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Report Links Arts Instruction to Academic Achievement
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Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Social and Academic Development, a report released May 16, is a collection of studies illustrating how skills learned through instruction in the arts affect children's academic and personal development. Included: Descriptions of ways arts enhance learning.


A report released May 16 by the Arts Education Partnership (AEP) shows connections between instruction in the arts and greater student achievement and social development. Economically disadvantaged students, those needing remedial instruction, and young children experience the most gains in learning from arts education, the report suggests.

The AEP is a national coalition of more than 140 arts, education, business, philanthropic, and government organizations that "demonstrates and promotes the essential role of the arts in the learning and development of every child." The report, Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, is a compilation of 62 studies collected over three years by education researchers James S. Catterall of the Imagination Group, University of California at Los Angeles; Lois Hetland of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and Ellen Winner of Project Zero and the department of psychology at Boston College.

In addition to selecting the studies on the connection between the arts and learning, the three researchers also wrote summaries of them; two additional researchers provided comments for each study.

"It is clear in the Compendium (Critical Links) that there are cognitive skills and motivational and communications skills that are highly developed in arts learning -- skills that are applicable in school settings," says Richard J. Deasy, director of the AEP, who edited the compilation."

At the same time, according to Deasy, more research is needed to determine what specifically about instruction in the arts improves learning. "They [the essayists] agree that the Compendium studies suggest that well-crafted arts experiences produce positive academic and social effects, but they long for more research that reveals the unique and precise aspects of the arts teaching and learning that do so. Curriculum, instruction, and professional development would benefit greatly from such clarification," he writes in the report's introduction.

A PROMISING BENCHMARK

Gerald Sroufe, director of government relations for the American Educational Research Association (AERA), called the report "a promising benchmark." AERA conducts educational research with a focus on the quality of curriculum and its application to real-world situations.

"[This report] represents the best of what's there, but there is not much there," Sroufe tells Education World. "I hope it stimulates Congress to think this is a very productive area of educational research and study it more."

Critical Links includes studies on the effects of dance, drama, and multi-arts, a combination of various types of arts, on student learning.

Catterall, one of the researchers who collected the studies, noted in remarks at a May 16 press conference in Washington, D.C., that when Critical Links differentiates among the groups of children who benefit, it identifies no fewer than 84 distinguishable valid effects of the arts.

Areas that instruction in the arts affects most are basic reading skills, language development, and writing skills, according to Catterall. Improvements in general academic skills also show up and appear to reinforce those specific literacy-related developments, he writes. Those general skills include focus and concentration, expression, persistence, imagination, creativity, and "inclinations to tackle problems with zeal."

In addition, a variety of social skills accompanies learning in the arts and engagement in arts activities, adds Catterall, including positive social behaviors, social compliance, the ability to express emotions, courtesy, tolerance, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to collaborate, and attention to moral development.

DRAMA TAKES CENTER STAGE

Most impressive to him, Deasy tells Education World, were the 19 studies involving the affect of drama on learning, as well as several studies dealing with the relationship between music and language development. Notes in the report indicate that more research about the connection between dance and learning is needed.

"The drama studies should be particularly interesting to elementary teachers," Deasy says. "They show that various kinds of drama improve children's understanding, language skills, comprehension, and ability to recognize words that they have not read before."

Music teachers should find interesting the studies about using music to develop language skills. "Music itself is kind of a language," Deasy says. Studies also have shown that music helps develop spatial reasoning, which is used in both music and mathematics, he adds.

Students with challenges to learning also seem to gain a great deal from arts learning. "Those students benefit in unique kinds of ways," Deasy notes. He thinks that the role of arts instruction for economically disadvantaged students, for example, also needs to be studied more extensively.

One unpublished study on the topic, "The Impact of Whirlwind's Reading Comprehension through Drama Program on Fourth Grade Students' Reading Skills and Standardized Test Scores," involved students in Chicago. The study, in which students participated in a ten-week drama program, found that those "low-income, urban students of color exposed to drama showed impressive gains in grade-equivalent terms of three months more than the control group."

"I think this [report] makes it a matter of equality that all children have arts education," says Deasy. "Involvement in quality arts learning is a key factor in helping kids."

WHAT'S NEXT?

As part of the follow-up process, the compilation's message needs to be disseminated to politicians, educators, and parents, Deasy says, and researchers need to "deepen their understanding of learning in the arts," possibly through neurological studies.

More research on effective ways of teaching the arts, such as acting, drawing, and music, also is important, Catterall says. "How do children go from being scribblers to artists?" he asks.

The findings of Critical Links are important at a time when some people fear that standardized testing requirements will pressure administrators to eliminate arts instruction in order to devote more time to math and language arts skills. "This report says that is counterproductive," Deasy says. "We hope this [report will be] used to help improve instruction."