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Jay Greene Is an Army of One for Arts Education...and He's Winning

The University of Arkansas's Jay Greene has just released a second pioneering study in his laudable push to confound the banal battle lines of the education debate. In this new study, "Learning From Live Theater," he and his coauthors find (using a randomized control trial) that taking students to the theater actually has serious, measurable benefits. The study follows upon Greene's acclaimed 2013 study (which also used an RCT design) that found that field trips to art museums have serious, measurable benefits for participating students.

In the new study, published by Education Next (where, full disclosure, I'm an executive editor), Greene, Collin Hitt, Anne Kraybill, and Cari Bogulski find that students get a knowledge benefit from watching live theater "above and beyond what they learn by reading those works or by seeing film versions."

The "gold-standard" study involved 49 school groups (grades 7-12) that applied for a chance to win free tickets to A Christmas Carol or Hamlet through TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The groups were matched for demographics, class subject, and grade, and then about half the groups were randomly given free tickets. Twenty-two groups (with 330 students) got tickets to one of the shows; the other 27 groups (with 340 students) constituted the control group. After the performance, typically a month or two later, student surveys were returned that contained background information, measures of comprehension of the play, gauges of tolerance, and items to measure interest in the theater.

Students who'd attended the play demonstrated much more knowledge about the play in question than students in the control group who had read the play or seen the movie. After controlling for prior knowledge and such, for instance, 94% of theater-goers correctly identified that Ophelia drowns in Hamlet, while just 62% of the control group did. 93% of the treatment group knew the definition of 'humbug' after seeing A Christmas Carol, versus 62% of the control group.

Students who'd been to the theater also showed signs of heightened tolerance and empathy. For instance, 30% of the control group agreed that "people who disagree with my point of view bother me," whereas the figure was 22% among students who'd attended the theater. Similarly, when assessed using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET)--designed to gauge how well the subject can infer what others are thinking based on their eyes--theater-going students outperformed the control group by nearly one-fourth of a standard deviation.

Interestingly, the results showed no difference in students' inclination to attend the theater. This was different from the earlier art museum study, in which participants expressed more interest in returning for future visits. Otherwise, the results were largely consistent with the earlier study, in which Greene and his colleagues found that students who participated in the museum field trip later demonstrated a greater ability to think critically about art, more empathy and tolerance, and a greater interest in visiting art museums than their peers. The effects were greatest for disadvantaged students who had never previously been to a museum or other cultural institution.

In the new study, the authors conclude, "Culturally enriching field trips matter. They produce significant benefits for students on a variety of educational outcomes that schools and communities care about...This research shows that schools can draw upon the cultural institutions in their communities to assist in producing important educational outcomes. Not all learning occurs most effectively within the walls of a school building."

I love this whole line of work, for several reasons. For one, Greene and his colleagues are making clear that it's possible to evaluate educational outcomes other than reading and math in rigorous and sophisticated ways. Two, it powerfully reminds us that schools ought to be focused on a lot more than boosting reading scores, math scores, and graduation rates, and that this "other stuff" is integral to the purposes of education. As Greene and his coauthors put it, "This research helps demonstrate that schools produce important educational outcomes other than those captured by math and reading test scores, and that it is possible for researchers to collect measures of those other outcomes. If what's measured is what matters, then we need to measure more outcomes to expand the definition of what matters in education." This is precisely the kind of thinking I championed years ago in "Our Achievement Gap Mania," and it's terrific to see skilled, creative researchers rising to the challenge.

Finally, I love the way this work challenges many in education to take a hard look at their priorities, talking points, and assumptions. Arts advocates have too often seemed unconcerned with promoting serious exploration of the importance of arts education, settling for talking points or unconvincing data points to make their case. It's no great surprise that they've had a tough time of it.

School reformers pay lip service to the importance of a rich education, but far too many have shrugged as schools cut time and energy elsewhere in order to focus single-mindedly on proficiency in reading and math. The general attitude has been, "I'll worry about this other stuff if you can show it actually matters." Well, Greene et al. are making big strides on doing just that. 

And many of today's most talented researchers have found it easy and rewarding to focus on test scores and graduation rates, because those are the outcomes readily at hand--but Greene et al.'s work shows that it's possible for imaginative researchers to tackle other important elements of schooling in a rigorous, rewarding fashion. Meanwhile, a whole platoon of faculty who study art or music education have never even tried to systematically document whether and how the arts actually benefit students. With any luck, Greene et al. will draw some imitators in both camps.

It's not often that one study can do so much to promote useful rethinking and potentially nudge so many out of their comfort zones.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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