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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 Read the rest of this entry »

Learning & The Brain: Interview with Robert Sylwester

Robert SylwesterDr. Robert Sylwester is an educator of educators, having received multiple awards during his long career as a master communicator of the implications of brain science research for education and learning. He is the author of several books and many journal articles, and member of our Scientific Advisory Board. His most recent book is The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (Corwin Press, 2007). He is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon.

I am honored to interview him today.

Alvaro Fernandez: Let’s start with that eternal source of debate. What do we know about the respective roles of genes and our environment in brain development?

Robert Sylwester: Genetic and environmental factors both contribute to brain maturation. Genetics probably play a stronger role in the early years, and the environment plays a stronger role in later years. Still the mother’s (environmental) use of drugs during the pregnancy could affect the genetics of fetal brain development, and some adult illnesses, such as Huntington’s Disease, are genetically triggered.

Nature and nurture both require the significant contributions of the other in most developmental and maintenance functions. We typically think of environmental factors as things that happen to us, over which we have little control.

Can’t our own decisions have an effect in our own brain development? For example, what if I choose a career in investment banking, vs. one in journalism or teaching?

We make our own career decisions in life, and most of us make a combination of good and bad decisions, which influence our brain’s maturation.

My father was very unusual in his career trajectory in that he worked at one place throughout his entire adult life, and died three months after he retired at 91. I’ve always thought that it’s a good idea to make a change every ten years or so and do something different either within the same organization or to move to another one.

It’s just as good for organizations to have some staff turnover as it is for staff to move to new challenges. The time to leave one position for another is while you and your employer are Read the rest of this entry »

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