Part 3 – What we’ve learned about academic benefits of in-school arts enrollment
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
This is part three of a three-part series that explores the question: Do the arts make kids smart, or do already smart kids choose the arts? In part one of the series, we explained the problem of “selection effects” and how they influence those who do and do not participate in the arts. This leaves researchers with the challenge of comparing two groups of kids (arts and non-arts) who are often very different. In part two of the series, we explained how quasi-experimental studies can be used to address selection effects by identifying the apples from oranges in group A and then compare them to apples or oranges in group B, respectively. The quasi-experimental method gives researchers more confidence when they see significant differences between groups, that any differences observed are actually due to group membership (in this case, arts experiences) and not pre-existing background differences.
In this 3rd blog, we are going to discuss “smart students” as an outcome of arts participation. For this writing, when we discuss “smart students” we’re focusing in on students who perform highly on academic measures, like school readiness, GPA, standardized tests, and in-school behavior. There are many other qualities and skills that are under the umbrella of “smart”, and success is built from many variables, not just intelligence. However, for this blog, we’re referring to “smart” as in-school academic performance.
To explore the question of whether the arts make kids smarter, or if already smart kids choose the arts, we used data from the Miami School Readiness Project (MSRP). The MSRP is a longitudinal study that has been following over 30,000 low-income (81% received free/reduced priced school lunch), racial and ethnically diverse (60% Hispanic, 32% Black, 6.4% White, and .6% Asian/Pacific Islander) children from pre-k through high school. At age 4, children were assessed for school readiness skills, and once they entered grade school, we used school record data to keep track of demographic information, course enrollment, and academic performance as they progressed through the public-school system. Our data for the report discussed here includes information on 30,413 6th graders, 23,788 7th graders, and 16,392 8th graders.
Previous researchers have acknowledged that children with arts experiences often have background advantages that not only afford them arts experiences but also support their academic success. In order to understand background differences between arts and non-arts kids within our sample, we ran analyses to determine who selects into middle school arts elective courses (a combination of either music, dance, visual art, or drama) and who does not.
We found that the likelihood of enrolling in an arts elective was influenced by certain background characteristics like gender (males were less likely than females), and race/ethnicity (Black students were less likely than Latinx and White students). Beyond these demographic background differences between arts- and non-arts students, we also saw differences in early academic performance.
We found that arts enrollment was influenced by school readiness skills at age four and academic performance in elementary school. Greater fine motor, cognitive, language, and social and behavioral skills at age 4 were related to a greater chance of enrolling in an arts elective years later in middle school. We also found that students with greater 5th grade GPA and standardized test scores (math and reading) had greater odds of enrolling in an arts elective later in middle school. Further, we saw that grade retention prior to middle school was related to lower odds of enrolling in an arts elective.
With knowledge of these pre-existing differences in mind, we can now begin to answer our question – Do the arts make kids smart, or do already smart kids choose the arts? It looks like students who are already doing well in elementary school are more likely to enroll in arts classes in middle school – already smart kids are choosing the arts.
To fairly compare arts and non-arts students when exploring what the arts do for kids, we have to acknowledge notable differences between the two groups. If smart kids tend to enroll in arts classes, then we have to see how arts kids who do well in school compared to similar non-arts classmates. This gets into the other part of our question – Do the arts make kids smart?
With all of these group differences or selection factors in mind, we conducted further analyses. We statistically controlled for background differences to compare the apples of arts-takers to apples of non-arts takers and the oranges of arts-takers to oranges of non-arts takers. This method gives us more confidence that differences we found in academic performance between the two groups after enrollment were related to arts participation.
After controlling for background differences in middle school, we measured the effect of arts enrollment on academic outcomes (GPA, standardized math and reading scores, days absent, retention, and suspension). We looked at when students enrolled in an art elective (6th, 7th, or 8th grade) and if being enrolled in the arts affected their academic performance within that same year (concurrent year effect) and the following year (subsequent year effect). For example, we looked at how 6th grade arts participation influenced end of year 6thgrade academic performance and the following year’s 7th grade academic performance.
We found that arts participation was related to better academic performance later in middle school! We saw that arts enrollment in any grade level was related to greater GPA and standardized math test scores in concurrent years. We also saw that 7th and 8th grade arts enrollment was related to greater standardized reading test scores and lower rates of suspension in concurrent and subsequent years.
With all of this in mind, we have evidence to answer our question – Do the arts make kids smart, or do already smart kids choose the arts. The answer is both! – Yes, kids who are already doing well in school are choosing to enroll more in the arts, but arts enrollment also helps them achieve better academic outcomes later. Armed with this knowledge, parents and teachers should encourage their middle schoolers to not only enroll in and arts class in 6th grade but to continue taking arts classes in 7th and 8th grade. Arts experiences appear to be good for students, and our current follow-up work with this sample through high school (stay tuned!) suggests that the more years of arts experiences the better.
Winsler, A., Gara, T. V., Alegrado, A., Castro, S., & Tavassolie, T. (2020). Selection into, and academic benefits from, arts-related courses in middle school among low-income, ethnically diverse youth. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 14(4), 415–432. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000222