Impact of Arts Education on College and Career Readiness: Briefing Overview

A recent April 8, 2011, Capitol Hill panel briefing on the impact of arts education on career and college readiness, hosted by the College Board and following Washington, DC’s Arts Advocacy Day 2011, highlighted the importance of the arts in developing the critical 21st century skills students need to become well-rounded, productive individuals who can succeed in college and the workplace. The panel consisted of a variety of arts professionals, who shared observations on how the arts have impacted the students they have worked with, and was moderated by former Senator Bob Kerrey.

Principal Researcher at WolfBrown, Dennie Palmer Wolf, referenced President Obama’s January 2011 call for a “new era of innovation” in the U.S. to emphasize the importance of using the arts to help build the nation’s creative capital so that individuals, communities and families can thrive. She referenced research that has linked higher rates of achievement and high school graduation rates to the arts in schools. For example, a two-year study of 200 New York City high schools showed that schools in the top third of graduation rates had 40 percent more physical spaces dedicated to arts learning and had almost 35 percent more graduates completing three or more arts courses per student than schools in the bottom third.  She also argued that arts education has the largest impact on students from low socio-economic backgrounds, who benefit from the the variety of opportunities and learning styles that engaging in the arts provides.

Ms. Wolf pointed out that arts programs give students the chance to work hard, practice, take on leadership roles (through acting, musical ensembles, etc.) and form habits of mind, such as social and motivational skills, that link to achievement, thereby deepening their understanding and ability to apply knowledge to multiple problems and contexts through an engaging, memorable experience. For example, a 2002 research report from the Arts Education Partnership documented more than 65 distinct relationships between the arts and academic and social outcomes. These relationships include: visual arts instruction and reading readiness; dramatic enactment and conflict resolution skills; traditional dance and nonverbal reasoning; and learning piano and mathematics proficiency.

Other panelists shared their personal experiences with the impact arts education has had on their lives and the lives of those with whom they work. Lea Woods, a K-12 educator from Los Angeles Unified School District, argued that the arts provide a “hook” to engage students, as well as opportunities to teach the core curriculum, such as using math to count actors, submitting essays and writing samples for program work, and learning social and leadership skills through playing in a musical ensemble. Paul Schlacter, a graphic designer at Google, reiterated this point, noting that his current work in graphic design involves a combination of creating art and communicating a message, which required him to use both the “left” and “right” sides of his brain to learn about math, science and different cultures. He emphasized that art allows him to look at things from a variety of perspectives, and the process of making art also permits him to learn from temporary failure in a safe way. Sebastian Ruth, Founder and Artistic Director of Community MusicWorks, echoed Ms. Wood’s comments about finding an artistic ‘hook’ to draw students back to school and on the road to success. His organization embeds a permanent string quartet within his community and provides free after-school education and performance programs that build meaningful long-term relationships between professional musicians, children, and families in urban neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island.  Both Ms. Woods and Mr. Ruth related stories of formerly low performing students who became engaged, motivated, and successful through their participation in the arts.

Panelists urged people to think about the economic impact of dropping out of school for the U.S., its workforce, and its overall global competitiveness. Arts education creates a situation for students, who otherwise are not engaged in learning, to find that ‘hook’ that brings them back into the fold and keeps them interested and productive members of society. By integrating the arts into a school curriculum, schools can create a safe place to practice artistic skills that students can take with them to other areas of their life, and teach creative collaboration among peers - both keys to overall student success.


Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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