Center Director Outlines Studies on Effects of Arts Education

By Robert Rothman — September 04, 1991 4 min read

Since 1987, the National Arts Education Research Center at New York University has sponsored a number of studies analyzing the role and effectiveness of instruction in the arts in schools.

In a report sent in May to the National Endowment for the Arts, the largest funder of the center, Jerrold Ross, its director, outlined some of the principal findings from the research during its first three years.

Examining studies conducted in public schools in inner cities, suburbs, and rural areas in 23 states, Mr. Ross said the early findings indicate that test scores in academic subjects improve when arts instruction is used; that studying the arts can enhance cultural understanding; and that arts education can improve students’ powers of critical thinking.

Mr. Ross, the associate dean for academic affairs at NYU’s school of education, health, nursing, and arts professions, spoke about the center’s work with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q. Your center found that the arts improved student performance in many subject areas. Could you explain why you think that is the case?

A. There are several reasons. One is that the arts can reach students who otherwise don’t respond as easily [to other forms of instruction]. Maybe more important is that the arts through history have served to explicate other disciplines. For example, in history, what better than to look at the artwork of a period to illustrate it? The visual image provides an enormous advantage over those looking at history, or figures in math, in words, not in actual images.

[A third reason is that] a loosening up in attitudes is more easily accomplished in the arts. They are not as threatening an entrance into other disciplines. It’s something easily accomplished by kids no matter what their background. All bring with them an ability and interest in arts.

Q. Several studies you cite point up the value of teaching the arts of different cultures. Do they suggest that the current drive for multicultural curricula has merit?

A. No question about it. But the most interesting part of the studies we produced land in the middle of the current controversy.

One side [of the debate] says everything is learned through [your own culture’s] history, while others say America is a melting larger culture. Our studies are saying the attitudes of people about their culture and different cultures blend through and cut across all cultures. . . .

While you may not fully participate in or like the results of another culture, you can understand that it’s O.K. to look that way once the derivation of an artwork is understood. . . . [For example,] you can understand and appreciate classical music, but you don’t have to like it more than popular music. And vice versa. The fact is, you understand it, and learn why it is part of another person’s background.

In my view, there is no need for controversy as to one or the other. It’s both. You can accept the work of others and appreciate diversity, without losing individuality and without sacrificing the ideas of the dominant culture.

Q. The studies also found that arts instruction enhanced students’ critical- thinking abilities. Do you have evidence that these abilities transferred from the arts to other subjects?

A. No. That’s one area that has eluded researchers as long as there has been education research.

What students do wish for-in narratives and logs-is that other subject areas are taught in the same manner arts are taught, through self-analysis and self-discovery. [When teaching is conducted) didactically, many young people are not able to learn as effectively as when they are actually doing something and critically analyzing it, having their own work analyzed and analyzing others’.

Q. You point out that your studies were primarily conducted in individual classrooms by teachers. Some researchers have criticized that methodology, saying it does not produce results that are applicable more generally. Why do you think such studies are valuable?

A. It makes the research immediately practical. The issues teachers confront every day are better identified by them and studied by them, rather than the traditional way [of having university researchers] coming in from the outside. The results [of traditional research methods] have occupied shelves and file cabinets for years, and have never been put to immediate use. . . .

That doesn’t mean universities don’t have a role. They can guide research, and make teachers better users of research. …I have no use for the view teachers cannot or should not do this. The only thing distinguishing teachers from others is their placement in a university, either as doctoral students or faculty.

Q. Some educators have said that the problem in the arts is not the programs, but public support. Do you agree?

A. Yes, but the chief problem is the program. If it is designed principally to deal with talent--in music, only those who participate in performing groups, in art [those with high abilityl--then it doesn’t deserve public support. The perception is that these are the only arts teachers want to do. They don’t want to deal with the other 99 percent, who will use art throughout their lives.

There is a critical omission in arts education: a lack of understanding. Public support come when the product reaches the majority of children and, therefore, the majority of parents. One causes the other . . . . It’s not that the public doesn’t want the arts. It’s that the public doesn’t see the arts as currently carried out in school as meeting the needs of kids.

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1991 edition of Education Week