Does Experience in the Arts Boost Academic Achievement?

Article excerpt

More often than we would like, arts educators receive requests to justify our professional existence or the existence of the arts in our schools on the basis of their contributions to non-art outcomes. I cannot recall the number of times I have been asked about the contribution the arts make to increasing test scores in math, or in reading, or in any other academic subject that the inquirer believes to be more important than any of the arts-or all of them for that matter. What research, callers want to know, demonstrates that experience in the arts boosts academic achievement? They sometimes go on to ask if more exposure to the arts advances school reform?

All too often arts educators are all too ready to oblige. Those of us in arts education are apparently "faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound...." I cannot help but wonder if we sometimes claim too much.

As someone who receives the requests I have described, I understand the drive of those who are desperately looking for ways to upgrade our educational system and to improve the performance of those within it. So many failed "solutions" have been tried: why not try the arts? I sometimes ask myself if those who inquire ever considered reversing the question. Have they ever thought about asking how reading and math courses contribute to higher performance in the arts? I must confess I have never come right out and asked them-but I have come close.

That questions about the contributions of the arts to academic achievement are raised by those for whom the arts are personally marginal is understandable: When the arts are not a part of your own life it is hard to know what they can contribute to it or to the lives of others. What is troublesome is the image of arts educators who know what the arts have to offer trying to give the customers what they want, whether or not there is evidence to support it. Too often we promise more than we can deliver, a practice that by definition leads to disappointment.

What can we claim? What are the contributions that the arts legitimately can be expected to make to the education of the young? Just what does research say about the relationship between experience in the arts and academic achievement? When pressures arise to justify the place of the arts in education, how shall we respond?

Let's first start with what research has to say about the relationship between experience in the several arts and academic achievement. For our purposes here let's define experience in the arts as the number of courses taken in school-elementary or secondaryin any of the arts. Let's define the arts as courses in the visual arts, music, theater, and dance. I recognize that the definitions I have provided are to some degree arbitrary. Courses taken say nothing about the quality of experience or the kind of curriculum used. In addition, the quality of teaching matters and nothing that I have said pertains to the quality of teaching. I enter these caveats for two reasons: first, to indicate that I am aware of them, and, second, to adumbrate the complexities of the kind of research that is needed. The criteria I have just identified are general. Given these general criteria, what do we find?

RESEARCH ON EXPERIENCE AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT

To review the research on the relationship between arts courses and academic achievement we turned to the literature published from 1986 to 1996.1 We were looking for studies describing relationships between these two areas of human performance, experimental studies if possible, but correlational studies if necessary. We did not include advocacy essays in our review. Furthermore, we preferred publications that did not simply summarize the results of studies, but presented the studies themselves so that the data and methods could be appraised. We also preferred studies published in refereed journals because we believe that refereed journals are more likely to provide the kind of methodological scrutiny that empirical studies deserve. …