Quick Study: February 16, 2023

Jo Reed: Welcome to “Quick Study,” the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts.  This is where we’ll show stats and stories to help us better the value of art in everyday life.  Sunil Iyengar is the pilot of “Quick Study.”  He’s the Director of Research & Analysis here at the Arts Endowment.  Hello, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Hi, Jo.

Jo Reed: What’s on the docket for today?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.  So Jo, in one of these episodes I began by saying that I’d taken piano lessons at a young age, only to later drop them, to my parents’ chagrin, and ultimately my own.  What I may not have mentioned though is that this transition from taking piano lessons to not taking them happened when I was leaving eighth grade and about to enter high school.  I know.  Hardly a major revelation, and who really cares? <laughs> Still, I just got a kick out of a research paper I was reading the other day where the entire focus is on understanding what are some reasons children stop learning music at just that point in their lives, between eighth and ninth grade?  You know, actually, as it happens, for many years now among music educators there’s been a question about persistence.  What makes some children more likely to continue lessons or training in music versus other children once they select into these opportunities?

Jo Reed: Well, wouldn’t it be natural to assume that the decision to take music classes in school is based largely on the economics of the school district, the kids living there?  I mean, just--

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.

Jo Reed: --having access?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, and, you know, I would’ve thought so too, and surely that plays a factor, and in fact the authors of this study write that based on the literature students who initially enroll in music classes in school are more likely to be from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds than students who are not, and that stands to reason and we see this all the time with data.  By the way, they also tend to be more white and often female, and they have higher GPAs and test scores than students who are not enrolled in such classes on average.  But remember, here for this study we’re talking not only about the decision to enroll in such classes or programs in the first place but really the choice to persist in them from middle school to high school.

Jo Reed: Okay, got it.  So this study wants to discover what makes some children go on with their music from eighth grade to ninth grade and what makes others drop it?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.

Jo Reed: So what did the study find?

Sunil Iyengar: Well, so first of all, rather confirming those fears I mentioned earlier among music educators, the majority of students who had taken music in eighth grade dropped music upon entering high school.  Only 24.5 percent, that’s one in four students, persisted in some type of music education in ninth grade after eighth grade.  So for chorus, orchestra or band, or, you know, for each of these types of music, between 20 and 22 percent persisted, while for guitar instruction, you know, which some schools offer, it was lower, 12 percent.  But now, admittedly among students who had taken more than one music activity in eighth grade, over 30 percent persisted by taking at least one music activity in ninth grade.  But Jo, the kicker really is that <laughs> what the researchers found to be the most significant predictors of music persistence among these students.  So previous research has shown that a multitude of demographic and socioeconomic factors affect, as I said, whether students are likely to opt into music education in the first place if it’s offered, but this study suggests that students’ decisions to persist in music training is less reliant on factors such as ethnicity, gender, poverty status or whether the student is deemed gifted or has been even held back a year.

Jo Reed: Okay.  Before we get into those findings, which I think it will be fascinating, can we just backtrack for a moment and tell me just a little bit about the study itself?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.  Yes, for sure.  So the paper is by Tevis Tucker and Adam Winsler.  Adam, from George Mason University, is the co-investigator of one of our NEA research labs which supported this work.  It appeared in last fall’s issue of the Journal of Research and Music Education.  So just to continue the background, the study included 189 schools, a database with 189 schools with music students fairly evenly split by gender, though they were mostly non-white or Hispanic.  Also, most students were in poverty, with 77 percent receiving free or reduced-priced lunches in eighth grade.  So for their study, tucker and Winsler looked at a host of different variables for these students based on whether they chose to join a music class or program upon entering high school, and these factors included demographic characteristics such as gender, race and ethnicity, school readiness as measured by standard assessments and academic achievement as measured by grades.  So they looked at all these factors.

Jo Reed: But what’s interesting is you said the study suggests that the students’ decisions to persist in music is less reliant on those factors.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.  Yes, but--

Jo Reed: So what are the factors? <laughs>

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.  So many of those factors, like race, ethnicity, kind of didn’t seem to make a difference, and some of the other school readiness factors, but they did find some academic achievement factors to be very highly correlated with music persistence from eighth grade to ninth grade.  So in fact only GPA, reading and math scores were among the academic achievement factors they found to be really highly correlated with whether people went on to ninth grade, but they also found-- this is interesting-- disability.  Students with disability who were in music classes in eighth grade were more likely to go ahead and continue in ninth grade than other music students.  So we looked at the academic side of things, GPA, reading and math scores, the researchers found, for example, that a 1-point increase in GPA improved the odds that a student would persist in music from middle to high school by 25 percent.  So you ask, you know, “Why do music students who are more academically accomplished in eighth grade carry on with music when they go on to ninth grade?”

Jo Reed: Yes, I am asking.

Sunil Iyengar: <laughs> I just anticipated your question.  So among reasons that have been kind of hypothesized is that academically accomplished students have habits of mind that enable them to thrive in other learning environments such as a practice room or rehearsal hall, or that the cognitive skills they use in math and reading or reinforced by their music training experiences.  Plus, the fact that they’ve been doing well academically before joining ninth grade may embolden them to feel they can stick with music electives while maintaining their GPAs.  But to me it’s far more interesting that 8th grade students with disabilities who were enrolled in music carried this tendency into ninth grade.  So consider this from the study.  After controlling for academic achievement, music students with disabilities had a 36 percent greater odds of persisting in music than their peers without disabilities.

 Jo Reed: Were the researchers able to draw any conclusions about why this might be?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.  The researchers suggest it could be because eighth grade music students with disabilities find music classes or extracurriculars to be a welcome environment and that they hold onto them for assurance as they may face greater challenges than usual in adjusting to high school.  That’s just one idea.  But more broadly, the researchers say that the study itself provides assurance or reassurance of still another type.  That is even though there are many barriers to student entry into music classes, whether demographic or socioeconomic barriers, there are relatively smaller number of barriers for students who are already in music to stick with it into high school.  It’s as if once you clear the hurdle for getting music education despite larger systemic disparities, once you’re in it may be easier to ride it out.  As the authors say, the fact that students are not, quote, “being systematically pushed out of music disproportionately once in” is reassuring.

Jo Reed: I guess that is some comfort for music educators.


Jo Reed: Does the study land on any recommendations for that?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, that’s what this is really all about.  The authors are good at making a distinction between the types of student engagement that’s required, on the one hand to recruit students into music education in the first place, and on the other hand to keep them there, you know, the kinds of best practices that might be used there.  They say that specific strategies around retention should be a more active force within music education, and they refer to some literature on the subject, which I won’t <laughs> attempt to summarize here.  Instead I’ll note that, quote, “The experience within each music classroom should first and foremost be catered toward fostering a love and appreciation for music,” this is from the article, “not just, for example, proficiency in one’s major skills,” end quote.  So <laughs> -

 --back to my own reason for quitting piano lessons before ninth grade, that may have been the problem.  Too much emphasis on practicing my skills.  Not to blame poor Mrs. Cheatham if you’re out-- listening out there, my former eighth grade music teacher.  Just sayin’.

Jo Reed: <laughs> Gosh, I hear that, Sunil.  I really do.  Well, thank you, and it’s a pleasure as always.

Sunil Iyengar: Thank you.  It’s a very specific subject, but I thought you’d be interested.

Jo Reed: I am interested.  Thank you.  That was Sunil Iyengar.  He’s the Director of Research & Analysis here at the Arts Endowment.  This has been “Quick Study.”  The music is “We Are One” from Scott Holmes Music.  It’s licensed through Creative Commons.  Until next month, I’m Josephine Reed.  Thanks for listening.

This episode of Quick Study looks at a study identifying factors that predispose 8th-graders to persist with music education when they enter high school.