Quantifying the benefits of arts education

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

We all hear the stories, or have experiences ourselves or with children: how learning to play an instrument, or appearing in a play, or creating something beautiful from scratch, keeps students on the path to graduation and improves their attitude and well-being.

It has long been understood that the arts are among the "protective factors" that can shield young people from debilitating effects of trauma. Yet, while arts are taken for granted as a core part of the curriculum in well-funded schools, that’s not true in districts such as Philadelphia that are strapped for cash, even though generally they are the ones for which poverty and trauma wreak their havoc. In those districts, under pressure to raise test scores, nonmandated and nontested subjects often become expendable.

That is true in Philadelphia, where art and music teacher positions were slashed in the depths of the budget crisis and have still not been restored to all schools.

The William Penn Foundation, which has missions to promote both great learning and creative communities, commissioned a study to move beyond the anecdotal and see if and how students benefited from being involved in some of its grantee arts programs. It released the results at a conference on Wednesday.

The research by WolfBrown, working with Johns Hopkins University, showed that participating in the arts help students develop traits that contribute to later success in life. Younger students especially showed measurable growth in characteristics like tolerance for other points of view, an understanding that hard work can develop their knowledge and abilities, and their motivation to achieve.

The researchers also found that students who started out highly engaged in school and more emotionally mature retained these scores if they received arts education. But students who scored as high in the beginning who did not participate in arts programming showed a significant decline in their engagement.

Another finding, not surprisingly, is that students became more interested in the arts once they were exposed to them.

"We should regard an education without the arts as incomplete," said the report. One of its authors, Steven Holochwost, went further. Citing his own and other studies that point at the arts’ ability to impact math and literacy achievement and school success, he said, "Who has access to the arts has a moral dimension. If it affects cognitive function, can we continue to accept distributing this access in an uneven fashion to children according to income?"

Another study by Dr. Eleanor Brown, a professor of psychology at West Chester University, showed how involvement in the arts can actually change brain chemistry.

Several times a day, after various kinds of activities, Brown and her associates measured the levels of cortisol in more than 300 preschool students. Cortisol is a hormone that goes up and down with stress. The researchers found that the cortisol levels were at their lower for children after doing arts, musid and dance activities than after homeroom.

"Arts have a key role to play to address challenges of poverty and racism, and to promote equity" in education, Brown said.

At the end, students from the afterschool program PlayOn, in which childdren learn musical instruments and perform in ensembles, serenaded the conference with a medley of John Williams film scores.

"Art for the poor can’t be poor art," said Stanford Thompson, founder of PlayOn. Thompson said he grew up the child of music educators who insisted on frequent practice and perseverence.

"Music didn’t make me smarter, but gave me a set of skills that were important."