Can Arts Education Help Close the Achievement Gap?

By Julianne Nava

A recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) suggests that arts education can help narrow the achievement gap that exists between low-income students and their more advantaged peers. But new data from the federal government suggests that low-income students are less likely to have access to arts education than their higher-income peers. 

Certainly arts education is important for its own sake. But in a time of tough budget choices, arts education advocates must speak to its tangible benefits, which the NEA report clearly does. By nearly every indicator studied, a student from a low-socioeconomic (SES) background with a high-arts educational experience significantly outperformed peers from a low-arts, low-SES background, closing (and in some cases eliminating) the gap that often appears between low-SES students and their more advantaged peers.

And not just the standardized test score gap. The report does show that low-SES eighth grade students who have a history of high arts engagement have higher science and writing scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than those who do not. Such high school students had better GPAs than their low-arts, low-SES peers (and in some instances, than all students). But I was more impressed with some of the other outcomes the study showed. Consider:

  • High-arts, low-SES students were more likely to graduate than low-arts, low-SES students – and all students
    • Only 4% of high-arts, low-SES students did not graduate from high school, compared to 22% of low-arts, low-SES students – and 7% of students overall (though the latter difference does not appear to be statistically significant)
  • High-arts, low-SES students were more likely to attend college than low-arts, low-SES students
    • 71% of high-arts, low-SES students attended college after high school, compared to 48% of low-arts, low-SES students
  • High-arts, low-SES students were more likely to finish college than low-arts, low-SES students
    • 18% of high-arts, low-SES students who started college achieved a bachelor’s degree, compared to 6% of low-arts, low-SES students
    • 24% of high-arts, low-SES students who started college achieved an associate’s degree, compared to 10% of low-arts, low-SES students
  • High-arts, low-SES students were more likely to register to vote than low-arts, low-SES students – and all students
    • 78% of high-arts, low-SES students registered to vote, compared to 67% of low-arts, low-SES students – and 76% of all students (though the latter difference was not statistically significant)

The benefits of arts education were not exclusive to low-SES students. There were significant improvements in civic engagement in both high- and low-SES students with high-arts experiences.

Of course, this study showed correlation, not causation, on all these results. Yet it is encouraging that the benefits of high-arts environments appear especially strong for disadvantaged students, offering a possible strategy that schools can use to address their achievement gaps.

Which is one reason that the new data from the US Department of Education is disappointing. While I haven’t fully dissected the report, the Secretary himself pointed out that it was a "good news, bad news story." The good news: It appears that the arts curriculum has not narrowed as dramatically as feared in the wake of No Child Left Behind and a culture that judges educational quality on standardized reading and math scores. Compared to a decade ago, both music and visual arts classes are still widely offered. However, the percentage of both elementary and high schools offering visual arts has decreased a bit. And as Education Week’s Erik Robelen points out, dance and drama at the elementary level “have all but disappeared.”

But the most disturbing aspect of the data was the differences it revealed in the arts education available to students based on the wealth of their peers. Some of the discrepancies have improved over time – for example, Robelen points out that while currently 95% of low-poverty elementary schools offer weekly music instruction compared to 93% of high-poverty elementary schools, just a decade ago it was 95% to 82%. However, others gaps are widening. In the 1999-2000 school year, 100% of high-poverty secondary schools offered music, but just 81% did in the 2008-09 school year. Ninety-three percent of high-poverty secondary schools offered visual arts in 1999-2000; just 80% did in 2008-09. 

And unaddressed in these data are issues of quality, though I might offer a guess based on some of the findings. For example, just 59% of high-poverty elementary schools have a dedicated room with special equipment as the primary space for visual arts instruction, compared to 76% of low-poverty elementary schools. It may be that a school with a dedicated arts room can offer higher-quality lessons in painting, ceramics and the other visual arts than one where a teacher must carry supplies from room to room and perhaps lacks easy access to water for clean-up and adequate storage space for completed projects.

The overall message I took from these two reports: As a group, the students most likely to benefit from an arts-rich educational experience are less likely to get it. And that needs to change.   

Image by Lambtron (talk)Lambtron at en.wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by Editor at Large at en.wikipedia. [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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