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An Experiment in Arts Education That Paid Off

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By Guest Blogger Sasha Jones

Despite accessibility to arts education steadily declining nationwide since the 1980s, arts-learning experiences can reduce disciplinary infractions, increase students' compassion for others and engagement, and improve writing skills and college aspirations, according to a new study.

Forty-two Houston schools, representing more than 10,500 3rd-8th grade students, were assigned by lottery to take part in the Arts Access Initiative, through which schools receive infusions of arts education through community partnerships, local art organizations, cultural institutions, and teaching artists.

Researchers used Houston school district administrative data on discipline and absences, and State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STARR) scores in reading, math, science, and writing, to compare students from schools who had been randomly assigned to participate in the initiative and those at nonparticipating schools.

The study also developed surveys taken during the second year of AAI (2016-27) to determine factors such as engagement, college aspiration, arts-facilitated empathy, tolerance and compassion for others, desire to participate in cultural consumption, perceived value of the arts. Surveys were then linked to administrative records.

Overall, the report found that increasing students' access to arts education reduced the proportion of students receiving disciplinary infractions by 3.6 percentage points; increased writing achievement by 0.13 of a standard deviation; and strengthened students' compassion for others by 0.08 of a standard deviation.

"It seems intuitive that if you're spending more time in the arts that you may be spending less time in reading and math," Daniel Bowen, an assistant professor in the department of educational administration and human resource development at Texas A&M University and study co-author, said. The study shows that this is not necessarily the case, as students in the study spent more time in art classes, and still showed improvements in academic classes.

There are also several effects on subgroups, specifically in response to the survey portion of the study. Elementary students, those with limited English proficiency, and gifted and talented students exhibited more noticeable positive effects on writing achievement and compassion for others. Arts education also led to improvements for those subgroups in the social and emotional factors included in the survey.

"Schools should look to their communities and focus on making education a community-involving experience," Brian Kisida, an assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri and co-author of the study, said. 

Still, the report said that there is some evidence to suggest negative impacts of arts education on middle school students when it comes to school engagement and college aspiration. 

There were also several other limitations to the study. The study only measured schools involved in Houston's AAI, where principals have a commitment and desire to improve their school's arts education program. Such desire does not always exist in school leadership, the authors said. Additionally, the study only looked at results over a short period of time.

"One of the tradeoffs that we typically cite [when conducting large experiments] is that we're not especially informed within the 'black box' as we call it," Kisida said, referring to factors outside of researchers' control that affect implementation of research. 

Kisida and Bowen said in the future, they would like to look at how different types of arts education affect students, as well as the impact of arts and humanities education on civics participation. 

Photo courtesy of Getty. 

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