School & District Management

Report: Arts Engagement Linked to Academic, Civic Benefits

By Erik W. Robelen — April 03, 2012 3 min read
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At-risk youths with a history of intensive arts experiences enjoy better academic outcomes and are more civicly engaged than disadvantaged students who largely miss out on the arts, finds a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The benefits can be seen across a variety of measures, from test scores and school grades to honors-society memberships, high school graduation, and college enrollment and attainment. In addition, these young people are more likely to get involved with volunteer activities and local politics.

To be clear, this research does NOT provide evidence that extensive arts engagement causes those positive outcomes in at-risk young people. Rather, the two are associated. In other words, it could simply be that youths who are more apt to be highly engaged in the arts also are more prone toward academic and civic prowess. We don’t really know for sure.

“That’s the money question,” Sunil Iyengar, the director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, told me. “We don’t know if, in fact, there is something [about] these kids that would prompt them to be more engaged in a variety of ways, including the arts.”

At the same time, Iyengar added: “There is a consistency here that is remarkable. ... In almost no case did we see anything counter [to this correlation].”

The new study comes as the National Center for Education Statistics issued a major report about access to arts education. That study, which suggests that the oft-repeated claims that the arts have been squeezed out of the curriculum are overstated, does point to persistent gaps in access to the arts by income level. That is, schools with the highest poverty levels tend to have lower availability of arts instruction. That said, in some cases, high-poverty schools have started to gain ground and close the gap in terms of access, when compared with low-poverty schools.

What’s especially interesting about the National Endowment study—led by James S. Catteral, a professor emeritus of education at UCLA—is its reliance on several longitudinal databases, so that changes in behavior can be observed over the long haul.

So, enough of my jabbering. How about we look at some of the data?

Here’s a sampling of the results, when comparing at-risk youths with low levels of arts exposure to those with high exposure.

• 10th graders who went on to complete a calculus course:
Low arts (23 percent)
High arts (33 percent)

• Mean GPA of high school students:
Low arts (2.55)
High arts (2.94)

• 10th graders who went on to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program:
Low arts (19 percent)
High arts (32 percent)

• Young adults who earned a bachelor’s degree
Low arts (5 percent)
High arts (17 percent)

• High schoolers who participated in student government:
Low arts (4 percent)
High arts (16 percent)

• Young adults who volunteered within the last two years:
Low arts (26 percent)
High arts (47 percent)

• Young adults who voted in the 2004 national election:
Low arts (31 percent)
High arts (45 percent)

(For all you researchers and policy wonks, here’s a quick overview of definitions for the info above. The results refer to students in the bottom quarter for socioeconomic status as defined mainly by family income, parental education level, and parental job status. The report offers a definition for “arts engagement” centered on occurrences of arts activities, whether in-class or extracurricular, with extra points for recurring exposure. The various federal data sets examined had some differences, but key activities included attending concerts, visiting museums, participating in band or orchestra, and taking art, music, or dance classes. The report does not, however, get at the quality of those experiences.)

In an introduction, endowment Chairman Rocco Landesman offers his thoughts on the report.

“This report is quick to caution that it does not make the case for a causal relationship between the arts and these outcomes, but as a nonresearcher, I have no hesitation about drawing my own conclusions,” he writes. “I firmly believe that when a school delivers the complete education to which every child is entitled—an education that very much includes the arts—the whole child blossoms.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.