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Can Schools Use Arts to Support Academics Under ESSA? It's Tricky

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Using the arts to support academic learning is doable under the new federal education law, but many of the most promising ideas need more research to build up an evidence base, concludes a new report on arts integration.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law signed in 2015, offered states and districts a chance to rethink their school improvement strategies, and now a comprehensive guide offers the rundown on how states and districts might approach arts integration as part of the mix.

The report was written by the American Institutes of Research on behalf of the Wallace Foundation. (The foundation supports coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts education in Education Week, but the newspaper retains sole editorial control.) 

The good news is that ESSA contains 12 different sections that could be used to support arts integration as a way of boosting student learning. This is not a surprise, as the watchword of the legislators crafting the law was to give states more flexibility. Of the funding opportunities, the law's Title IV program, a broad, academic-enrichment grant, specifically notes that "music and the arts as tools to support student success" is an allowable use of funds.

There are a few catches here, though. First, in fiscal 2017-18, the Title IV grant got only a quarter of the funds it's authorized, about $400 million, which doesn't stretch all that far across the states. More here in this great Politics K-12 post. And states tend to reserve the other programs, like Title I, which supports disadvantaged students, for more traditional improvement strategies, like hiring reading coaches.

The law also requires states and districts to weigh evidence in designing interventions for students, although this will be tough if not impossible for the U.S. Department of Education to enforce.

In theory, states and districts should try to pick the tools with the strongest research evidence ("Tier I" evidence, generally defined as experimental studies). Unsurprisingly, in arts education as with everything else, as the evidence standards get higher, there are fewer studies that meet that bar. The report does a nice job analyzing the existing research on arts integration. 

Here's a summary chart of their analysis. Note that the researchers found few studies overall that met the "strong" Tier I standards or the "moderate" Tier II standards.

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The group's analysis indicated that, when synthesizing the gains across the studies that met Tier I-III standards, the net effect of arts integration appears to be positive—enough to push the average student from the 50th to the 54th percentile.

Still, the report is a bit of a wake-up call about what we don't know about arts integration: how it affects performance in different areas (i.e., critical thinking, science, attitudes towards arts, and so on), the specific features of arts-integration strategies that pay dividends for students, and finally, the need for more rigorous research, including experimental studies with control groups, to measure impact.

Meanwhile, you may know that every state has submitted their plan under the federal law. States were required to pick at least one non-academic indicator for judging school performance. We here at EdWeek have done the tallying for you, and by our count, the following states include some mention of the arts in their plans: Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, and Michigan.

Photo: Alan Clever. —Flickr/Creative Commons

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