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Arts and Smarts: Test Scores and Cognitive Development

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.)

At a time when edu­ca­tors are pre­oc­cu­pied with stan­dards, test­ing, and the bot­tom line, some researchers sug­gest the arts can boost stu­dents’ test scores; oth­ers aren’t con­vinced. Karin Evans asks, What are the arts good for?


When poet and national endow­ment for the Arts Chair­man Dana Gioia gave the 2007 Com­mence­ment Address at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, he used the occa­sion to deliver an impas­sioned argu­ment for the value of the arts and arts education.

Art is an irre­place­able way of under­stand­ing and express­ing the world,” said Gioia. “There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as sto­ries, or songs, or images. Art delights, instructs, con­soles. It edu­cates our emotions.”

For years, arts advo­cates like Gioia have been mak­ing sim­i­lar pleas, stress­ing the intan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of the arts at a time when many Amer­i­cans are pre­oc­cu­pied with a market–driven cul­ture of enter­tain­ment, and schools are con­sumed with meet­ing fed­eral stan­dards. Art brings joy, these advo­cates say, or it evokes our human­ity, or, in the words of my 10–year–old daugh­ter, “It cools kids down after all the other hard stuff they have to think about.”

Bol­ster­ing the case for the arts has become increas­ingly nec­es­sary in recent years, as school bud­get cuts and the move toward stan­dard­ized test­ing have pro­foundly threat­ened the role of the arts in schools. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment started assess­ing school dis­tricts by their stu­dents’ scores on read­ing and math­e­mat­ics tests.

As a result, accord­ing to a study by the Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion Pol­icy, school dis­tricts across the United States increased the time they devoted to tested subjects—reading/language arts and math—while cut­ting spend­ing on non–tested sub­jects such as the visual arts and music. The more a school fell behind, by NCLB stan­dards, the more time and money was devoted to those tested sub­jects, with less going to the arts. The National Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion has reported that the cuts fall hard­est on schools with high num­bers of minor­ity children.

And the sit­u­a­tion is likely to worsen as state bud­gets get even tighter. Already, in a round of fed­eral edu­ca­tion cuts for 2006 and 2007, arts edu­ca­tion nation­ally was slashed by $35 mil­lion. In 2008, the New York City Depart­ment of Education’s annual study of arts edu­ca­tion showed that only eight per­cent of the city’s ele­men­tary schools met the state’s rel­a­tively rig­or­ous stan­dards for arts education—and the city’s schools are now fac­ing a $185 mil­lion bud­get cut this year.

For 2009, the non­profit Cen­ter for Bud­get and Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties fore­casts bud­get short­falls in 41 states. Cal­i­for­nia, ranked last among the states in per capita sup­port for the arts, is con­sid­er­ing $2 bil­lion of addi­tional cuts to K–12 edu­ca­tion. Josef Nor­ris, a grant–supported artist who cre­ates murals with kids in San Francisco’s pub­lic schools, says he has worked with classes where fifth graders have never picked up a paint­brush or han­dled a lump of clay.

Given such stiff fis­cal and polit­i­cal chal­lenges, some arts advo­cates have felt pres­sured to bol­ster their argu­ments. Afraid that art won’t be able to stand on its own mer­its, such advo­cates have sought what­ever evi­dence they can find to argue that art con­tributes to mea­sur­able gains in learning—which, in the No Child Left Behind world, means boost­ing a school’s aca­d­e­mic test scores in lit­er­acy and mathematics.

And in fact, advo­cates have got­ten a recent lift from new research in sev­eral sci­en­tific fields. For the first time ever, for exam­ple, sci­en­tists have used sophis­ti­cated brain imag­ing tech­niques to exam­ine how music, dance, drama, and the visual arts might pos­i­tively affect cog­ni­tion and intel­li­gence. Such work, the researchers claim, is a cru­cial first step toward under­stand­ing whether art can actu­ally make peo­ple smarter in ways that can be measured.

But other arts advo­cates say that’s the wrong way to go. Skep­ti­cal of some claims of the art–boosts–smarts camp, they instead sup­port a line of research that explores the ben­e­fits that are unique to the arts. Let art do what art can do best, they say, and let the math­e­mat­ics class take care of itself. And so the debate goes on, focused on a ques­tion that has long con­cerned par­ents, edu­ca­tors, and pol­icy mak­ers alike: What are the arts good for?

The Mozart controversy

The focus on art’s con­tri­bu­tion to aca­d­e­mics came to wide atten­tion in the 1990s, after researchers from the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine, reported in the jour­nal Nature that col­lege stu­dents who lis­tened to 10 min­utes of Mozart before tak­ing cer­tain parts of an intel­li­gence test improved their scores—a find­ing that came to be known as the “Mozart Effect.”

Before long, par­ents who heard about the research were play­ing Mozart to their babies, the gov­er­nor of Geor­gia was hand­ing out clas­si­cal music tapes to par­ents of new­borns, and com­pa­nies were spring­ing up to pack­age music for par­ents eager to bol­ster their children’s brain power.

The Mozart Effect research had some clear lim­i­ta­tions: It involved only college–age stu­dents, and the improved test scores held up only for 15 min­utes fol­low­ing the musi­cal expe­ri­ence. After wit­ness­ing the strong reac­tion to their results, the researchers them­selves were com­pelled to write a rejoin­der in 1999, point­ing out that they had never claimed that “Mozart enhances intelligence.”

Still, whether the hard evi­dence was there or not, the pop­u­lar assump­tion took hold that there was a con­nec­tion. Accord­ing to a 2006 Gallup poll, 85 per­cent of Amer­i­cans believed par­tic­i­pa­tion in school music was linked to bet­ter grades and higher test scores.

After the study on the Mozart Effect was pub­lished, other researchers tried to sub­stan­ti­ate a con­nec­tion between arts par­tic­i­pa­tion and improved cog­ni­tive and aca­d­e­mic skills. For instance, James S. Cat­ter­all, a pro­fes­sor at UCLA’s Grad­u­ate School of Edu­ca­tion and Infor­ma­tion Stud­ies, reported in a 1999 paper that mid­dle and high school stu­dents with strong involve­ment in the­ater or music scored an aver­age of 16 to 18 per­cent­age points higher on stan­dard­ized tests than those with low arts involvement.

It’s true that stu­dents involved in the arts do bet­ter in school and on their SATs than those who are not involved,” write researchers Lois Het­land and Ellen Win­ner of the Har­vard Grad­u­ate School of Edu­ca­tion, in an arti­cle that appeared in the Boston Globe in 2007. How­ever, they point out, cor­re­la­tion doesn’t add up to cau­sa­tion: It’s quite pos­si­ble that kids involved in the arts are the ones get­ting good grades in the first place.

In a land­mark sur­vey called REAP—Reviewing Edu­ca­tion and the Arts Project—Hetland and Win­ner exam­ined the research sup­port­ing arts edu­ca­tion. Their find­ings, released in 2000, were con­tro­ver­sial. They revealed that in most cases there was no demon­strated causal rela­tion­ship between study­ing one or more art forms and improved cog­ni­tive skills in areas beyond the arts.

We found incon­clu­sive evi­dence that music improves math­e­mat­i­cal learn­ing and that dance improves spa­tial learn­ing,” reported the researchers. “We found no evi­dence that study­ing visual arts, dance, or music improves read­ing.” They continued.

That leaves our most con­tro­ver­sial find­ing. We amassed no evi­dence that study­ing the arts, either as sep­a­rate dis­ci­plines or infused into the aca­d­e­mic cur­ricu­lum, raises grades in aca­d­e­mic sub­jects or improves per­for­mance on stan­dard­ized ver­bal and math­e­mat­ics tests. … Our analy­sis showed that chil­dren who stud­ied the arts did no bet­ter on achieve­ment tests and earned no higher grades than those who did not study the arts.

Their find­ings, the researchers said, were greeted with anger. “One scholar told us that we should never have asked the ques­tion, but hav­ing done so, we should have buried our find­ings,” Het­land and Win­ner later wrote. “We were shaken.” Some crit­ics claimed that their report had short­changed the effects of art on aca­d­e­mics. But the researchers stuck to their con­clu­sions. Fur­ther­more, they cau­tioned, jus­ti­fy­ing the arts on the basis of unre­li­able claims would ulti­mately do more harm than good.

Arts and the brain

In 2004, in an attempt to sort out the facts, the Dana Foun­da­tion, a pri­vate phil­an­thropic orga­ni­za­tion, took on the ques­tion: Are smart peo­ple drawn to the arts or does arts train­ing make peo­ple smarter? Under the lead­er­ship of neu­ro­sci­en­tist Michael S. Gaz­zaniga, the Dana Arts and Cog­ni­tion Con­sor­tium assem­bled neu­ro­sci­en­tists and cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists from seven uni­ver­si­ties to study whether dance, music, the­ater, and visual arts might affect other areas of learning—and how.

After more than three years of research, the results of the $2.1 mil­lion project were pub­lished in March of 2008 in a report titled “Learn­ing, Arts, and the Brain.” Sev­eral stud­ies in the report sug­gested that train­ing in the arts might be related to improve­ments in math or read­ing skills. In one of these stud­ies, a Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon team, headed by psy­chol­o­gist Michael Pos­ner, observed the brain activ­ity of chil­dren four to seven years old while they worked on com­put­er­ized exer­cises intended to mimic the attention–focusing qual­i­ties of engag­ing in art. The researchers con­cluded that the arts can train children’s atten­tion, which in turn improves cognition.

In another Dana con­sor­tium study, Eliz­a­beth Spelke, a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, looked at the effects of music train­ing in chil­dren and ado­les­cents and found a “clear ben­e­fit”: Chil­dren who had inten­sive music train­ing did bet­ter on some geom­e­try tasks and on map read­ing. Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity psy­chol­o­gist Brian Wan­dell and col­leagues used brain–imaging tech­niques to study how a cer­tain part of the brain might be influ­enced by musi­cal activ­i­ties. He found that stu­dents ages 7 to 12 who received more musi­cal train­ing in the first year of the study showed greater improve­ments in read­ing flu­ency over the next two years. Wan­dell reports that phono­log­i­cal awareness—or the abil­ity to dis­tin­guish between speech sounds, which is a pre­dic­tor of early literacy—was cor­re­lated with music train­ing and could be tracked with the devel­op­ment of a spe­cific brain pathway.

Over­all, the Dana report didn’t go so far as to prove that arts train­ing directly boosts cog­ni­tive and aca­d­e­mic skills; it offered no con­crete evi­dence that art makes kids smarter. But the project did tighten up the cor­re­la­tions that had been noted before, lay­ing the ground­work for future research into causal expla­na­tions. In his intro­duc­tion to “Learn­ing, Arts, and the Brain,” Gaz­zaniga frames the report as an impor­tant first step. “A life–affirming dimen­sion is open­ing up in neu­ro­science,” he writes. “To dis­cover how the per­for­mance and appre­ci­a­tion of the arts enlarge cog­ni­tive capac­i­ties will be a long step for­ward in learn­ing how bet­ter to learn.”

Though Gaz­zaniga and his Dana Con­sor­tium col­leagues were quite mea­sured in their assess­ment, many advo­cates inter­preted the report’s results as sup­port for their cause. “Arts Edu­ca­tion Linked to Bet­ter Brain Activ­ity,” read a head­line on the web­site of the Ari­zona Com­mis­sion on the Arts after the report was released. A Cal­i­for­nia State PTA newslet­ter directed par­ents and teach­ers to the report, telling them to “find out about the strong links between arts edu­ca­tion and cog­ni­tive development.”

Around the same time in 2008, the advo­cacy group Amer­i­cans for the Arts launched a series of pub­lic ser­vice announce­ments aimed at encour­ag­ing par­ents to “feed their chil­dren the arts” with images of bowls of “Raisin Brahms” or “Van Goghurt” for break­fast, linked to promises that the arts lead to “increased test scores, bet­ter cre­ative think­ing, patience, and deter­mi­na­tion.” Even Barack Obama’s pres­i­den­tial plat­form, which promised a rein­vest­ment in arts edu­ca­tion and pro­fessed a broad belief in art’s value, fell back, at least partly, on the aca­d­e­mic ben­e­fits ratio­nale: “Stud­ies show that arts edu­ca­tion raises test scores.”

But many arts researchers and advo­cates have reacted strongly against efforts—in research, among advo­cacy groups, or in schools—that overem­pha­size the link between the arts and aca­d­e­mic proficiency.

Jes­sica Hoff­mann Davis, a cog­ni­tive devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and founder of the Arts in Edu­ca­tion Pro­gram at the Har­vard Grad­u­ate School of Edu­ca­tion, has long been one of these voices. “It is not by argu­ing that the arts can do what other sub­jects already do (or do bet­ter) that a secure place can be found for the arts in edu­ca­tion,” she writes in her recent book, Why Our Schools Need the Arts. “We have been so dri­ven to mea­sure the impact of the arts in edu­ca­tion that we began to for­get that their strength lies beyond the measurable.”

In an inter­view, she adds, “No Child Left Behind has sapped the energy and pas­sion out of our class­rooms. It’s a malaise. Stan­dard­ized test­ing is leav­ing every­one behind—teachers and kids—with this heavy pre­oc­cu­pa­tion on what we can measure.”

Another lead­ing expert on the arts, Howard Gard­ner, a pro­fes­sor at the Har­vard Grad­u­ate School of Edu­ca­tion, went so far in an inter­view as to call it an “Amer­i­can dis­ease” to try to jus­tify the arts in terms of ben­e­fits for other dis­ci­plines. No one, says Gard­ner, argues that stu­dents should take math because it will make them per­form bet­ter in music.

Edu­ca­tion of vision

So what are the arts good for?

In 2007, Het­land and Win­ner pub­lished a book, Stu­dio Think­ing: The Real Ben­e­fits of Visual Art Edu­ca­tion, that is so far one of the most rig­or­ous stud­ies of what the arts teach. “Before we can make the case for the impor­tance of arts edu­ca­tion, we need to find out what the arts actu­ally teach and what art stu­dents actu­ally learn,” they write.

Work­ing in high school art classes, they found that arts pro­grams teach a spe­cific set of think­ing skills rarely addressed else­where in the school curriculum—what they call “stu­dio habits of mind.” One key habit was “learn­ing to engage and per­sist,” mean­ing that the arts teach stu­dents how to learn from mis­takes and press ahead, how to com­mit and fol­low through. “Stu­dents need to find prob­lems of inter­est and work with them deeply over sus­tained peri­ods of time,” write Het­land and Winner.

The researchers also found that the arts help stu­dents learn to “envision”—that is, how to think about that which they can’t see. That’s a skill that offers pay­offs in other sub­jects, they note. The abil­ity to envi­sion can help a stu­dent gen­er­ate a hypoth­e­sis in sci­ence, for instance, or imag­ine past events in his­tory class.

Other researchers have iden­ti­fied addi­tional ben­e­fits that are par­tic­u­lar to the arts. In Why Our Schools Need the Arts, Davis out­lines many of these ben­e­fits, includ­ing the qual­ity of empa­thy. “We need the arts because they remind chil­dren that their emo­tions are equally wor­thy of respect and expres­sion,” she said in an inter­view. “The arts intro­duce chil­dren to con­nec­tiv­ity, engage­ment, and allow a sense of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with, and respon­si­bil­ity for, oth­ers.” As a young researcher, Davis once asked adults, chil­dren of vary­ing ages, and pro­fes­sional artists to draw emo­tions such as hap­pi­ness, sad­ness, and anger. She found that even very young chil­dren could com­mu­ni­cate those emo­tions through draw­ing. In fact, she observes, “The arts, like no other sub­ject, give chil­dren the media and the oppor­tu­nity to shape and com­mu­ni­cate their feelings.”

Elliot Eis­ner, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of art and edu­ca­tion at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity and a long­time leader in the field, has empha­sized the sub­tle but impor­tant ways the arts can enhance thinking—the abil­ity to use metaphor, for exam­ple, or the role of imag­i­na­tion. “These are out­comes that are use­ful,” says Eis­ner, “not only in the arts, but in busi­ness and other activ­i­ties where good think­ing is employed.”

At last year’s annual con­ven­tion for the National Art Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, Eis­ner told the crowd, “In the arts, imag­i­na­tion is a pri­mary virtue. So it should be in the teach­ing of math­e­mat­ics, in all of the sci­ences, in his­tory, and indeed, in vir­tu­ally all that humans create.”

To help stu­dents treat their work as a work of art is no small achieve­ment,” he added. “Given this con­cep­tion, we can ask how much time should be devoted to the arts in school? The answer is clear: all of it.”

An “edu­ca­tion of vision” is also high on Eisner’s list of ben­e­fits. “You want to help young­sters really see a tree or urban land­scape or an apple. It’s one of the things they can do the rest of their lives.”

Such elu­sive, immea­sur­able ben­e­fits of the arts may, in fact, be among the most valu­able. “At this time when we are fac­ing the threat of the reduc­tion of learn­ing to testable right and wrong answers,” says Davis, “we might say the most impor­tant thing about arts learn­ing is that it fea­tures ambi­gu­ity and respect for the via­bil­ity of dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and judgments.”

But per­haps most sig­nif­i­cantly, Davis argues that the arts can engage chil­dren who might not oth­er­wise be reached by aca­d­e­mics. In fact, an increas­ing amount of atten­tion is being focused on the ben­e­fits of the arts for at–risk youth.

For instance, when a pro­gram called the YouthARTS Devel­op­ment Project, a part­ner­ship involv­ing the National Endow­ment for the Arts and the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment, engaged at–risk youth in art pro­grams, it found that the par­tic­i­pants showed an increased abil­ity to work with oth­ers and fin­ish tasks, and showed bet­ter atti­tudes toward school, fewer court refer­rals, and improved self–esteem.

Folks are respond­ing to the deficits in schools by say­ing, ‘Bring in the arts,’” says Davis. “Iron­i­cally that’s what we’ve always done with indi­vid­ual kids, always turned to the arts as a kid was about to drop out of school. We have always known that arts will save the day, but now the day is so bleak that we have a national charge to do what arts do best—to pro­vide energy and spirit and excite­ment and community.”

In San Fran­cisco, artist Josef Nor­ris has seen evi­dence of this claim first–hand. When he worked with chil­dren to cre­ate a mural at an inner–city school, the project was inte­grated into a unit on Cal­i­for­nia his­tory and immi­gra­tion. Every sin­gle child in the class had a par­ent or grand­par­ent who’d been born in another coun­try, says Nor­ris, and each child made a tile depict­ing some aspect of his or her family’s history.

Kids who are strug­gling aca­d­e­m­i­cally can get hooked,” he says. “You live for the moments when the kids shine—when a patho­log­i­cally shy girl shows up for mural mak­ing on a Sat­ur­day morn­ing and stays all day long. Or when a child paints a tile about his fam­ily, then brings his grand­mother to the unveil­ing of the mural and says proudly, ‘I made that.’”

– Karin Evans is the author of The Lost Daugh­ters of China: Adopted Girls, Their Jour­ney to Amer­ica, and the Search for a Miss­ing Past, just released in a new edi­tion by Tarcher/Penguin Put­nam. She recently earned an MFA in poetry. Copy­right Greater Good. Greater Good Mag­a­zine, based at UC-Berkeley, is a quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

Related arti­cles by Greater Good Magazine:

- Cog­ni­tive and Emo­tional Devel­op­ment Through Play

- Mind­ful­ness and Med­i­ta­tion in Schools for Stress Management

- Should Social-Emotional Learn­ing Be Part of Aca­d­e­mic Curriculum?

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