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Taking Note: Arts Education Datasets Go the Distance for This University of Maryland Researcher

Kenneth Elpus was a newly minted doctorate from Northwestern University’s music education program when he learned of a research funding opportunity at the National Endowment for the Arts. Though a choral music educator, he had recently whetted his appetite for statistical analyses of large datasets. With music education professor Carlos Abril (now at University of Miami), he already had published a national demographic profile of high school music students.

“It caught on,” he noted, referring to the article, which appeared in May 2011 in the Journal of Research in Music Education. Subsequently, the “idea of figuring out who we serve and what they look like, in comparison to students who don’t pursue the arts, became this important cornerstone of the work that I do.” The preoccupation has led to Elpus serving as a principal investigator on six research grants from the Arts Endowment, and as a consultant on a seventh. It also drove him to pursue and win a $600,000 research grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences—one of only two awards that emerged from a rare call for proposals the department issued on the topic of “arts in education.”

Now an associate professor of music education at the University of Maryland, Elpus views his first Arts Endowment grant as a crucial milestone in his research career—and in his professional development. “I think when you first have a PhD, it’s very easy to not view yourself as an expert, even though you just finished your dissertation,” he said. “You still have a grad school or grad student mentality…. A lot is very new in your first year as an assistant professor.”

A mentor told Elpus about the research grant opportunity at the Arts Endowment. (Formerly known as “Research: Art Works,” the program is now called “Research Grants in the Arts.” Go here for the application guidelines. Applications are due March 30, 2020.) He said, “Applying for that research really helped me establish myself as a kind of authority” in using secondary datasets to inform the public about demographic characteristics and outcomes associated with arts education in the U.S.

For the 2011 journal article, Elpus and Abril had analyzed data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a sample that permitted them to report, among other things, that one-fifth of the nation’s high school seniors were participating in school music ensembles, according to the most recent wave of the survey. By accessing data so sensitive it requires a research license, Elpus and Abril further concluded that children who were English language learners, Hispanics, or from families with low socioeconomic status, were “significantly underrepresented in music programs across the United States.” More recent analyses have echoed these findings.  

By the time the Arts Endowment funding opportunity rolled around, Elpus had set his sights on another large database—the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (or “Add Health”)—for what it could tell researchers about teenagers receiving an arts education. In particular, the database allowed Elpus to track developmental outcomes associated with those teens.

The Arts Endowment grant “literally enabled that project,” Elpus explained. It supported travel costs so he could perform his analysis at a “secured data enclave,” covered the cost of a data-use agreement, and “started connecting me with a community of likeminded researchers.”

Indeed, at an arts education research conference years later, Elpus found himself presenting results from one of his many Arts Endowment-funded studies. There he met an official with the International Baccalaureate (IB—formerly the International Baccalaureate Organization), and another sort of journey began. The organization, he recalled, was interested in “leveraging their own [administrative] data and doing a global survey of arts teachers in their schools, to help paint a picture of what the on-the-ground reality was,” in terms of how students are served by the arts through the IB diploma program.

This relationship sparked a successful proposal to the U.S. Department of Education in 2018. “Exploring Links Between Arts Education and Academic Outcomes in the International Baccalaureate,” as the study is called, is using IB data to compare the academic achievement of students who took arts courses with the outcomes of students who did not. (The IB database includes over 650,000 U.S. students who took any IB course from 2005 to 2015.)

Elpus and his team are also linking the IB data to National Student Clearinghouse data, to understand the post-secondary outcomes of both types of student. The researchers then will check their findings against Maryland’s state longitudinal data system. Because the IB program offers standardized curricula and testing, moreover, Elpus will have a wealth of data not only about what arts courses the students may have taken, but what they have learned. He will be presenting some of the study results at the International Society for Medical Education conference this August in Helsinki. In a nice bit of symmetry, he’ll be joined on stage by Carlos Abril, with whom he launched his career as an arts education researcher conversant with longitudinal databases.

Click here to browse papers and articles by Elpus that have resulted from Arts Endowment research grants to the University of Maryland and the National Association for Music Education.

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