Two major issues have been on our minds recently: PARCC and Pension Reform. NJSBA has been addressing these topics and will continue to do so. But for this installment of my Reflections column, I want to take a momentary break from these issues and address another educational subject, one that is close to my heart: the arts in our schools.

As educators and parents, we recognize the importance of STEM education—science, technology, engineering and math. Today, these subjects are critical to our children’s success. We have seen first-hand the way these fields, and those who excel in them—people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg—have changed our lives through technology, ranging from personal computers, to smart phones, to social networking.

But as we advance STEM education, let’s not forget another important academic area—the visual and performing arts. The research is clear: the arts advance education. So let us expand STEM and turn it into STEAM.

The New Jersey Arts Education Partnership cites research that links involvement in the visual and performing arts with improved attendance, increased academic performance, decreased drop-out and discipline rates, and higher levels of college attendance.

According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, students who participate in arts education programs perform better on standardized tests, watch fewer hours of TV, and participate in more community service. Students involved in the arts also say they are less bored in school.

Last year, the New Jersey Department of Education cited national studies that found students from low-wealth communities, who are involved in the arts, are three times more likely to receive a bachelor’s degree than students with little or no arts involvement.

As a parent and educator, I’ve witnessed how arts education allows for a child’s imagination and talents to soar.

Over the past two months, many schools have produced their annual musicals. From “Annie” to “The Sound of Music” to “Seussical,” when you attend these performances, you witness the acting talents of the students on stage and the musical talents of the orchestra members “in the pit,” as well as the craftsmanship of visual arts students, displayed in the scenery, program books, posters and lobby décor.

These are the tangible results of arts education. But the greatest value lies in the positive impact that an appreciation for the arts has on the quality of our lives. For every student who eventually finds a career in the arts, there are countless others in non-arts related fields who enjoy a lifelong appreciation of music, painting and other artistic expression.

Last year, the New Jersey Department of Education acknowledged the importance of the arts by including “arts participation” in its annual School Performance Reports. Visual and performing arts are one of nine curricular areas that must be taught in all New Jersey public schools. According to NJDOE data, arts participation is strong, with 49.3 percent of high school students enrolled in one or more arts class in 2013-2014.

As school leaders, we address many issues, including school budgets that must provide for an educational program with often limited resources. While we wrestle with these financial and curricular issues, it’s critical that we keep in mind how the arts enrich education and the quality of life.

These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at [email protected].