A recent study brings good news about arts education: it can boost students’ writing skills, build social and emotional skills, and increase school engagement. But the same study warns that arts learning has been deprioritized in K-12 education since the 1980s, as schools have shifted tight budgets to align instruction with standardized testing. Additionally, few studies exist that demonstrate that the arts in schools are a beneficial investment.
This study is the first large-scale, randomized controlled trial of a city’s collective efforts to restore arts education in schools through community partnerships and investments. It examined the impact of participation in Houston’s Arts Access Initiative, a coalition of more than 50 cultural institutions, philanthropies, and other local organizations dedicated to providing more arts resources to schools that lack them. Brian Kisida, assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, and Daniel Bowen, a professor of educational administration at Texas A&M, worked with the district to follow two groups of schools randomly selected to either participate in the initiative or act as a control group–a total of more than 15,000 children from grades three to eight.
The arts experiences included theater, dance, music, and visual arts and were provided through teaching-artist residencies, in-school professional artist performances and workshops, field trips, and out-of-school-time art programs. Compared with the control group, the schools with extra arts experiences saw improvements in student behavior and increases in standardized writing achievement scores. The researchers also conducted surveys that showed an increase in students’ compassion for others, higher engagement in school, and stronger college aspirations.
Kisida and Bowen, who together co-direct the Arts, Humanities, and Civic EngagementLab supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, also studied arts education in Boston. They found similar results, including consistent positive effects on student attendance, and higher parent and student school engagement.
We caught up with them to talk more about the benefits of arts education for students, important policy considerations for retaining arts education, and more.
The Wallace Foundation: Can you talk about the importance of school-community partnerships? How can approaching arts education from a systems perspective help improve access to/remove barriers to arts education?
Brian Kisida: To begin with, many under-resourced schools can leverage school-community partnerships to supplement arts education experiences and reverse the declines we’ve seen with access to the arts. But there are larger systemic benefits from these approaches. By making education a community endeavor that brings together educators, artists, nonprofits, philanthropies, and researchers, education becomes a more collaborative experience that strengthens a community’s involvement and commitment to education.
Dan Bowen: In Houston, we have seen how these partnerships can promote systemic change in addition to increasing students’ arts learning opportunities. Despite the concern that these partnerships become substitutes for system-wide commitments and resources, we have seen how they can promote and complement these efforts.
WF: According to your research, the academic performance of students in math, reading, and science was no different for those who got more art than those who didn’t get access to extra art. Is this a bad thing? Why or why not?
BK: Unfortunately, there have been many claims made by arts advocates that increased involvement in the arts can boost test scores in other subjects, but these claims have not been supported by rigorous evidence. In our study, we didn’t expect to find gains in test scores, and we don’t think it’s a bad thing that we didn’t. In fact, arts advocates and education policymakers should consider that finding no effect on test scores is actually a win for the arts. Consider that school administrators often shift resources away from the arts in order to divert more resources to tested subjects, with the belief that doing so would boost test scores. If this were true, we would have expected the schools in our control group to outperform the treatment group on tested outcomes. The fact that there is no difference on test scores, yet the arts are producing meaningful impacts on other measures of behavior and social-emotional development, suggest that schools that cut the arts are missing out on these benefits without experiencing gains in test scores.
WF: Why do you think there were positive outcomes on writing test scores but not on math, science, and reading test scores?
BK: The arts programs that many of the students were involved in provided many opportunities for students to learn how to express themselves, to present a point of view, and form their own perspectives. Some of the programs even involved writing components that tied to arts experiences. When we disaggregate the writing score gains made by the treatment group into the two components measured by the state’s writing test–multiple choice items on mechanical skills and open-response expository essays–we find significant increases for treatment group students on both sections, but effects are greater in magnitude and significance for the written composition portion of the exam. This aligns with our expectations given the focus of arts programs on students’ self-expression skills.
WF: You saw similar positive outcomes with your study in Boston. To what extent do you think these results would replicate in other cities? Do you have advice for other communities that want to mimic the Houston Arts Access Initiative?
DB: Finding similar results in Boston was very encouraging and gives us hope that these findings would be similar with other cities. One concern might be that Houston and Boston are large metropolitan areas with abundances of arts resources, and we would not find the same results in smaller or less arts-rich locations. We definitely think it will be important to further investigate the question of how these contexts affect impacts. However, from our experiences, we often find that even smaller, more rural parts of the U.S. tend to have untapped arts resources that are potentially ripe for school partnerships. We find that these partnerships produce meaningful, sustained learning opportunities when schools regularly engage with artists and arts organizations to identify respective needs and resources.
WF: How can this study help school and district leaders make the case for adding more arts experiences for students in schools? How can this study inform public policy decisions?
BK: Education policymakers are increasingly interested in providing a well-rounded educational experience that produces benefits beyond test scores. Student attendance, behavior, engagement, and social-emotional development are increasingly viewed as important outcomes, and related research finds that these skills are incredibly important for success later in life. But few interventions have demonstrated the ability to move the needle on these outcomes. The arts seem well-poised to play a critical role in providing the kinds of engaging educational experiences that can move the needle on these outcomes.
WF: Why is it so important to study the relationship between arts learning and educational outcomes? What do you hope to find out in future studies?
DB: We don’t personally need to be convinced of the intrinsic benefits of the arts. However, policymaking works best when it is guided by evidence, and research on the benefits of arts education has been regrettably limited compared to other education topics. We hope our ongoing and future studies will shed further light on the value of the arts in promoting human development and social and emotional well-being.