Do the arts make kids smart, or do already smart kids choose the arts? (1/3)

Part 1 – Understanding “Selection Effects”

from MasonARC’s 3 Part Series: The Fundamental Questions of Arts Education and Causal Outcomes.

This post is by: Alenamie Alegrado and Dr. Adam Winsler


Many people believe that the visual and performing arts (music, drama, dance, visual art) make kids smarter and cause them to perform better in school. We are likely all familiar with the idea that if you put a child into violin lessons at age four (and they stick to it), the child will grow up to be an overachiever, perhaps a math whiz, genius, scientist, doctor, or professor. Is this true? Does exposure to the arts actually make you gain cognitive skills?

It turns out that answering this question definitively is harder than it seems. It is very clear that there are positive associations or correlations between arts exposure and positive child outcomes. Kids with more exposure to the arts do better in school and get higher SAT scores, on average, than those with less exposure to the arts. If one simply compares the kids who have been in the school orchestra for 6 years to those who haven’t on a cognitive test, the orchestra kids will outperform those not in orchestra on average. But does that mean that the musical experience caused the child to be smarter or be a better student? Not necessarily.

Let’s think about our child violinist some more. Early in this child’s life, someone believed this child should be enrolled in music lessons, found a violin teacher, and made it happen. This child had a family who could afford a violin and pay for expensive private lessons for years. Additionally, this child has at least one parent(s) who have the time, desire, and means to drive to (and pay for) music lessons. This family is also likely to go to many musical concerts, plays, museums, and trips to the library and have parents with higher education. One can assume that this is a family with social and financial capital.

Children who grow up in well-educated, two-parent, affluent families have certain advantages that help them do well in all aspects of life, including academic performance in school. Growing up in a home where parents spend time, resources, and energy nurturing growth, providing verbal and cognitive stimulation, helping with homework, and perhaps even hiring a private tutor increases the chances that children will be exposed to the arts AND do well academically in school. If our anecdotal child violinist grew up in such a family, it is more likely that s/he would have done pretty well in school and would be on their way to a 4-year university even if they never took a violin lesson, dance class, or any other type of arts training.

The question persists, then, did playing the violin at age 4 lead to academic success or did our anecdotal child have an academic advantage early on? This is a difficult problem for researchers. Fortunately, there are methods of examining the effects of arts that take into account pre-existing differences in child background (post #2 in this 3-part series). Before we start comparing existing arts students to non-arts students on child outcomes, we have to understand who has access to and who is choosing to engage in arts as a child and who is not. The many ways that arts engagers and arts non-engagers are different before the arts experience takes place are called selection effects.

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