Studying the arts in school may help strengthen children’s academic and social skills that can, in turn, aid them in learning other subjects, concludes a new review of arts education studies. The review found arts education particularly beneficial for young children and those who are economically disadvantaged or struggling academically.
Strong arts programs are also linked to improving certain communication and critical-thinking skills, as well as student motivation for learning and school climate, the analysis released last week found.
“There’s ample evidence that arts programs improve reading, language development, and writing skills, and that certain forms of music instruction improve spatial-reasoning skills that are important in learning mathematics and reading and writing,” said Richard J. Deasy, the director of the Arts Education Partnership, a coalition of arts education, business, and government organizations based in Washington.
Much more research is needed, though, to determine to what degree arts education directly affects student achievement, the report says.
The compendium, “Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development,” is the result of a three-year review of research literature on dance, music, visual arts, drama, and multiarts education. The 62 studies featured in the report were selected from among thousands of research documents because they attempted to quantify whether instruction in the specific arts arenas affected student achievement.
Few Causal Links
Much of the research revealing that benefits were derived from arts programs did not establish a causal link. The arts, in general, may be just one factor in the positive outcomes documented.
One study, for example, showed a correlation between strong arts programs and an increase in students’ creativity and positive perceptions of their academic ability. But the study could not determine whether the benefits resulted from the arts program or other factors, such as the presence of more innovative teachers at arts-rich schools.
The studies were selected and reviewed by James S. Catterall of the University of California, Los Angeles; Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston University and a senior research associate at Harvard University’s Project Zero; and Lois Hetland, also of Project Zero, a research group that aims to improve arts learning. The analyses of other researchers are also included in the report.
Ms. Winner, who has been critical of claims over the past few years that arts education improves test scores in other disciplines, said the project allowed a diverse group of researchers to scrutinize existing studies.
She cautioned, however, against generalizing about the direct benefits of arts education when those established by the research are specific to drama and certain kinds of music instruction. She also disagreed with the conclusions drawn by other contributors that she says overstate the link between the arts and improved academic skills.
“We don’t want to make claims that are not warranted by the research,” Ms. Winner said in an interview. “I don’t think the arts have been shown to cause academic improvement,” and claims in the report that specific groups of students “uniquely” benefit from arts instruction are not based on research, Ms. Winner said.
The report concludes that more research is needed to gauge the direct impact of arts education on learning in other subjects, as well as the effects of such instruction over time. More work is also needed, the report says, in studying how best to teach the arts.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Arts Programs Enhance Some Skills, Study Says