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James Catteralls analysis of the Department of Educations NELS:88 database of 25,000 students demonstrates that students with high levels of arts participation outperform arts-poor students by virtually every measure. Since arts participation is highly correlated with socioeconomic status, which is the most significant predictor of academic performance, this comes as little surprise. The size and diversity of the NELS database, however, permitted Catterall to find statistical significance in comparisons of high and low arts participants in the lowest socioeconomic segments. This closer look showed that high arts participation makes a more significant difference to students from low-income backgrounds than for high-income students. Catterall also found clear evidence that sustained involvement in particular art formsmusic and theaterare highly correlated with success in mathematics and reading.
These findings are enriched by comparisons of student achievement in 14 high-poverty schools in which the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) has developed innovative arts-integrated curricula. The inspiring turnaround of this large and deeply troubled school district is one of the important education stories of this decade. Schools across Chicago, including all those in this 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.
Schools are not the only venue in which young people grow, learn, and achieve. Shirley Brice Heath spent a decade studying dozens of after-school programs for disadvantaged youth. These programs were broadly clustered into three categoriessports/academic, community involvement, and the arts. This research shows that the youth in all these programs were doing better in school and in their personal lives than were young people from the same socioeconomic categories, as tracked by NELS:88.
To the researchers surprise, however, the youth in the arts programs were doing the best. Skeptical about this finding, Heath and her colleagues looked more closely at the arts programs and the youth participating in them. Although the youth in the arts programs were actually at greater risk than those in the other programs, the researchers found that characteristics particular to the arts made those programs more effective. They now believe that a combination of roles, risks, and rules offered in the arts programs had a greater impact on these young lives.
Another broad theme emerges from the individual Champions of Change research findings: the arts no longer need to be characterized solely by either their ability to promote learning in specific arts disciplines or by their ability to promote learning in other disciplines. These studies suggest a more dynamic, less either-or model for the arts and overall learning that has more of the appearance of a rotary with entrances and exits than of a linear one-way street.
This rotary of learning provides the greater access to higher levels of achievement. Learning in and Through the Arts (LITA) and other Champions of Change studies found much evidence that learning in the arts has significant effects on learning in other domains. LITA suggests a dynamic model in which learning in one domain supports and stimulates learning in others, which in turn supports and stimulates learning in a complex web of influence described as a constellation. LITA and the other researchers provide compelling evidence that student achievement is heightened in an environment with high quality arts education offerings and a school climate supportive of active and productive learning.
Why the Arts Change the Learning Experience
While learning in other disciplines may often focus on development of a single skill or talent, the arts regularly engage multiple skills and abilities. Engagement in the artswhether the visual arts, dance, music, theatre or other disciplinesnurtures the development of cognitive, social, and personal competencies. Although the Champions of Change researchers conducted their investigations and presented their findings independently, a remarkable consensus exists among their findings:
The arts reach students who are not otherwise being reached.
The arts reach students in ways that they are not otherwise being reached.
The arts connect students to themselves and each other.
The arts transform the environment for learning.
The arts provide learning opportunities for the adults in the lives of young people.
The arts provide new challenges for those students already considered successful.
The arts connect learning experiences to the world of real work.
A company is a company, whether producing an opera or a breakthrough technological service.
How the Arts Change the Learning Experience
Education reformers and researchers have learned a great deal about what works in recent years. In examining the work of Shakespeare & Company, Steve Seidel cites the general characteristics of project-based learning as factors that also support effective arts learning. In Real Learning, Real Work, author Adria Steinberg identifies six elements that are critical to the design of project-based learning: authenticity, academic rigor, applied learning, active exploration, adult relationships, and assessment practices. Seidel also emphasizes that the best assessment of a persons understanding is a product that puts that understanding to work. Learning is deepest when learners have the capacity to represent what they have learned, and the multiple disciplines of the arts all provide modes of representation.
The quality arts learning experiences described by the Champions of Change researchers regularly contain these project-based learning elements. The best programs display them in great breadth and depth. To be effective, the arts learning experience will also
Enable young people to have direct involvement with the arts and artists.
Require significant staff development.
Support extended engagement in the artistic process.
Encourage self-directed learning.
Promote complexity in the learning experience.
Allow management of risk by the learners.
Engage community leaders and resources.
Policy Implications of the Champions of Change Research
For example, if we now know that arts experiences help level the educational playing field for disadvantaged students, as revealed by James Catterall, then we need to bring more proven arts learning resources to these students. If arts learning can help energize or re-energize the teaching workforce, as described by Steve Seidel, then we must look to the arts both as a vehicle for preparing entrants to the teaching profession and as a means of supporting its more-experienced members. Looking beyond classrooms, Shirley Brice Heath found the profound impact the arts can have on learning for youth outside school settings. If this is so, we must expand quality arts learning programs outside of schools as well.
In the CAPE model, the researchers find that arts learning can have a defined impact on the academic performance of students in an urban setting. If well-constructed partnerships between school and arts organizations can increase student achievement, then such partnerships must be nurtured and replicated. In another urban program, ArtsConnection researchers define the role of the arts in enabling students to overcome obstacles to success; again, such experiences should be made more widely available. Researcher Dennie Palmer Wolf describes the impact of group versus individual learning generated through a collaborative arts experience. For this approach to grow, a more serious commitment to developing communities of arts learners, rather than just opportunities for stars, is required. If sustained, integrated, and complex projects, like producing an opera, a Shakespeare production, or a visual arts exhibition, significantly deepen the learning process, as these studies suggest, then school schedules must also be modified to make such experiences possible.
The findings of the individual research studies are worthy of the readers careful review.
We owe a great debt to these researchers for their diligence and insights; we can only repay this debt by heeding their words and seeking systemic ways to make the arts a meaningful part of every American childs life. Together, we can make the everyday learning experiences of young Americans less ordinary and more extraordinary.
Similarly, the experiences we offer too many young people outside of school are often limited in their purpose and resulting impact. They provide recreation, but no sense of creation. They provide recess, but no sense of success. Arts learning outside of schools can also enhance the sense of accomplishment and well-being among our young people.
This research provides compelling evidence that the arts can and do serve as champions of change in learning. Yet realizing the full potential of learning in and through the arts for all American children will require heroic acts from all segments of our society. With the 21st century now upon us, we, too, must be champions of change; we must meet and exceed the challenge of giving our young people the best possible preparation we can offer them. To do so, we must make involvement with the arts a basic part of their learning experiences. In doing so, we will become champions for our children and their children.
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