Curriculum Opinion

The Arts’ Impact on Learning

By Richard J. Deasy & Harriet Mayor Fulbright — January 24, 2001 8 min read
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Further research to probe interrelationships among arts and other disciplines is certainly needed, but there is little doubt that they exist.

Things are looking up for the arts in American schools. Los Angeles has adopted a 10-year plan to rebuild its arts programs, at an estimated annual cost of $190 million when fully implemented. Chicago just announced that it is converting 47 neighborhood elementary schools to arts magnets. Baltimore’s mayor has made arts education one of three education priorities and is backing a school board plan to target $93 million in added arts funding by 2005. New York City, still recovering from the drastic cutbacks of the 1970s, is spending $75 million a year to hire new arts teachers.

Public officials in other parts of the country are taking similar steps to restore arts in their schools, convinced that they play a vital role in meeting public demands for quality education.

School board members, superintendents, and administrators from 30 demographically diverse school districts gathered in mid-October in Washington to report on their success in implementing and enhancing arts programs throughout their schools. The districts—along with 60 others—were profiled in the report “Gaining the Arts Advantage: Lessons From School Districts That Value Arts Education,” released by the Arts Education Partnership and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 1999.

Researchers had spent 18 months in 1997 and 1998 examining the districts to probe the conditions and rationales that enabled them to give high priority to arts learning for all students, countering the all-too-frequent tendency to push the arts to the margins of the school day. Representatives from the profiled districts attending the meeting were asked for an update. They reported that policy and financial support for the arts continues to be strong and, in many cases, has increased since the research was conducted.

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Bill Press, the host of CNN’s “Crossfire,” cited the pressures of high-stakes testing, teacher shortages, and other challenges when he asked board presidents and superintendents at the meeting how they convince fellow board members, city hall, or legislative bodies to fund the arts. They responded with arguments drawn from their personal understanding and appreciation of the arts; from the impact they see the arts have on students and schools; and from the economic, social, and cultural needs and traditions of their communities.

These policy leaders also referred to the growing body of research studies that explore the role of the arts in the intellectual, emotional, and social development of children and youths. The research both challenges and affirms their personal knowledge and experience. They believe the arts are worthy of study and good for kids, schools, and communities. Research is helping them ground their beliefs.

That is why we were startled and dismayed by a recent Commentary, “Does Studying the Arts Enhance Academic Achievement?,” in which the two authors portrayed public educators and arts advocates as naive victims of bad research on arts education. (“Does Studying the Arts Enhance Academic Achievement?,” Commentary, Nov. 1, 2000.) The authors issued dire warnings of the “dangers” of justifying the arts “primarily” because they increase reading and math test scores.

Many policy leaders simply believe the arts are worthy of study and good for kids. Research is helping them ground their beliefs.

We know of no educator or advocate who justifies the study of the arts solely or even primarily because it may boost standardized-test scores. And educators, researchers, and advocates who contacted us were disturbed by the essay because recent arts education research is much broader and deeper than the authors discussed. They also believe the authors understate the significance of the studies they did examine.

The authors in their Commentary were responding to criticism they have gotten in a number of forums for their interpretation of a set of 15 “meta-analyses” that they and several of their associates assembled and published in a recent issue of the Journal of Aesthetic Education. “Metaanalysis” is a technique that attempts to gauge the overall effects of a group of studies, each of which is unique but focused on the same experience and each of which expresses its results in quantifiable form (typically, test scores).

The authors and their associates, after considering more than 10,000 studies of theater, music, dance, visual arts, and multiple art forms, selected some 200 that could be examined using their particular meta-analytical technique. The largest groups of study were in theater and music.

A finding that music instruction enhances spatial-reasoning skills should not be discounted.

The authors contend that only three of their meta-analyses—two in music and one in theater—show a significant, positive relationship between arts study and reading or math skills. They claim this substantiates their personal view that there is “danger” in promoting arts education on the basis of its impact on other forms of student learning. They go a step further and dismiss one of their own findings—that forms of music instruction do enhance spatial-reasoning skills—as having “nil” importance to education.

Researchers and educators who have read the Journal of Aesthetic Education essays are astounded by these claims. Obviously, and most importantly, a rich array of arts education research employing a wide variety of research methodologies was not included in the meta- analyses because of the inherent constraints of the technique. But further, each of the meta-analyses actually reported positive effects of the arts on literacy and numeracy, and the largest effects—the ones the authors agree are significant—were in theater and music, where the authors examined the greatest number of studies.

It is puzzling why the authors dismiss their own findings. For instance, many researchers point out that “spatial reasoning” is a cognitive process that is involved in making connections among ideas and events, comprehending spoken and written words, and doing mathematics and science. It is not limited to placing or imagining objects in physical space. The application of these skills in a variety of school subjects is obvious. A finding that music instruction enhances these skills is clearly important.

We agree with the Commentary authors that more research needs to focus on quality arts education programs to expand our understanding of the cognitive and affective impact on students of arts study and also its impact on the learning environment of the whole school.

For instance, last year we jointly released a widely acclaimed set of seven studies exploring the multiple effects of arts learning, in the report “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning.” Researchers from Columbia University’s Teachers College, Harvard University, Harvard’s Project Zero, Stanford University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Connecticut conducted these studies using a variety of well-recognized research techniques. Their work was funded by the General Electric Fund and the MacArthur Foundation.

Researchers report a wide range of positive impacts of arts learning on the academic and personal success of students.

“Champions of Change” researchers examined data in the federal National Education Longitudinal Study of 25,000 secondary school students; did case studies of highly effective theater and opera programs; conducted intensive observations of the interactions of teachers and students; and used a number of tests and measurements to assess student learning, including the reading and mathematics scores of students in high-poverty schools who were engaged in integrated-arts programs.

They report a wide range of positive impacts of arts learning on the academic and personal success of the students, including significant benefits for disadvantaged children and for high-poverty schools.

As the Teachers College researchers said in their report, studying the arts engages students in a “constellation” of learning that interacts in multiple ways with learning in other school subjects as well as in other dimensions of the students’ emotional and social lives. Learning to act, compose music, or design a building draws on and reinforces habits of mind and personal dispositions at work in other school subjects and social settings. Indeed, these interrelationships are the fundamental premise of formal education: What you learn today will be applied in multiple ways now and in the future.

Further research to probe these interrelationships among arts and the other disciplines is certainly needed, but there is little doubt that they exist.

The timing is right to build on the strongest studies of this “early stage” of arts education research to further explore the nature and effects of learning in the arts.

Michael Timpane, a former president of Teachers College and an early director of the National Institute of Education (a forerunner of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement), recently commented that arts education research today is at an early stage of its development. He compared it to his experiences with research on reading, where the accumulation of studies over time gradually honed the understanding of educators and policymakers as to the best policies and practices.

The timing is right to build on the strongest studies of this “early stage” to further explore the nature and effects of learning in the arts.

Community and school leaders across the country already are taking steps to revitalize arts education, guided by their conviction that the arts are essential dimensions of a comprehensive education. Educators are recognizing, as one has said, that “the intellect draws from many wells, even if it at times runs in narrow channels.” The arts can give access to the deepest of those wells. Research can show us how.

Richard J. Deasy is the director of the Arts Education Partnership in Washington and a former assistant state superintendent of schools in Maryland. Harriet Mayor Fulbright recently retired as the executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as The Arts’ Impact on Learning


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