Educational CyberPlayGround ®


By Charles Leroux and Ron Grossman 1999

In an era when school arts programs often have been considered expendable as budgets were tightened, the first comprehensive study of the effects of such instruction shows a statistical rise in student achievement, especially among low-income students.

The study, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the GE Fund, found that art programs have a dramatic influence on elementary and high school students' performance—not just in painting a still life or playing the trombone but also in standardized test scores. The study looked at programs across the country, including one currently used in 30 Chicago public schools.

"The people who run our schools have been looking for some hard evidence that what happens in arts classes impacts on learning. Well, here it is," said Dick Deasy, director of the Arts Education Partnership, a sponsor of the study along with the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

To be released Friday, the study "Champions of Change" comes after decades when hard-pressed school districts often have considered art and music programs the first targets of budget-cutting. It demonstrates that such policies are educationally questionable—especially for a nation committed to leveling the field for disadvantaged students, the authors say.

James Catterall, a UCLA professor and co-author of the report, found that, "high arts participation makes a more significant difference to students from low-income backgrounds than for high-income students."

"Champions of Change" studied various arts-educational programs—creating an original opera, mounting a Shakespeare play—and involved researchers from UCLA, Stanford University, Columbia University, Harvard University and the University of Connecticut. As one part of the study, Department of Education data from 25,000 students were analyzed.

Though the report is a compilation of seven studies conducted independently, the results were remarkably consistent: The arts reach students who are not otherwise being reached; they connect students to themselves and to each other; they connect learning experiences to the world of real work, the findings suggest.

In Chicago, the study involved 14 high-poverty schools using programs created by CAPE (Chicago Arts Partnership in Education), an innovative approach to integrating arts in the academic subjects of a public school curriculum, funded by a consortium of corporations and foundations.

The MacArthur/GE report found that "schools across Chicago, including those in the study, have been improving student performance. But when compared to arts-poor schools in the same neighborhoods, the CAPE schools advanced even more quickly and now boast a significant gap in achievement along many dimensions."

On Wednesday, Jessica Juarez, 9, a 4th grader at Healy School in Bridgeport, one of the schools in the CAPE program, was all over the map.

"I had to run all the way to Maine, then galloped to North Carolina, Kansas, Tennessee," she said. "I hopped through Texas and did a spin in the ocean and I ended up in Nebraska."

The U.S. map she crossed was painted on the asphalt of the school's playground. To a casual observer, it might have seemed like play. But Jessica's ramble was part of a CAPE dance/geography class.

Principal Analila Chico credits these arts in education programs with helping Healy make surprising gains in reading, math and science, especially considering the school's demographics. At Healy, 84 percent of the students come from families living below the poverty line, and about 400 of its 1,300 students enroll not speaking English.

Nine years ago, before the program, only 37.8 percent of the students were reading at or above grade level. Now 60 percent are. At the same time, the percentage of students doing math at grade level rose from 49 percent to 67.8 percent. Chico noted that her students with discipline or learning problems got the most out of the program.

"Our arts program makes those kids excited about learning," Chico said.

Referring to Healy's rise in test scores, Tammy Steele, arts coordinator, said: "We can't prove exactly how much of the improvement is due to arts education, but we're sure that our success disproves the theory that the arts are a waste of time."

"Champions of Change" shows that the Healy School's experience was not unique. The researchers found that, nationally, "problem" students often became high achievers when exposed to arts education. "Success in the arts became a bridge to learning and eventual success in other areas of learning," the report notes. "The arts provided a reason, and sometimes the only reason, for being engaged with school or other organizations. These young people would otherwise be left without access to any community of learners."

Chico has been principal at Healy for five years and taught there for 15 years. She recalled that when she came to the school, support for the arts from the Board of Education was, at best, spotty.

"Back then, if you asked for an arts program, they'd say, 'You've got a music teacher, be happy with that,"' she said. "Teaching meant you told the kids to open a book and to close a book."

Deasy, who was then assistant state superintendent of schools in Maryland, reports the same lack of enthusiasm for the arts among educational administrators in the 1970s. "There never was a golden age for arts funding," he said. "But when schools felt the budgetary crunch then, the arts were the first to go."

The CAPE program has been in partnership with Healy School since 1993, operating in a variety of classes. For example, one kindergarten class recently danced its way through the prepositions in a kinetic demonstration of "in," "around," "through" and others. Led by Dennis Wise from the Chicago Moving Company, a professional dance company, and accompanied by taped rhythms from a Nigerian percussionist, the children acted out the linguistic function of prepositions.

Steve Seidel, a Harvard researcher, theorizes: "Kids like making sense of things that aren't immediately obvious."

Seidel examined 10 high schools in which artists from Shakespeare & Company, a Lenox, Mass., professional theater company, offered instruction. Instead of simply reading the text, as English classes traditionally have, each class in the program went over a play, word by word, until they understood it in detail. Then they mounted a 90-minute production of that play.

Seidel reports that the nearly 800 students in that study reported "with virtual unanimity that they developed a strong sense of their own capacities to understand and engage deeply with Shakespeare's plays."

Many of the students also noted that their success with Shakespeare carried over to other complex works of literature and to math and physics as well.