There are countless articles that address the educational merits of including art education in the public school system. With the emphasis of many schools being placed on standardized testing, some believe that if objectives are not measured in the test, they are not important. What if you were told that it does not matter how art education affects test scores? That art for its own sake is what matters?
Some may agree wholeheartedly, while others will be quick to deny the assertion. This article will address the benefits of art education, both in and out of public school systems, in relation to test scores as well as other developmental and social benefits. Hopefully, there will be something for everyone with which to relate.
Reading, Writing and Math
Once touted as the 3R’s of education—reading, writing and ‘rithmatic—there are proponents for bringing education back to the basics. Whether or not one agrees to this philosophy, it would be hard to disagree with their importance. In 2002, The Arts Education Partnership pulled together data from 62 different studies. In their analysis, they summarized that children who are exposed to fine arts are often more proficient at reading, writing and math. The researchers gave the disclaimer that arts education is not a cure-all for ailing schools, but believe it can be one valuable component in bringing positive changes. The cumulative data also showed that students who receive more arts education also perform better on standardized tests, have improved social skills and are more motivated.
When measuring the success of a school system, its graduation rate is always considered. How could the arts improve graduation? Possibly because participating in fine arts and performing arts programs gives students a reason for wanting to show up to school. Students who struggle in academic subjects can find joy and motivation in arts based classrooms. When students are given a reason to show up every day, all teachers have the opportunity to reach these struggling students. Arts education helps not only with graduation rates, but also reduces truancy and delinquency. In 2009, The Center for Arts Education reported that the schools with the lowest access to arts education also had the highest dropout rates, and the schools with the greatest access to arts education had the lowest dropout rates.
Students at Risk
Children from families of low socio-economic status often have less access to art education. A 2012 research report from the National Endowment for the Arts demonstrated that at-risk youth who are given access to arts education in or out of school not only have increased academic outcomes, but they also have higher career goals and are more civically minded. The study found those subjects involved in arts education to be more likely to complete a high school calculus course, play sports and qualify for academic honor societies.
Good For Students, Good for Teachers
In 1999, a study called “Learning In and Through the Arts” showed that both students and teachers were happier in schools with high levels of art education. The students were found to have strong abilities to express their thoughts and ideas, exercise their imaginations and take risks in learning. The teachers described their students as more cooperative and willing to publicly display their knowledge.
Art for Its Own Sake
After reading these studies, it may seem like a “no-brainer” assertion that arts are valuable to education. But in 2000, two researchers clouded the picture with a study that determined arts classes do not have a significant effect on core academics. The researchers, Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, both arts education advocates, believe that art should be taught in schools, not because of the impact on academic performance, but because of other, often immeasurable benefits.
“We feel we need to change the conversation about the arts in this country,” said Ms. Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College. “These instrumental arguments are going to doom the arts to failure, because any superintendent is going to say, ‘If the only reason I’m having art is to improve math, let’s just have more math.’ Do we want to therefore say, ‘No singing,’ because singing didn’t lead to spatial improvement? You get yourself in a bind there. The arts need to be valued for their own intrinsic reasons. Let’s figure out what the arts really do teach.”
The researchers discovered that students who study the arts are more playful and more able to learn from mistakes, make critical judgments, envision and persist. Students learn that there is more than one solution to a problem and more than one answer to a question. Experiencing the arts can evoke empathy and compassion.
“That’s not the kind of argument that gets a lot of traction in a high-stakes testing environment,” said Douglas J. Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.
In these days of high-stakes testing, it is easy, yet short sighted, to write off the arts because they do not necessarily provide students with skills, knowledge and processing that can be quantified. Does this mean the arts are not important? Do we really need to prove the worth of art in our society and culture? The history of the arts and the history of man are inextricable; the arts are an intrinsic part of our human experience.
Jennifer VanBuren is a Georgetown educator and mother of three school-aged boys.