Why Children Need an Arts Education
by Richard Louv

The Gifts of the Arts

While many supporters of the arts correctly believe that music, painting, sculpture, theater and other arts should be provided for their own sake, the new research reveals what many educators had known intuitively for years. Exposure to the arts help students build self-confidence, express their creativity, and perform better in math and reading.

  • In 1997, the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies published the results of a national arts study that showed a positive relationship between standardized test scores, English grades, and other educational methods. The study revealed that students in eighth and 10th grade who had "high involvement" in the arts, in and out of class, consistently outscored those with low exposure to the arts. Students with high arts exposure were also less likely to drop out of school.

  • University of California at Irvine researchers discovered, in a study beginning in 1993, that students who took piano lessons scored an average of 34 percent higher on tests of spatial-temporal ability, which educators consider a vital skill for understanding math and science. After only six months of playing the piano, three- to five-year-olds showed dramatic improvement in spatial reasoning tests.

  • Researchers Gordon Shaw of UC Irvine and Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, tested college students in spatial-temporal reasoning; one group meditated in silence, one listened to relaxation tapes and the third listened for 10 minutes to Mozart's Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos. The latter group scored eight to nine points higher than the others. Shaw and Rauscher call this the "Mozart effect."

    While much of the new research reflects the impact of arts education in school, research by Shirley Brice Heath underscores the need to look at a child's total learning environment beyond school, in the home and neighborhood. A professor of English and linguistics at Stanford University and a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Heath decided in 1987 to delve into the non-school hours and learn more about what kids were doing on their own. As she told Connect for Kids' Susan Kellam, children only spend about 25 percent of their time in school; outside school, children are usually beyond their parents' direct influence. "Let's look at what things kids are doing out there by themselves and see what difference that time makes in terms of providing confident, considerate, pro-social, pro-civic folks," she said.

    To do that, Heath examined 120 community-based organizations across the country, in impoverished neighborhoods and high-crime zones. These organizations provided services in three categories: athletic-academic, community service, and the arts. Among her findings, the arts carry "a particular power for learning achievement both in the arts themselves and in closely related competencies upon which successful performance and knowledge in the arts depends."

    How the Arts Stimulate Learning
    Why do the arts make such a difference in how students learn and perceive the world?

    Part of the answer is biological. Researchers Shaw and Rauscher believe music stimulation actually forms new and permanent connections in children's brains. San Francisco neurologist Frank R. Wilson "has demonstrated a correlation between music study and muscular development, physical coordination, sense of timing, mental concentration, the ability to hold up under stress, memory skills, and vocal, visual, and aural development," the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. Wilson points out that 90 percent of the cerebellum is devoted to the precise hand-arm movements necessary for playing a musical instrument.

    In the Arts Education Policy Review (July 17, 1998), Shaw and other researchers write, "Recent studies have demonstrated that sophisticated cognitive abilities are present in children as young as five months. Similarly, musical abilities are evident in infants and neonates. Music then may serve as a ‘pre-language' (with centers distinct from language centers in the cortex), available at an early age, which can access inherent cortical spatial-temporal firing patterns and enhance the cortex's ability to accomplish pattern development."

    Even without the neurological evidence, educators know that different children learn differently, and that the arts can be a way to enhance creativity in high academic achievers and stimulate the learning process in children who otherwise might be left behind.

    In 1983, Harvard University Professor Howard Gardner introduced the now widely-accepted theory of "multiple intelligences." Gardner says there are at least eight forms of intelligences: language, logic, musical, spatial, bodily, naturalist, interpersonal and intrapersonal. "A good educational system ought to nourish and nurture the range of intelligences, which include several featured in the arts," Gardner recently said. "Otherwise, we will be neglecting important forms of human potential and stunting the cognitive development of youngsters." All youngsters, he argues, should be exposed to such important creators as Rembrandt and Picasso, Mozart and Duke Ellington, Shakespeare and Toni Morrison. He also favors encouraging each child to master a single art form well enough to be able to create with it–not only as a means of creation, but as a way of learning about the world.

    Indeed, arts education is not only important psychologically and neurologically, but culturally as well. Alexandra York, president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-First Century, contends that fine arts training can "help children develop emotional and moral sensibilities and the discipline that goes with mastering a craft." Her organization wants to make fine arts a mandatory part of every school's core curriculum. " Art education is not a luxury, it is a spiritual necessity," she said, quoted in recent Indianapolis Star editorial supporting arts spending. "At its apotheosis–aesthetically, philosophically and psychologically–art provides a spiritual summation by integrating mind and matter. Thus it is the very souls of our emotionally abandoned, value-starved youth that we can rescue through art education–one at a time."

    Despite the importance of the arts to learning, arts education has experienced debilitating cuts over the past two decades. As many as one-third of the nation's public school music programs have been dropped, and many more programs throughout the country remain in jeopardy. For example, in Milwaukee, budget cuts mean that "many students in the city's public schools reach their teen years without ever having touched a musical instrument or paintbrush," according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Even as the economy has rebounded, increased demand for smaller class sizes and computers have prevented the full recovery of arts education.

    Yet, the nation is experiencing signs of a fragile renewal of arts education–one that could dissipate without additional public and private support.

    Time for a Renaissance

    "I think it's about time for a renaissance," William Bassell, Long Island City High School principal tells Newsday. "An entire generation is graduating without knowing the depth and beauty of music."

    Indeed. That renaissance–or at least a forward holding action–has already begun, lead in part by the private sector and foundations, and by enterprising teachers, principals, and parents.

    Some principals, determined to make up for the shortfall in public funding, have sought outside grants, asked parents to help with art and music teaching, or partnered with cultural institutions in their communities. Teachers have taken donations of art supplies and musical instruments from private companies.

    The music-video TV network VH1 launched its Save the Music Foundation two years ago. Its goal: to raise public awareness about the benefits of music education, collect used instruments for public schools, and raise corporate and private contributions for purchasing new instruments. With the help of Time Warner Cable of New York, the foundation netted $1 million worth of instruments for New York schools during the first year, resulting in more than 70 new music programs. Individual artists are also getting involved. Rocker (and sometimes painter) John Mellencamp will donate profits from a new book of his paintings–to be published in October, 1998–to the foundation. "We started the initiative to save the crumbling music programs in the nation's public schools," VH1 president John Sykes told Billboard magazine in April. "But now we have studies showing that exposing children to music education at elementary-school age helps them in learning math and science. Simply put, music education wires the brain."

    Some school districts have encouraged private art and music instructors to offer on-campus after-school classes for a fee, and a new national program will encourage a similar approach. Others believe that a true arts education renaissance must take place within the whole community, not only in the schools.

    "We can't expect schools to do everything in that little bit of time that they have the kids," says Stanford's Shirley Brice Heath. "Let's think instead about how the children can have learning environments outside of school that would push their creativity in ways that we can never afford to do in the schools."

    Karen Pittman, vice president and director of US programs at the International Youth Foundation (IYF), say that the arts provide a youth with a wide exposure to people of different backgrounds and ages. "In schools you're sorted by age, grade, cognitive skills," she told Kellam. "When you go into the arts, you have the opportunity to go with a real mix of kids."

    She adds, "If I could wave the wand in the air, I would ask for training in music and arts to be considered as important for American kids as cognitive development. To be part of the total education–People are becoming aware of the importance of the arts in youth development. And, she says, people are thinking about standards to re-gear that activity at a higher level. "We're at or near a mini movement around the arts."

    In fact, good models for community-based programs abound, but they remain a patchwork in need of wider support. Increasingly, foundations are asking essential questions about the benefits of such programs and looking to technology as a key component of arts funding.

    While the arts can and should be a part of a child's whole environment, increased public support for spending on school-based arts education is also, especially as part of public-private partnerships.

    Such support may be on the way. California Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, in her report, ARTS WORK: A Call for Arts Education for All California Students, calls for an infusion of state school arts funding over three years, and for the private sector to help local school districts with their arts curriculum. She cites the correlation between arts education and ''enhanced student achievement." She adds, ''When the arts are a strong component of the school environment, academic scores in all areas improve, while dropout rates and absenteeism decline. The arts teach students vital skills–imaginative and flexible ways of thinking, self-discipline, teamwork, and self-confidence.''

    If it results in tangible change, that philosophy is long overdue, says Kay Wagner, director of visual and performing arts for the San Diego Unified District, one of the largest districts in the country.

    "When I came here in 1983, we had four music teachers for over 100 schools. Things have improved somewhat. Now we cover 140 schools (most of them with at least 2,000 students) with 20 teachers. A district this size should have 60 music teachers," says Wagner. The other arts remain in even worse shape. "We still don't have art teachers at all our schools. People still think the other teachers can teach. But untrained teachers and volunteers can do more harm than good. We need trained professionals. And we have a long way to go."

    So do countless other communities across the nation. However, the arts education renaissance is growing. With a strong new push by philanthropy, business, school boards, community-based programs and parents, the arts could return to the educational stage. And children could soon be bringing home a different kind of notice from school: one that describes an array of new ways to learn the "Fourth R."

    Richard Louv is author of Childhood's Future and 101 Things You Can Do for Our Children's Future.