Hypothesis: Arts Education Access is a Human Rights Issue

By Sunil Iyengar

“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” — Article 27, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations General Assembly, 1948)

“Across centuries, individuals from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds have employed creativity, imagination, invention, and artistic skill as sources of resilience, healing, connection, growth, and social change. Opportunities to cultivate these skills, however, are not always shared or protected; poverty and systemic racism create opportunity gaps in children’s access to the arts and creative experiences.” — Research on Equity via the Arts in Childhood (REACH) Lab website

Much policy-relevant research, like politics, is local. Even if a study “goes national” at some point, the questions likely originated with researchers and practitioners in a distinct community, who seek to know about factors or interventions affecting a school district, a health care system, or a neighborhood.

Occasionally, though, you find a research program, which—while it may be customized for individual communities—is founded on global assumptions. The Research on Equity via the Arts in Childhood (REACH) Lab at West Chester University is one such entity. Recently, I sat down with the Lab’s co-investigators—Eleanor Brown (of West Chester University), Dennie Palmer Wolf (of WolfBrown), and Steven Holochwost (of WolfBrown and the City University of New York) for a conversation that not only clarified their lofty purpose, but also traced its descent into specific research methods that will be used to work with children whose families struggle with adverse social and economic conditions.

As Wolf told me, “a song doesn’t know social class,” and “learning how to draw a fire engine doesn’t know ethnicity.” This being the case, “who gets to participate” in the arts becomes “a moral question on some level,” Holochwost asserted. “I don’t see how you can really view it otherwise.”

By partnering on REACH—a NEA Research Lab—the three co-investigators are creating synergy and momentum that can be observed in distinct policy arenas. In February, the organization Arts for Learning Maryland (formerly Young Audiences of Maryland) announced receipt of a nearly $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Innovation & Research (EIR) program. The grant will support work by Brown, Wolf, Holochwost, and Prince George’s County Public Schools, to test arts-integrated instruction designed to improve academic performance and socioemotional learning for poverty-affected children in kindergarten through third grade.

Along the way, Brown suggested, “the NEA has had an influential role in saying, ‘yes, this work matters—you know, we do care about using the arts to support children and families impacted by poverty and racism, and we do care about how the arts might influence children’s cognitive and social and emotional development.’” I was delighted to hear this, as one of the objectives of the NEA research awards program is to afford investigators an opportunity to pilot approaches that often go on to become validated by other, larger funders.

Brown previously led two NEA-funded research studies—one about the arts’ contributions to academic readiness among Head Start students, and the other about the arts’ role in reducing poverty-related stress among children from the same preschool, the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. Settlement’s Kaleidoscope arts enrichment program is the locus for these studies. Now, as part of REACH, she and her team are studying the impact of Kaleidoscope music classes on neurophysiological functioning and self-regulation in early childhood.

“Arts programming is not going to erase the impact of poverty or racism, but we do have evidence that high-quality, early childhood music programming can counter some of the toxic effects of adversity on young children,” Brown explained. “Yet there are these questions about how we can fully realize that potential—how can we provide high-quality arts and music experiences? What types of experiences” and how might they be optimized?

Music-related play and music education are central to two other studies at the REACH Lab. Wolf is building on prior research with Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project, which brings pregnant or new mothers from vulnerable communities together with professional artists to write and sing lullabies. The new research looks at child and family development outcomes, including self-regulation, communication and expression, and the ability to play together.

A third line of research being undertaken by REACH is in partnership with Play on Philly, a music education organization. Steven Holochwost will examine whether and how the organization’s Tuning the Heart Strings program affects activity in children’s parasympathetic nervous systems, thereby improving executive function.

“The impact of music on self-regulation,” as “transmitted or carried by changes in children’s neurophysiological function, [is] a theme running through our research,” Brown noted in our chat. “If music is having a positive effect on children’s self-regulatory outcomes, to what extent can we map that impact” and, by doing so, “identify the active key ingredients in the programming that are promoting positive neurophysiological pathways.”

Wolf framed the theme as a slightly different question. “What are the micro-moments inside of singing together [and] moving together that are about self and other regulation?” she asked, adding: “We often talk about what we could do for caregiving [or] parenting skills, but I’m increasingly interested in what are young children learning about their capacity to share—to offer to be a source of delight.”

This emphasis on latent strengths or hidden assets among children from high-poverty neighborhoods is a refreshing focus for the Lab’s co-investigators. “As a field, some of our efforts to promote equity still reflect a deficit model,” Brown offered. “Even when we consider how the arts can be used, sometimes what we’re thinking about is how can we mitigate effects of poverty and racism, how can we help to fill gaps that are left by insufficient resources.”

“There’s a place for that,” she acknowledged, “but I think we all are also interested in the ways that children and families from groups that have been historically marginalized…have used the arts to promote resilience in the face of adversity, and how can we build on those existing child and family and community strengths.”

After all, “the arts are really a way not just to address deficits but to build on strengths to promote children’s flourishing,” Brown said. “I see that as a future direction for our field; I think we all do.”

Sunil Iyengar is the Director of the NEA Office of Research and Analysis.


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