Taking Note: New Report Highlights Rigorous Evaluations of Arts Education

By Patricia Moore Shaffer, PhD, NEA Deputy Director of Research & Analysis
A coffee mug next to research chart

A growing body of research suggests that arts education can contribute to positive outcomes in childhood and youth development. We know, for instance, that training in classroom drama can strengthen verbal skills, while music training has been found to improve word decoding skills and may facilitate foreign language learning. Studies by James Catterall have found that socioeconomically disadvantaged students who participated in in- and out-of-school arts experiences tended to have higher educational achievement than did similar students with no or less involvement with the arts. Likewise, National Endowment for the Arts research grantee Kenneth Elpus observed that arts students were more likely to apply to college and to attend college two years past high school graduation than were non-arts students.

Despite the groundswell of research activity, too few studies of arts education use the rigorous research designs needed to establish causal evidence of the arts' effects on students. When it comes to education, policymakers, researchers, and schools tend to focus on what is regularly and easily measured: math and reading achievement. In a 2017 report titled Review of Evidence: Arts Integration Research through the Lens of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the American Institutes of Research (AIR) urged better research. According to AIR, only one arts integration intervention met the requirements for the most rigorous tier of evidence identified by ESSA. Of the 44 interventions identified with evidence in one or more of the four ESSA tiers, the majority lacked empirical results from rigorous studies.

All the more reason for welcoming the release of a new U.S. Department of Education report, which focuses on K-12 education projects backed by the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund. Between 2010 and 2016, i3 made awards to local educational agencies and nonprofit organizations to incentivize and create strong evidence on promising strategies in education. To maximize the investment, each grantee was required to fund a rigorous, independent evaluation to document the implementation and outcomes of the projects. The Investing in Innovation Fund: Summary of 67 Evaluations report summarizes findings from the 67 i3 evaluations that were completed by May 2017. Among the evaluated i3 projects are a handful of arts education initiatives.

One i3 initiative featured in the report is Everyday Arts for Special Education (EASE), a project designed to improve the effectiveness of special education teachers through arts-infused professional development. Teachers in New York City’s District 75 participated in a series of training workshops to learn skills and strategies in music, dance, visual arts, and theater as a prelude to integrating the arts into classroom instruction. This professional development program was designed to improve achievement in the areas of communication, socialization, academic learning, and arts proficiency for students with special needs. The evaluation of EASE used a quasi-experimental design, with an additional qualitative component. The study found positive effects in social/emotional learning. Students in EASE classrooms also performed significantly higher on the NY State Alternate Assessment Reading test compared with their peers in non-participating classrooms.

The Arts Achieve: Impacting Student Success in the Arts project, also implemented in New York City, facilitated professional development for arts teachers in more than 40 public schools on the use of balanced assessment, data driven instruction, and the integration of technology. The project was grounded in the theory that if arts teachers participate in sustained and intensive professional development, the quality of their arts instruction will improve and, in turn, students will improve their arts learning. A “cluster” randomized, controlled study examined the impact on Arts Achieve participants. A major finding was that students in the treatment schools made greater gains in their arts achievement than did participating students in the control schools, with statistically significant results during the first two years of the project.

Rigorous evaluation studies such as these help us understand what works in arts education. Which specific approaches have the most positive impact on students? We need more of these studies. Through the Research: Art Works grant category, the National Endowment for the Arts provides competitive funding for research projects that aim to test the causal or inferred-causal impact of the arts on individual or cohort outcomes by using experimental or quasi-experimental design methods appropriate to the proposed research questions. Application guidelines will be posted to the NEA website later this summer.