Do The Arts Make Kids Smarter?

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On March 26, 2010

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Study after study have shown that where the arts are prevalent in a school’s curriculum—surprise!—test scores rise.

In an article in Parenting magazine, Nancy Kalish discusses Why Art Makes Kids Smarter (November 2009).  She notes several different sources and research that has shown that the arts positively engage children in a variety of different ways, but states the unfortunate fact that, even with this evidence, schools continue to cut arts programs in lieu of what she terms “test-prep” or the all-consuming desire to raise test scores since NCLB was enacted in 2002.

Plenty of research shows that children who spend time in school doing visual art, performing music or dance, or even acting in a play gain a whole set of creative and analytical skills that are quickly disappearing from the rest of the curriculum.

–Richard Kessler, Executive Director, Center for Arts Education, New York, NY

I recently posted a three-part series on new longitudinal research from UCLA showing marked differences in low socioeconomic students in arts-rich schools as opposed to those in non-arts-rich schools.  I won’t go back over the details of these posts but the research results are very favorable to schools including the arts as a core part of the curriculum.  But we continue to ignore the facts.  “The situation [in the United States] is extremely frustrating,” says Lynne Munson, executive director of Common Core, a Washington DC-based educational research and advocacy organization. “We have lots of proof that a broad education that includes the arts works better than what we’re doing — and yet we’re ignoring it.”

One of the sources that Kalish cites in her article is Dr. Kimberly Sheridan of Harvard Project Zero, an educational research group.  In a recent study Dr. Sheridan said that “It’s not as easy to test the skills that children learn from the arts, but that doesn’t make them any less important.”  The study found that participating in a school arts program increases a child’s ability to:

  • Observe the world carefully and discard preconceptions, envision something and then create it
  • Go beyond just learning a skill to express a personal voice
  • Problem-solve and persist despite frustration and setbacks
  • Reflect on the results and ask what could improve them

“What’s more,” Kalish notes, “other research using brain imaging along with behavioral assessments has established strong links between the arts and specific cognitive skills. In a landmark 2008 study by the non-profit Dana Foundation, neuroscientists at seven universities found that:

  • Musical training improves reading by helping children distinguish the sound structure of words
  • Acting boosts memory and the ability to articulate ideas
  • Strong interest in a performing art leads to better attention and memory

Study after study have shown that where the arts are prevalent in a school’s curriculum—surprise!—test scores rise.  Kalish quotes Mr. Joe Breault, a K-8 charter school principal in North Highlands, CA. In addition to providing classes in music, drama, dance, and drawing and painting, his school has integrated the arts across the curriculum. Students are involved in the arts for four to six hours each day. “Kids get tired of rote learning, but they never get tired of the arts,” Breault says. “We have a wide variety of students, including kids with learning disabilities, but we have no trouble engaging any of them. Research might not always be able to prove a direct connection to higher scores, but there’s no doubt that an arts program makes kids better at everything they take on,” says Breault. “It helps them become well-rounded, well-prepared thinkers and citizens of the world — and that should be our main goal.”