Arts education makes kids smart

Posted January 11, 2010

Lined up along my office wall, my daughter’s elementary school self-portraits show how she has grown – not just physically, but also as an artist, as someone who can create imaginative representations of identity.

The more primitive kindergarten self, with wild yarn hair, jagged teeth and disproportionate limbs, shares space with the more realistically featured third-grader with a neat blond bob and thoughtful eyes. Both pieces speak to how vision, skill and execution – the artistic process – combine to create a work of art that is unlike any other.

But it’s more than that. In moving from inspiration to creative product, she isn’t just filling space with colors and shapes. She and her fellow students are developing skills, known as “habits of the mind,” that are key to success across the curriculum in school, as well as in life. As the demand grows for graduates who are not just savvy test-takers but also innovative, adaptable thinkers, the necessity of quality arts education for all children becomes more and more apparent.

It’s no secret that involvement in the arts – dance, music, theater and visual arts – is enriching.

“The arts stir a child’s curiosity and creativity while teaching discipline, hard work, determination and perseverance,” says Kathy Mitchell of Apex, whose daughters, Madison, 10, and Sydney, 8, take dance and piano lessons. “As a result of their performing, I notice a sense of confidence and self-esteem in my kids.”

But research into the outcomes of arts education shows that the arts do more than that: They make better students.

“Numerous studies point toward a consistent and positive correlation between a substantive education in the arts and student achievement in other subjects and on standardized tests,” says Christie Lynch Ebert, arts education consultant at the state Department of Public Instruction.

The following are among the capabilities strengthened by arts education, identified by the Arts Education Partnership in its 2002 report, Critical Links:

  • Reading and language development, from helping children make the connection between sounds and written language to reading comprehension and writing proficiency.
  • Spatial reasoning and spatial-temporal reasoning skills, considered fundamental to understanding and using mathematical concepts.
  • Creative thinking and conditional reasoning or theorizing about outcomes and consequences.

In addition, through their focus on process as well as product, the arts stress innovation, persistence and self-reflection.

“Students are encouraged to find their artistic ability by feeling confident – there is no wrong way – and to take creative risks without worrying about mistakes,” says Gussie Marshallsea, art teacher at Olive Chapel Elementary School in Apex.

Such emphasis on experimentation is a far cry from the outcome-driven curricula in many academic subjects, but researchers have found that the “habits of the mind” developed in arts classes often inform and enhance students’ experiences in these other areas. In fact, students with the discipline and tenacity to stick with their artistic pursuits are also more likely to be recognized for academic achievement and regular attendance and to participate in leadership roles.

Arts education has an even greater impact on students who are economically disadvantaged or need remediation. Participation in the arts stimulates motivation to learn, effective social behavior and community engagement, all crucial for the success of at-risk students.

Lisa Van Deman, executive director of North Carolina Arts in Action, has seen how the dance curriculum her educators take into schools connects with struggling students.

“We see all the time how children who may not perform well in a traditional classroom setting … absolutely blossom because of the non-competitive nature of the arts,” Van Deman says. “The arts provide a truly level playing field for children. Everyone has something to contribute to the betterment of the whole.”

It is in this context of community that even the most disengaged students can find purpose.

“Providing an environment that encourages success for everyone resonates with children,” Van Deman says, “and they almost always rise to the occasion and push themselves to succeed.”

In this way, the arts provide a unique pathway to help all students find success, both in school and beyond.

Parents who want these opportunities for their children have policy-makers on their side. The North Carolina Standard Course of Study, updated in 2005, affirms arts education as beneficial to “both student and society,” and it requires that arts education be a part of every child’s basic education. Coupled with the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which identifies the arts as a core subject, these guidelines amount to a promise that all North Carolina schoolchildren will enjoy the benefits of a quality arts education.

However, school systems may find it difficult to keep that promise. Critics contend that an intensified focus on academic subjects tested under NCLB has in some schools resulted in those subjects being emphasized over others, such as the arts, that aren’t tested directly.

"We want our kids to succeed and do well,” Marshallsea says. “When the focus is (more on) standardized tests results, arts teachers work even harder to ensure that students are engaged in a comprehensive curriculum. Many of our students learn best through arts activities where learning comes alive and connections across the curriculum are made.”

The plummeting economy has added to the tension between academics and the arts. Financially strapped school systems, facing staff layoffs this year, struggle to find ways to meet these educational mandates with fewer teachers. The arts are at risk of being marginalized, or, worse, eliminated. For schools that are committed to maintaining quality arts education programs, dealing with these challenges becomes its own lesson in adaptability.

“Unless we have the ability to weave straw into gold, we must look at the financial reality: There is less to go around, and so programs will feel the impact,” says Theresa Grywalski, a former theater teacher who is now the arts coordinator for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. “I find it impossible to ask teachers who use supplies to do more with less art materials.”

As a result, Grywalski reports, teachers, parents and even suppliers have gotten “very creative” in meeting funding needs.

“I actually had our clay distributor call and suggest we save money on shipping by delivering the clay to one location instead of each individual school,” she says. “It was a bit more work for me and our maintenance group, but the savings can then be put back into art supplies.”

Mary Casey, director of K-12 Arts Education for Durham Public Schools, acknowledges that they, too, have had to make difficult choices this year.

“The hard part in arts,” Casey says, “is that often one teacher can be the whole program at a school, so cuts are very noticeable.”

To minimize this effect on arts education, Durham Superintendent Carl Harris instructed his staff to avoid layoffs that would result in an entire program being cut from a school. The mandate has presented some logistical challenges – some arts teachers now work at more than one school, for example – and fewer classes may be offered in any particular program, but the system has managed to protect most of its arts offerings.

“DPS is fortunate to have a superintendent who realizes the value of the arts,” Casey says.

Even as administrators and teachers do their best to provide solid arts education in the face of these challenges, they emphasize that parental involvement is crucial if the potential of arts education is to come to fruition for all children.

The simplest way to support the arts is by encouraging your child’s interest.

“Parents play a key role in fostering a love of the arts in their children,” Casey says. She recommends starting early, giving young children a place to work and some simple materials.

“Show interest in their work,” she says. “Talk to them about their process and their inspiration.”

As they get older, make their participation in arts programs possible by carpooling to rehearsals, donating supplies or lending a hand with labor. Most importantly, she says, support them by attending their shows. Patronize other artists as well.

“I’m a big believer in the power of the audience. I think parents … should attend school performances and art shows,” Grywalski adds. “They should bring their children and relatives to show support for the efforts and talents at the school.”

Also, let school leaders know that the community values arts education.

“Advocacy begins at the local level,” Ebert says. Parents can “attend local school board and county commissioner meetings, provide information about the importance of the arts … and insist that arts education is available for their students.”

Clearly, the positive outcomes for children make those efforts worthwhile.

“Participation in the arts contributes directly to the healthy development of ‘the whole child,’ and, thusly, to a civil society,” Van Deman says. “As National Dance Institute founder Jacques d’Ambroise is fond of saying, ‘You fill a child with good things, and good things will come from him.’”

Support local arts education by attending upcoming arts events in Triangle schools.


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