Saturday, April 22, 2000

Arts education

Classes broaden horizons

        Pablo Picasso said every child is born an artist. Indeed, one of the most wonderful qualities of children is their bold confidence in their artistic abilities.

        No 3-year-old says, “Sorry, I can't carry a tune.” Every first-grader believes himself supremely able to draw Mom, the moon or himself.

        This, at essence, is why arts education is important. It feeds a hunger deep inside children.

        It puts them into what educators call “the flow,” where they lose track of hunger, fatigue and time. It allows them to express themselves, interact with their world and act upon it. That should be enough.

        But being as we are, an achievement-oriented people living in the Age of Accountability, we want to know specifics about the arts' impact on learning.

        A 10-year study of 25,000 American junior high and high-school students by the U.S. Department of Education is yielding some powerful answers. Analyzed by a team of UCLA researchers, the National Educational Longitudinal Survey shows that students involved in the arts score significantly higher in math and reading than do “low-arts” students.

        The gains are as great for low-income students as for high-income students, and increase over time for both groups.

        In general, arts students scored 16 to 18 percentage points above their non-arts classmates. The math advantages are the most profound, apparently linked to the study of music, and especially to keyboard training.

        Students benefit from learning the fractional relationships among whole and half notes, for example, and what researchers call the “geometry of music,” which results in differences of pitch. Music students constantly use symbols, follow patterns, count beats and understand such abstract concepts as rhythm and time.

        The reading gains were linked to involvement in theater. Clearly, students drawn to theater may have started out as more enthusiastic readers, but the gains still grow stronger over time. In eighth grade, 9 percent more of the theatrically active students scored at “high proficiency” on standardized reading tests than did their non-active peers. By grade 12, the number had risen to 20 percent.

        But the gains for arts students extend beyond test scores. A 10-year study by Teachers College, Columbia University, showed that high-arts students were better able to express their ideas, use their imagination and take risks in learning than their low-arts peers. They scored higher on measures of creative thinking, and their teachers rated them as more cooperative, more confident and, not surprisingly, more artistic.

        On one hand, these results are finally sinking in. In the last 20 years, the number of states mandating the study of the arts for graduation has risen from two to 32, and 14 more are poised to adopt arts standards, according to the National Arts Education Association.

        Still, spending on the arts makes up a measly 6 percent of elementary- and secondary-school budgets. And low-income students, who often lack arts opportunities at home, are the most likely to go to schools where arts programs are being cut to the bone. It's a shame.

        Good science and good instinct meet in happy confluence on this point: The arts are just what our children need.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at the Enquirer, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202.