Identifying Arts Education Issues with Digital Tools

By Meredith Broussard

Broadly speaking, data journalists do two things very well:

  • Find stories in numbers
  • Use numbers to tell stories

The field of data journalism is still fairly new, so people are still trying to figure out how data journalism and arts journalism can play together nicely.

When we were thinking about arts education and Engine 30, we found some datasets on arts education and decided to apply our data journalism skills to them. We could try to find stories in the numbers on arts education, or we could use the numbers to tell stories about arts education.

The first step was to put the numbers into a data visualization tool. The tech team decided to use Google Public Data, a free tool that lets you upload data and look at it in different ways. Reading these visualizations could give us leads on where to find stories in arts education.

Here’s one we found intriguing:

This graph shows us the number of students enrolled in AP music theory classes at LA county schools between 2007 and 2010. Los Angeles USD has the greatest number of AP music theory students, far and away above the other districts. Might be a story there, yes?

Nope. Los Angeles USD has the greatest number of students overall, so it makes sense that they have the greatest number of AP music theory students. No story.

There might be a story in the LA Canada number. The graph shows that in 2010, the first year the district offered AP music theory, 35 students enrolled. That’s interesting. We could apply some journalistic questions to this observation: why did LA Canada start offering AP music theory? Are they still offering it? Is the number of students taking it increasing or decreasing? Is there a popular teacher teaching the class, and can we learn anything from what this popular teacher is doing? Was there a big grant that came in that convinced the school to offer AP music theory? Are there a lot of musicians at this school? How are the students doing on the AP test after taking AP music theory?

These are all questions that we might use as a starting point for a story. In one or two phone calls, we could probably find out what’s going on with AP music theory at LA Canada and we could figure out if there’s an arts story to be told. The numbers would have led us to the story.

Another graph that might lead us to a story is the graph about band:

3,033 students were enrolled in band in Long Beach Unified in 2010. Just consider that for a moment: three thousand kids with noisy band instruments.

Add in the Los Angeles USD, and the picture looks more dramatic:

In LAUSD, 6,656 students were enrolled in band in 2010. That’s a lot of clarinets.

There’s definitely a story here about band. What could it be? I might start with general reporting questions: Why is band so popular? Does it have anything to do with the Rose Bowl parade? Are kids taking band because they see the USC band on TV and they want to be on TV too?

Let’s return to the graph. Again, we see that there are more total students enrolled in band in the Los Angeles USD school district. This makes sense because LAUSD has the greatest number of total students. We could find out the total number of students in LA Unified, and the total number of students in Long Beach Unified, and figure out the incidence of band membership per 100 students– but that would be silly. More importantly, it wouldn’t really be a meaningful measurement.

Maybe we could create meaning out of a slightly silly idea. This type of calculation could become more meaningful if we introduce the idea of comparison. Los Angeles is one of the largest cities in the US; we could compare it to other cities and see if LA public school kids are more musical (er, more band-joining) than their counterparts in other cities. We’d have to gather more data: the total number of students in all the LA public school districts, the other 4 of the 5 largest cities in the US, the number of total students in those school districts, the number of students enrolled in band in those other school districts over the same time period. If we could manage to find all that data and match it up and plunk it into a data viz tool, we might find a comparative story. Perhaps that data might reveal that an average of 2 out of 10 students are enrolled in band in the 4 other largest cities in the country, but 8 out of 10 students are enrolled in band in LA (I’m making these two numbers up, btw). Then we’d have a question: why is high school band so wildly popular in LA and not in the rest of the country? We could go out and do some reporting. We’d talk to students, talk to teachers, talk to administrators, and double-check the numbers. I’d also want to know if these numbers reflect all bands, or just marching band and not jazz band. I’d probably discover along the way that there are now some high school band classes I’ve never thought of– they do have rock school now, after all, so it’s theoretically possible that there’s a high school rock band class somewhere.

(I’d definitely write a story about a public school rock band class.)

It’s easy to see how the comparative story would require a lot more research and number-crunching. In a traditional newsroom, I probably wouldn’t have the time to pull together all of the numbers and crunch them, unless I was detached to work on the story for a week or two. I’d be more likely to stick with what I could find in a single dataset.

So, let’s scale back to what stories we could find in this single dataset. I keep returning to the inventory required to keep 10,000+ kids playing in the school band. How many trumpets is that? How many drums? Is there a giant storeroom where they keep all the kids’ instruments over the summer? Is there a single supplier who sells all the tubas to all the kids in LA school bands? How much does it cost to rent or buy your instrument to play in the band, and is the school district underwriting this cost? Should it pay more? Less? Have any students gone on to greatness after LA high school band? Do college band recruiters come to LA to spot band talent? Are there college band recruiters at all, or is that just something I picked up from watching Nick Cannon in the 2002 film Drumline?

I see at least five solid story ideas here that I could report further and turn into features or investigative pieces. I’d definitely integrate one of my statistics on LA public school band participants into any kind of story. And here’s another bonus: in addition to helping me tell my hypothetical school band story, the numbers would have provided inspiration on where to look for a story in the first place.

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