Curriculum Opinion

Arts Education: Not All Is Created Equal

By Nick Rabkin & Robin Redmond — April 12, 2005 7 min read
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When the arts are an interdisciplinary partner with other subjects, they generate the conditions that researchers say are ideal for learning.

Evidence has mounted over the last decade that arts study leads to higher levels of achievement in other subjects. That is exciting news for advocates of arts education, who have resisted its erosion in American schools for five decades without such evidence. But what does the evidence tell us about how and why arts education has these positive effects? What does it say about how the arts can be most effectively and strategically provided in real schools under challenging circumstances? These big questions must be addressed before many schools can be expected to embrace arts education with enthusiasm.

Much of the research about arts education, though, is focused on little questions that do not suggest operational strategies for improving instruction: “Does story dramatization improve understanding by 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders?” for example. Some of the most widely touted research, such as that showing the strong correlation between arts learning and higher SAT scores, are suspect because of the high correlation between arts learning and higher income, the most powerful predictor of academic success. Encouraging studies that control for income, like those showing that low-income students who are active in the arts do significantly better than those who are not, are not fine-grained enough to distinguish between the arts activities that may provide these benefits. In school or out? Music, theater, dance, or painting? Original creation, exposure, or appreciation?

Over the past two years, we looked for research that asked questions about arts education that matter in more fundamental ways, questions that could guide teachers and artists, schools and districts toward strategies that really deliver the benefits attributed to the arts. We sought research and evaluation that looked deeply into serious arts education programs over time, in multiple schools and classrooms, with particular attention to low- income students. Perhaps our most important finding was that not all arts education is created equal. While virtually all the studies and programs we reviewed showed meaningful benefits for students and schools, some clearly had more powerful effects on student outcomes than others.

We found the most powerful effects consistently associated with programs that integrate the arts with subjects in the core curriculum. We also found that these programs are leading to sophisticated ideas of why and how they are so powerful—a theory of teaching and learning that brings the arts into the center of education and is consistent with developments in cognitive science. The effects are less pronounced, and may not occur at all, in conventional, stand-alone arts education.

A study of 23 arts-integrated schools in Chicago showed test scores rising as much as two times faster than in comparable schools. A study of a Minneapolis arts-integration program showed that it had positive effects on all students, but was most powerful for disadvantaged learners.

Gains in these integrated programs go well beyond the basics and test scores. Arts integration energizes and challenges teachers. One researcher said that the Minneapolis program was “one of the most powerful professional-development experiences for large numbers of teachers.”

Students invest emotionally in arts-integrated classrooms. Their thinking capacities grow; they work more diligently, and learn from each other. In arts-integrated rooms, students often work in groups and turn classrooms into learning communities.

These classroom changes lead to a cascade of broader school changes. Schedules shift to accommodate planning and sustained attention to important questions. Parents become more involved. Teachers collaborate and take on new leadership roles. Art and music teachers often become the fulcrum of multiclass projects.

Arts-integrated schools make clear that the arts are not just affective and expressive. They are deeply cognitive.

When the arts are an interdisciplinary partner with other subjects, they generate the conditions that cognitive scientists and education researchers say are ideal for learning. The curriculum becomes more hands-on and project-based. It offers students authentic and challenging intellectual work. Learning in all subjects becomes visible through the arts, and student work becomes the basis of thoughtful assessment. Teachers’ opinions and expectations of their students rise.

Arts-integrated schools make clear that the arts are not just affective and expressive. They are deeply cognitive. They develop essential tools of thinking itself: careful observation of the world; mental representation of what is observed or imagined; abstraction from complexity; pattern recognition and development; qualitative judgment; symbolic, metaphoric, and allegorical representation. These same thinking tools are used in science, philosophy, math, and history. That is why arts-integrated schools reach higher academic standards.

The best arts-integration programs demonstrate a strategy that can help close the achievement gap and make schools happier places. It is a strategy within reach of most schools and districts, even those in the poorest communities. What are its most salient principles and characteristics? We found that the best programs:

• Draw on the artistic resources of their communities, building sustained partnerships among schools, arts organizations, teachers, artists, researchers, and evaluators.

• View student achievement and school improvement as pivotal to their mission—they are not only about advancing arts education.

• Engage teachers and artists from all disciplines in serious inquiry about how the arts are related to learning in other subjects and how to make educationally powerful links.

• Use the arts as media for learning—the communication of content—and as methods of learning—through artistic practices like careful observation, inquiry, creation, practice, performance, representation, exhibition, and reflection.

• Respond to a school’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

• Provide arts instruction within the context of other subjects and on its own.

• Raise funds from outside the school system to support their work, while persistently seeking higher levels of commitment from schools and districts.

We have seen programs with these characteristics work.

One fall day, we watched low-income 4th graders in an arts-integrated classroom drawing portraits of each other in a lesson that was part of a unit on descriptive writing. They were focused and coiled with excitement. Rich writing and artwork covered the walls and showed evidence of real learning and accomplishment. Most other classrooms in this building also integrated the arts with other subjects and buzzed with intensity.

The same day, in another low-income school, we watched 4th graders slump in their chairs, waiting to read a bit of advice to their classmates. They mumbled, “Don’t hit your sister,” and “Do your homework.” There was no children’s work on the walls, no evidence of learning. Instead, hallway posters reminded students of rules they must follow. “Stay in line.” “Don’t forget your uniform.” One asked, “What is freedom?” The answers implied that freedom is a reward for self-control.

The best arts-integration programs demonstrate a strategy that can help close the achievement gap and make schools happier places.

Education policymakers may have committed themselves to leaving no child behind, but the boredom and academic failure we saw in the second classroom is the norm in too many schools. The weight of educational habit and high-stakes testing constrain their focus to “basic” academic skills, testing, and discipline. In a postindustrial economy, this can only reproduce and deepen the cycle of failure.

Arts integration is a far more productive strategy. Students will not be prepared for work in an economy that demands higher-order skills if their schools focus exclusively on the basics and measure learning with multiple-choice tests only. Students will not learn to think for themselves in schools that expect them merely to stay in line and keep quiet. They won’t be prepared to create the culture of their time if they do not create culture in their schools.

Some worry that integrating the arts with other subjects will reduce art to the role of academic handmaiden to the core subjects.

That is not what happens. Art engages the world. Artists make work about things, ideas, questions, relationships, emotions, problems, and solutions. Art is a powerful instrument for making and sharing meaning. Arts integration is modeled on the methods and purposes of real artists. We have found that it results in student artwork that is consistently more complex, interesting, and contemporary than work done in stand-alone arts classrooms.

Arts integration is not simple or easy work. The pioneering educators and artists who do it swim against a tide of education policy, and work with meager resources. They need policy support at the federal, state, and local levels, not platitudes about the intrinsic goodness of art for children. Their work needs to be expanded to more classrooms, schools, and districts, and it needs to be more thoroughly studied. Preservice teachers should learn about arts integration, and arts classes should be required for certification. Art and music teachers should learn to integrate what they know about their art forms with other subjects. Arts education deserves far more than a meager $35 million line item in a federal education budget of some $65 billion. And integrated arts education should be the target of a healthy proportion of federal, state, and local allocations.

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