I frequently urge people to be careful about making statements regarding the benefits of arts on educational outcomes so I am happy when I read about some rigorously conducted studies that present some positive results. Via Dan Pink is a report on a randomized study conducted in Houston with 10548 students at 42 schools. (They actually had far more schools interested in participating than they had room to accommodate which is a positive sign for arts in education.)
…the initiative helped students in a few ways: boosting students’ compassion for their classmates, lowering discipline rates, and improving students’ scores on writing tests.
The positive effects on writing test scores, discipline, and compassion were small to moderate. Students’ disciplinary infraction rates, for instance, fell by 3.6 percentage points. But these results are particularly encouraging because the cost to schools was fairly small — about $15 per student. (This did not include costs borne by the program as whole or by the cultural institutions that donated time.)
As always, pay attention to the specific findings and degree to which the positive benefit was observed. At the same time, remember that there may have been factors external to the school environment that was negatively impacting students’ ability to take tests well, maintain self-discipline and feel compassion.
When the researchers comment on the areas in which the initiative didn’t make significant difference, they made an observation worth considering about the idea that providing arts content and testable content are mutually exclusive.
On other measures, the initiative didn’t make a clear difference. That includes reading and math scores as well as survey questions about school engagement and college aspirations. Still, the survey results were mostly positive, though largely not statistically significant.
“It could have come out negative. It could have been, look, they did this extra stuff where they learned more in these other domains but their math scores went down, so here’s the tradeoff,” said Kisida, one of the researchers. “We don’t see evidence of a tradeoff.”
That’s especially notable because some have feared that pressure to raise test scores has squeezed arts out of the curriculum in many schools (though there’s limited empirical evidence on whether that’s actually happened).
I haven’t read the full study results yet but plan to do so. In the meantime, take a look at either the summary article or the study because there are a number of other observations, including the role arts opportunities play in the social growth of students.
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