With a growing emphasis on standardized testing as an assessment of academic achievement and advancement in high schools, teachers have been pressured to downplay alternative learning strategies in favor of a focus on the fundamentals—reading, writing and arithmetic. This has led to an education policymaking environment that tends to marginalize pedagogical tools such as arts education that may not appear to influence test scores directly. Advocates of arts education are now compiling research data that shows a direct correlation between high academic achievement and participation in the arts. For instance, research sponsored by the Arts Education Partnership suggests that arts education can close the gap between low-income and more advantaged students. This research suggests that policymakers interested in equal educational opportunity need to take a new look at alternative learning strategies at the same time that they push for test-driven school reforms.
The forum on arts education is based on two reports entitled “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning” and “Gaining the Arts Advantage: Lessons from School Districts that Value Arts Education,” published by the Arts Education Partnership. The panelists are Professor James Catterall, University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Richard J. Deasy, director of the Arts Education Partnership, a cooperative endeavor of the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Richard Deasy gives an overview of the research and policy implications gleaned from studies supported by the Arts Education Partnership. He highlights the two key findings from recent research on the relationship between arts education and student academic achievement. “Quality learning in the arts,” Deasy reports, “stimulates and supports learning in other domains” for all students, but this is especially true for students from impoverished backgrounds. Deasy suggests that several important policy lessons emerge from the research. He argues that community-school partnerships and experienced art teachers are necessary for school districts interested in implementing effective arts education programs. Given the effect of arts education on closing the achievement gap for poor students, Deasy adds that state and federal education officials must ensure that high-poverty urban and rural school districts get the support they need to establish arts education curricula comparable to the programs found in wealthier, suburban districts.
James Catterall, a professor at UCLA, is conducting national and local research on arts education. Using the Department of Education’s National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), Catterall and several colleagues have compiled data on the impact of arts education on the academic achievement of all students and more specifically, those from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds. Survey data from the 25,000 high school students followed in the NELS study revealed that 79.2 percent of eighth graders involved in the arts reported earning mostly As and Bs verses 64.2 percent of students with no artistic involvement. Catterall cautions that this discrepancy is not surprising, considering that arts involvement is also correlated with income level, so that academic achievement may have been a result of financial support at home or better-funded schools rather than arts education per se. To control for these variables, Catterall compared low SES eighth graders, finding that 64.5 percent of those involved in the arts reported receiving “mostly As and Bs” as opposed to 56.4 percent of the students uninvolved in the arts.
In addition to examining survey data for eight graders, Catterall and his colleagues analyzed data for tenth and twelfth graders from across the country involved in the arts. The positive impact of arts education remained in evidence for students in the higher grades. Of low SES students with arts involvement in grade ten, for instance, 41.5 percent scored in the top two quartiles on standardized tests as opposed to 24.9 percent of their peers who were not involved in arts education.
Caterall also conducted case studies of arts education in the Chicago public school system. He studied the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education (CAPE), which links teachers and artists from the community to co-teach six, eight, or twelve-week classes that integrate arts education and more traditional academic studies. For instance, a social studies module on the history and culture of ancient Egypt might be paired with a ceramics class on Egyptian-style pottery. According to Caterrall, the CAPE programs are raising student interest and academic achievement. Comparing student reading levels in CAPE schools verses comparable Chicago public schools without the arts partnership, one finds dramatic increases in reading levels. In 1992, the first year CAPE was instituted, ninth graders in the CAPE schools and other public schools began the year at an eighth grade reading level. By 1998 ninth graders in CAPE schools began the year reading at the level of ninth graders in the fourth or fifth month of school, whereas ninth graders in comparable public schools without CAPE began the year reading at one full grade level behind the CAPE students.
Caterrall and Deasy point to several possible explanations for their findings that students involved in the arts have higher academic achievement than other students do. They note that the arts appear to have cognitive benefits for students that spill over into other academic areas and also that the school/community partnerships formed in many arts education programs strengthen support for school activities and reveal the tangible benefits of arts education for students. There are positive peer group associations for those involved in the arts, and arts involvement offers a constructive outlet for students’ time outside of school. Finally, Catterall and Deasy admit that residual family and background influences, rather than arts involvement, may be responsible for the higher academic achievement of the students they examined, however, their studies suggest that arts education is, at least, a strong contributing factor to academic achievement.
With this in mind, policymakers and school administrators will want to examine closely the studies of the Arts Education Partnership when determining the role of arts in primary and secondary education.
This information is from an American Youth Policy Forum held on February 4, 2000 on Capitol Hill, reported by Steve Estes.
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