highlights from key national research on arts education

Champions of Change: Studies

Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: General Involvement and Intensive Involvement in Music and Theater Arts

James S. Catterall, Richard Chapleau and John Iwanaga
The Imagination Project, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies
University of California at Los Angeles, September 1999

Researchers used U.S. Department of Education data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS:88) which has followed 25,000 students nationwide from 8th grade through 12th grade.

The work examines involvement in the arts generally—across all disciplines and then it examines the potential importance of sustained involvement in a single discipline. Involvement in instrumental music and the theater arts are examined specifically.

The researchers summarized their findings generally as:

  1. "Involvement in the arts and academic success. Positive academic developments for children engaged in the arts are seen at each step in the research—between 8th and 10th grade as well as between 10th and 12th grade. The comparative gains for arts-involved youngsters generally become more pronounced over time. Moreover and more important, these patterns also hold for children from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds."
  2. "Music and mathematics achievement. Students who report consistent high levels of involvement in instrumental music over the middle and high school years show significantly higher levels of mathematics proficiency by grade 12. This observation holds both generally and for low SES students as a subgroup. In addition, absolute differences in measured mathematics proficiency between students consistently involved versus not involved in instrumental music grow significantly over time."
  3. "Theater arts and human development. Sustained student involvement in theater arts (acting in plays and musicals, participating in drama clubs, and taking acting lessons) associates with a variety of developments for youth: gains in reading proficiency, gains in self concept and motivation, and higher levels of empathy and tolerance for others. Our analyses of theater arts were undertaken for low SES youth only. Our presumption was that more advantaged youngsters would be more likely to be involved in theater and drama because of attendance at more affluent school and because of parental ability to afford theater opportunities in the community or private sectors."

Some of the specific findings from the report include:

  • A co-relationship between high involvement in the arts and better academic scores was found among all students and remained consistent when the students studied were selected only from the lowest socioeconomic quartile. Socioeconomic status (SES) takes into account parental income and education levels and has long been known to be the most significant predictor of academic performance. High SES students would be expected to have both greater involvement in the arts and better academic performance, making the relationship seen here between the two not startling. However, by comparing low SES students with other low SES students, the relationship between high arts involvement and better academic performance could be tested without SES affecting the results.

    In the low SES group, significant differences were found between the academic achievement of high arts-involved students and low arts-involved students as measured by standardized tests and reading proficiency measures. For instance, 30.9 percent of 12th grade, low SES, high arts-involved students scored in the top half on the standardized tests which combined math and verbal achievement. Only 23.4 percent of their low arts-involved peers (12th grade, low SES) did so. For achievement in high levels of reading proficiency the percentages are 37.9 percent for the high arts-involved students (12th grade, low SES) and 30.4 percent for the low arts involved (12th grade, low SES).
  • The levels of academic achievement recorded by high arts-involved students in the lowest socioeconomic (SES) quartile narrows the gap that they have with higher SES students. 12th grade, low SES, high arts-involved students nearly close the achievement gap in reading proficiency with higher SES, low arts-involved 12th graders (37.9 percent reaching high levels of reading proficiency versus 42.9 percent respectively).
  • Drop-out rates are co-related to levels of arts-involvement among all students, even when controlled for socioeconomic status (SES) and high arts-involved, low SES students close the drop-out gap with higher SES but low arts-involved students. Low SES students in general have a higher drop-out rate than higher SES students but 3.5 percent of low SES, high arts-involved 8th graders studied dropped out by the 10th grade whereas 3.7 percent of higher SES but low arts-involved 8th graders dropped out by the 10th grade.
  • A high level of involvement in instrumental music co-related to high achievement in math proficiency.  This held true among all students and among those students in the lowest socio-economic (SES) quartile. More than twice as many 12th grade, high music-involved, low SES students performed at high levels of math proficiency as non music-involved, low SES 12th grade students.

    Instrumental music involvement also related to high-music, low SES students closing the math achievement gap with higher SES students. In 8th grade, high-music, low SES students closed the expected achievement gap that low SES students would usually have with the average student. By 12th grade the high-music, low SES students had pulled significantly ahead of the average student in math proficiency (33.1 percent to 21.3 percent).
  • High level of involvement in theater co-related to high levels of achievement in reading proficiency. Low socio-economic status (SES) students highly involved in theater outscored the low SES students who were not involved in theater in reading proficiency. The 9 percent advantage of high-theater involved 8th graders grows to a 20 percent advantage by 12th grade.
  • High levels of arts involvement co-related to the number of hours students watched television. 10th grade students in the top quartile of arts involvement watched less television than those students in the bottom quartile of arts involvement. 28.2 percent of the high-arts students watched one hour or less of television on weekdays contrasted to 15.1 percent of the low-arts students. Only 20.6 percent of the high-arts students watched three hours or more of television on weekdays contrasted to 34.9 percent of low-arts students.

Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: General Involvement and Intensive Involvement in Music and Theater Arts is one of seven major studies compiled in Champions of Change produced by the national Arts Education Partnership, the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the GE Fund, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.