Panel Paper: Even Controlling for Large Selection Effects, There Are Academic Benefits from Art Elective Courses in Middle-School for Low-Income, Ethnically Diverse Youth

Friday, November 9, 2018
8219 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Adam Winsler1, Alenamae Alegrado1 and Taylor V. Gara2, (1)George Mason University, (2)University of California, Irvine

It is critical for research on the effects of arts engagement to identify and carefully control for selection factors that differentiate those that do and do not get exposure to the arts. Given that randomly assigning students to take middle school arts classes is impossible in public schools, this prospective longitudinal design, which takes into consideration pre-existing differences between art exposure groups is one of the strongest quasi-experimental options available to test for a potential causal connection between arts exposure and later outcomes. In a 10-year, prospective longitudinal study, we followed a large, diverse sample of preschools (n = 31,332; 61% Latino, 32% Black, 55% ELL, 81% free/reduced lunch) as they completed 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. Child school readiness (cognitive, language, motor, social, and behavioral skills) was assessed during pre-K, and public school data were collected, including arts-related elective courses (dance, drama, music, and/or visual art) taken in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, and children’s academic outcomes later in school (GPA, retention, suspension, math and reading tests).

Overall, 40% of students took some kind of arts course (music, dance, drama, visual art) during middle school. Of those who took arts classes in 6th grade, almost half (44%) did not do so in 7th grade. Multivariate, hierarchical, logistic regression models showed that Black students, males, students with disabilities, those previously retained, and those not English proficient had reduced odds of taking an arts class. Children with stronger school readiness skills at age 4 and stronger prior academics were more likely to enroll in arts-related courses. Importantly, controlling for all selection variables including prior academic performance, students with exposure to arts electives in middle school subsequently had significantly higher GPAs, math and reading scores, and decreased odds of school suspension compared to students not exposed to the arts. (Note: we will also summarize how results varied by type of art [music, dance, drama or visual art]).

Policy implications: a) arts programs in middle schools are valuable and linked to enhanced academic performance, especially for ethnically diverse students in poverty, so funding for arts opportunities in urban public schools should be increased; b) access to middle schools that offer robust arts programs in not equal across ethnic and income lines - a gap that should be addressed; c) even within schools where arts are offered, Black students, those with disabilities, and those struggling in school are less likely to take arts elective classes, so enhanced efforts to include these groups of students more in arts electives are needed, d) many students stop taking arts electives, and those who quit tend to do so in 7th grade, so arts educators should target 6th grade to focus their student retention efforts, and finally e) because of huge selection effects (those who take arts are more advantaged years earlier), policy makers should maintain strong standards for what counts as evidence – research that use rigorous experimental or quasiexperimental design or that carefully control for selection effects (as done here).