Making the Case for Mainstreaming Arts Education

Development Associate Olivia Harris takes a long look at the literature and research about arts education to make an argument for the inclusion of arts-based learning in schools.

The social media sphere is happily abuzz with the news that the Grammy Awards will recognize music teachers next year.  This is a huge opportunity to put arts education front and center, garner a lot of national attention, and publicly thank some hard working arts and music educators.

Did I mention the national attention?  That is a much-needed boost for so many arts educators and arts outreach/education organizations, like this one, that seem to toil on the fringes.  By that, I do not mean that the work is small-scale, but rather that it does not get central support.  STEAM and other models that integrate arts into the classroom have gotten more attention in the press, online, and from policy makers in recent years, but these models are still not mainstream.

Now seems a particularly good time to make our case for arts and for creative learning.  You can read AFA’s November post on nonprofit organizations to learn more about our thoughts on supporting these groups, but today we focus on what we can prove that arts integration does for students.  I am not a scientist, so I am using others’ research. Please do follow the links to read more.

Steven Ross Pomeroy of Scientific American, wroteBy teaching the arts, we can have our cake and eat it, too…. Several studies from the [2008 Dana Arts and Education Consortium] report correlated training in the arts to improvements in math and reading scores, while others showed that arts boost attention, cognition, working memory, and reading fluency.” (emphasis added)  Mr. Pomeroy’s argument in the rest of the article is that integrating arts into the classroom will boost American prosperity in the math, science, and technology sectors.

He is right: by teaching creative skills and with creative methods, arts education helps to build neural pathways that create problem-solving skills.  The arts have been shown to improve long-term memory, brain plasticity, self-control, language and self-expression skills, collaboration, critical and creative thinking, and more.  These ideas are not new – Americans for the Arts has long said that children involved in the arts are over 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement.  In addition, there are recent studies that show arts education improves math and science SAT scores and builds what have been called 21st century skills and human capital.  If you want to know more about human capital, brain plasticity, and 21st century skills, you can just Google them!  The information is out there.

These are all the qualities that employers look for in their employees, and will continue to look for as the job sector changes.  The American economy is always seeking new qualities in the workforce.  We must teach the arts to help make our children employable in all sectors, and build the creative tools that youth need to enter the world as informed and engaged citizens (see this February editorial in The Ithican).

Edutopia’s Mariko Nobori uses a case study of an arts integration school to argue that we need whole-school reform to engage students in this type of learning.  This does not mean education only for artists.  The goal of arts education is not necessarily to create the next generation of artists: it is to integrate the arts into the science, math, English, social studies, and other classrooms to provide all students with cognitive benefits.  We need to start to see the arts as a skill-building model of education that can be utilized in every classroom.

Harvard Professor Jeremy Kagan said it best in his Keynote at the Dana Consortium conference, “The argument for arts and music in the curric­ulum does not have to be sentimental, but can rest on pragmatic grounds. Americans reserve their respect for pragmatic products and associated skills that make money, cure disease, or permit a gain in status, and believe that art and music are luxuries with no useful consequences. However, if an arts program helped only one-half of the seven million children who are behind in reading and arithmetic by providing them with a sense of pride and the belief that they might have some talent, the high school dropout rate would fall. This program might also help children gain a richer appreciation of their emotional life and what it means to be human.” (emphasis added)

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