Quick Study: June 22, 2021

Jo Reed: Welcome to Quick Study, the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts.  This is where we’ll share stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life.  And I'm co-piloting Quick Study with Sunil Iyengar.  He’s the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment.  Hey, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Hey, Jo.  How’s it going?

Jo Reed: Pretty well, pretty well.  Listen, I know today you wanted to talk about a recent study called the Arts Advantage and it’s about the impact of arts education on Boston students.  Why don’t we begin with who conducted the study and what were they looking at?

Sunil Iyengar: Yes.  Researchers from the Texas A&M University and University of Missouri actually teamed up with the Boston Public School System, the entire school system and they also brought in a bunch of other arts organizations, local foundations, and even worked with the Boston Mayor’s mayor office to learn whether sustained access to arts education, this is K-12 arts education could improve social, emotional, and academic outcomes of students.  They also wanted to understand how K-12 arts education affected parent and teacher perspectives about the school as a place to learn.

Jo Reed: A couple of questions about process.  Were they able to track students over time?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.  That’s what’s great about the study.  There’s actually not much data that is out there that’s longitudinal.  But this study tracked not only what happened to those kids who had participated in arts education versus those who didn’t, but it also looked at outcomes for the same students over time.  So in other words this allowed researchers to understand how taking arts education affected student outcomes at particular points in their lives compared to when they didn’t take arts courses.

Jo Reed: And what about diversity?  Were they able to look at a real cross-section of students of diverse populations including racial, but also economic diversity?

Sunil Iyengar: That’s a great question.  Many studies of arts education right now are hampered by the difficulty of tracking students over multiple years, and actually getting those large and diverse student populations so we can know how different groups react to the programs we’re studying.  For example, it’s common for the most resourced to schools, those in high income neighborhoods often have more arts education offerings.  And so you could say that the students there already have an advantage and that may be their access to the arts education is just one part of their advantage.  But what this research team did, and this is Daniel Bowen and Brian Kisida had access to school records and surveys for more than 600,000 students that covered a period of about 11 years.  This was a student group where 41 percent were Hispanic, 36 percent were African-American.  Nearly 30 percent of these kids were English-language learners.  And 76 percent of these students came from economically disadvantaged households.  And also, just to let you know the data included about 171 public schools.

Jo Reed: Before we go on to the findings you know I interviewed Brian back in 2014 about another study he conducted I think it was in Arkansas. And he wrote about it in the New York Times with this catchy title, “Arts Makes You Smart”.  So I wonder what this study uncovered.

Sunil Iyengar: Well, this study actually found positive effects on student attendance.  So when enrolled in arts courses students who otherwise were chronically absent were seen to attend school for one additional day compared to when they were not enrolled in arts courses.  That doesn’t mean that that additional day was in the arts.  The point is that their overall attendance was improved.  Another way of thinking about this is that if you have a classroom of about 25 students’ arts’ education translated to nine more days of instruction per teacher.  Another big indicator was not just attendance but school engagement.  Now, this was true for both students and parents. It seemed to have gone up including sense of student belonging and engagement with learning as these kids continue to take arts courses.  For middle schoolers there were increases in test scores, in fact, for English language arts and math, but it was particularly strong for English language arts as a course.  So, you know, there’s some academic improvement but definitely seems to be through the data school engagement and student attendance improvement. 

Jo Reed: What about outside the classroom?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, outside the classroom is interesting not so much from this study per se.  But the previous studies by this very duo Bowen and Kisida, and in fact, the study we’ve supported as the NEA they looked at issues like compassion and empathy and sort of psychological constructs-- you know, those psychological constructs.  And they saw that school engagement but even values like compassion and empathy were observed to have increased in this large study. And this was done down in Houston with support from the NEA as I said.  But it was a study that tracked outcomes from Houston’s arts access initiative, again dealing with a large school district there, the Houston Independent school district.  And that was a randomized controlled trial which is often considered a gold standard in research methodologies covering over 10,000 third to eighth graders across 42 schools. 

Jo Reed: Briefly, have you thought about some of the ways this study can be put to good use?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. I think it can because a lot of times anecdotally we often think, those of us who have children or deal with schools, know that arts and arts education in addition to having its own intrinsic take value and impact really seems to be tied with kids being more engaged generally in school and wanting to learn.  And we’re not even talking here about some of the data that’s been seen through neuroscience but just understanding patterns, behavioral patterns.  And over time, if this is true, and we’ve seen this in other data, too that school arts seems to be linked with school engagement and community engagement.  And so if that’s the case, certainly you could improve people’s likelihood for attendance which is a major indicator of academic success of course.

Jo Reed: Well, obviously, this is something we’ll keep watching Sunil.  Many thanks.  I’ll talk to you next month.

Sunil Iyengar: Thank you, Jo.  A pleasure.

Jo Reed: Always. 

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


This episode of “Quick Study” looks at promising research spanning more than a decade of data from 600,000 Boston public school students about the positive impact of arts education.