the arts, may solely identify predominately large, non-rural high schools as having arts-rich environments. Evaluating arts programs based solely on participation rate can provide a limited and inaccurate representation of access to arts education. Considering both course availability and student engagement in the arts can provide a more accurate assessment of access to arts education.