The arts help kids succeed in reading in math and inspire them to stay in school: that's the claim of a new report, "Reinvesting in Arts Education," appearing this month from the President's Commission on the Arts and the Humanities. In support of this argument, which is not new, the report collects a broader than usual range of evidence from a diverse collection of studies.
Most of the studies are correlational: that is, they show that students who are involved in the arts do better in a multitude of outcomes than students who are not involved. Correlation, of course, is not causation. Students may become involved in the arts because they already feel connected to school, or because they live in wealthier neighborhoods or have parents at home that can drive them to lessons, etc. Still, most of the reports try to correct for these confounding factors. For example, an anthropological study in a low income neighborhood found that students who spent 9 hours or more per week on the arts were four times as likely to have high achievement and three times as likely to have high attendance as their peers with less arts exposure.
Another study approach is longitudinal. Catterall et. al. found using national longitudinal data that by their twenties, students heavily involved in the arts in high school were more likely to have finished college, to have good jobs, to volunteer in the community, and to vote.
Then there are the case studies. The CAGE school in Chicago and the A + schools in North Carolina have seen significant gains in student achievement since introducing integrated arts education. A study of three arts integration schools and three control schools in Maryland showed that arts integration was associated with a substantial decrease in the achievement gap between poor minority students and other students in the schools.
So it goes - study after study suggests that arts education increases self-esteem, math scores, attendance, reading scores, and persistence, while decreasing drug use, delinquency, boredom, and discouragement. Is it plausible that arts education could have all these benefits? Neurological studies suggest that early study of music can increase phonological awareness, which is key to early reading. Similarly, working to develop skill in a particular area of the arts helps devotees develop focus and attention. Study of music increases students' ability to manipulate working and long term memory. All of these are foundational skills that study of the arts can strengthen.
Moreover, when the arts are integrated into schoolwork, students are likely to repeat and re-emphasize a concept through different modalities, helping them remember it. They are also likely to exercise choice and work to perfect their own individual approaches. Choice and mastery enhance motivation. Moreover, thinking about (for example) how music, drawing, or words can represent the same ideas is a cognitively complex and challenging task. Students involved in such tasks report that they don't get either bored or discouraged.
My seventh-grade son just finished a final project on Macbeth. His teacher asked the students to do two arts-related tasks of their own choosing and to write a paper explaining their choices. Damian chose to illustrate five of Macbeth's scenes in Act V with one photograph and one related drawing each. He also made a two-minute film of the "Out, out, brief candle" speech, with background piano music he composed, played, and computer-distorted to make it more haunting. His paper discussed how even as Macbeth declines into darkness and despair, his last battle with Macduff reclaims some honor and offers hope to Scotland. Damian explained how the symbolism of swords, ghosts, shadows, candles, light and darkness in his film and drawings reflect this theme. Damian pursued this pretty sophisticated project completely independently, and he loved doing it. I'm sure he'll remember the project and feel connected to Shakespeare for a long time.
There's still a lot to learn about the effects of arts education. The President's Commission report is a good place to start. We should also ponder why the arts seem to be so motivating, and how we can weave motivating factors like choice, individual expression, personal goals, and mastery into more of what we ask our children to learn.