Panel Paper: Causal Effects of Arts Education: Experimental Evidence from Houston’s District-Wide Arts Access Initiative

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

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Daniel Bowen, Texas A&M University and Brian Kisida, University of Missouri

This presentation will provide the results of a cluster randomized controlled trial of Houston’s Arts Access Initiative. This causal assessment of participation in a district-wide intervention analyzes how arts education enrichment, provided through additional investments and school-community partnerships, impacts a broad range of student outcomes.

The Arts Access Initiative (AAI) was implemented in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) in 2015-16. The primary objective of the AAI was to “increase access to the arts to all children through community partnerships, arts-based training for educators, and access to fine arts educators and creative learning after school.” This access is primarily delivered through funding that is earmarked to initiate and develop school-community partnerships between HISD’s elementary and middle schools and Houston’s vast array of arts organizations and independent artists.

AAI developers designed a program rollout plan where 25 schools would be served in the first two years of implementation, with the expectation of gradually expanding to more campuses over time. Developers opted to only target campuses that volunteered to participate in addition to being deemed “arts deserts” during this pilot phase. Despite these restrictions, over 81 eligible schools applied to participate in this pilot phase. Due to this oversubscription and under our guidance, the program developers implemented the AAI pilot phase as a stratified, clustered randomized controlled trial, where 21 schools served as the treatment group and 21 schools served as the control group.

In coordination with AAI leadership and HISD administrators, we developed the following research questions to assess the impact of the program on students:

  1. Does a substantial influx of arts-based enrichment opportunities improve K-8 school engagement?
  2. Do these opportunities increase students’ desire to engage and participate in the arts?
  3. Does this intervention facilitate gains in academic achievement (as measured by standardized test score gains in core subject areas)?
  4. Does the AAI lead to increases in students’ social skills, specifically in the forms of tolerance, empathy, and sense of civic obligation?
  5. Are there heterogeneous effects across student subgroups?

These questions are addressed through an analysis of administrative and original student survey data. Comparing AAI school gains to their randomly assigned control counterparts, we find that increasing arts learning opportunities significantly increases student attendance and school engagement. We also find that the AAI significantly increased students’ writing scores on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) and students’ sense of civic obligation.

The findings from this evaluation fill longstanding voids in the research of arts education. By leveraging this opportunity to causally assess school-level participation in the district-wide program via random assignment, this study is the most rigorous investigation to date to assess whether arts education enrichment, provided through school-community partnerships, positively impacts student engagement, social and emotional learning and development, engagement in the arts, and academic achievement. As such, these findings will better inform policymakers, arts advocates, and PK-12 educators on how to best utilize community resources, as well as demonstrate the benefits of the arts in curricula and school-sponsored activities.