Research shows that students who engage in the arts at school perform better in math, reading, and writing, and have an enhanced social and emotional experience. Waldorf education integrates an array of arts into the curriculum to support academic growth, develop communication and collaboration skills, and give children a well-rounded, joyful educational journey!
This article was originally written by Brian Kisida and Daniel H. Bowen and published by the Brookings Institution
A critical challenge for arts education has been a lack of empirical evidence that demonstrates its educational value. Though few would deny that the arts confer intrinsic benefits, advocating “art for art’s sake” has been insufficient for preserving the arts in schools—despite national surveys showing an overwhelming majority of the public agrees that the arts are a necessary part of a well-rounded education.
Over the last few decades, the proportion of students receiving arts education has shrunk drastically. This trend is primarily attributable to the expansion of standardized-test-based accountability, which has pressured schools to focus resources on tested subjects. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done. These pressures have disproportionately affected access to the arts in a negative way for students from historically underserved communities. For example, a federal government report found that schools designated under No Child Left Behind as needing improvement and schools with higher percentages of minority students were more likely to experience decreases in time spent on arts education.
We recently conducted the first ever large-scale, randomized controlled trial study of a city’s collective efforts to restore arts education through community partnerships and investments. Building on our previous investigations of the impacts of enriching arts field trip experiences, this study examines the effects of a sustained reinvigoration of schoolwide arts education. Specifically, our study focuses on the initial two years of Houston’s Arts Access Initiative and includes 42 elementary and middle schools with over 10,000 third- through eighth-grade students. Our study was made possible by generous support of the Houston Endowment, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Spencer Foundation.
Due to the program’s gradual rollout and oversubscription, we implemented a lottery to randomly assign which schools initially participated. Half of these schools received substantial influxes of funding earmarked to provide students with a vast array of arts educational experiences throughout the school year. Participating schools were required to commit a monetary match to provide arts experiences. Including matched funds from the Houston Endowment, schools in the treatment group had an average of $14.67 annually per student to facilitate and enhance partnerships with arts organizations and institutions. In addition to arts education professional development for school leaders and teachers, students at the 21 treatment schools received, on average, 10 enriching arts educational experiences across dance, music, theater, and visual arts disciplines. Schools partnered with cultural organizations and institutions that provided these arts learning opportunities through before- and after-school programs, field trips, in-school performances from professional artists, and teaching-artist residencies. Principals worked with the Arts Access Initiative director and staff to help guide arts program selections that aligned with their schools’ goals.
Our research efforts were part of a multisector collaboration that united district administrators, cultural organizations and institutions, philanthropists, government officials, and researchers. Collective efforts similar to Houston’s Arts Access Initiative have become increasingly common means for supplementing arts education opportunities through school-community partnerships. Other examples include Boston’s Arts Expansion Initiative, Chicago’s Creative Schools Initiative, and Seattle’s Creative Advantage.
Through our partnership with the Houston Education Research Consortium, we obtained access to student-level demographics, attendance and disciplinary records, and test score achievement, as well as the ability to collect original survey data from all 42 schools on students’ school engagement and social and emotional-related outcomes.
We find that a substantial increase in arts educational experiences has remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes. Relative to students assigned to the control group, treatment school students experienced a 3.6 percentage point reduction in disciplinary infractions, an improvement of 13 percent of a standard deviation in standardized writing scores, and an increase of 8 percent of a standard deviation in their compassion for others. In terms of our measure of compassion for others, students who received more arts education experiences are more interested in how other people feel and more likely to want to help people who are treated badly.
When we restrict our analysis to elementary schools, which comprised 86 percent of the sample and were the primary target of the program, we also find that increases in arts learning positively and significantly affect students’ school engagement, college aspirations, and their inclinations to draw upon works of art as a means for empathizing with others. In terms of school engagement, students in the treatment group were more likely to agree that school work is enjoyable, makes them think about things in new ways, and that their school offers programs, classes, and activities that keep them interested in school. We generally did not find evidence to suggest significant impacts on students’ math, reading, or science achievement, attendance, or our other survey outcomes, which we discuss in our full report.
As education policymakers increasingly rely on empirical evidence to guide and justify decisions, advocates struggle to make the case for the preservation and restoration of K-12 arts education. To date, there is a remarkable lack of large-scale experimental studies that investigate the educational impacts of the arts. One problem is that U.S. school systems rarely collect and report basic data that researchers could use to assess students’ access and participation in arts educational programs. Moreover, the most promising outcomes associated with arts education learning objectives extend beyond commonly reported outcomes such as math and reading test scores. There are strong reasons to suspect that engagement in arts education can improve school climate, empower students with a sense of purpose and ownership, and enhance mutual respect for their teachers and peers. Yet, as educators and policymakers have come to recognize the importance of expanding the measures we use to assess educational effectiveness, data measuring social and emotional benefits are not widely collected. Future efforts should continue to expand on the types of measures used to assess educational program and policy effectiveness.
These findings provide strong evidence that arts educational experiences can produce significant positive impacts on academic and social development. Because schools play a pivotal role in cultivating the next generation of citizens and leaders, it is imperative that we reflect on the fundamental purpose of a well-rounded education. This mission is critical in a time of heightened intolerance and pressing threats to our core democratic values. As policymakers begin to collect and value outcome measures beyond test scores, we are likely to further recognize the value of the arts in the fundamental mission of education.
Working to rebuild community and identity in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Bryan Thao Worra is a talented Laotian American writer, poet and community activist and has forged a path connecting experiences of refugees with the restorative aspects of writing. Born in Vientiane in the Kingdom of Laos, Bryan was adopted at three days old by an American pilot named John Worra, who flew for Royal Air Lao. He arrived in the U.S. six months later and eventually settled with his family in Saline, Michigan. He joined the Rudolf Steiner Lower School in it’s fledgling years (early 1980’s), when the school had mixed grades and only two classrooms. After graduating from 8th grade at RSSAA in 1987, he went on to Saline High School and eventually Otterbein College.
Bryan’s leadership in the writing community is being acknowledged during a livestreamed event at the Library of Congress on May 2 in recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month. Appreciating his accomplishments, we reached out to him in order to learn a little about his thoughts on his Waldorf education and ideas around the arts and advocacy.
Your work over the last 20 years has focused on refugee resettlement and the arts. Can you tell us how you’ve connected with refugees through your writings and Southeast Asian diaspora?
The last two decades have taken me across the globe, searching for others who were scattered in the diaspora that followed the end of the Southeast Asian conflicts of the 20th century. I'd understood that many of the elders who were so fundamental to understanding how and why we are in America were passing away even as the younger generation didn't always know how to ask the questions they needed to preserve their family and community histories. In the United States, and in many parts of the world, those who don't understand their roots are often among the most easily exploited and many will find themselves adrift if they cannot understand who they have been, and how to express a future they see themselves in.
One aspect of my process has involved committing to a range of stories, poems, artworks and presentations on both the historical and the wildly imaginative, the cosmic and the everyday and to encourage my fellow refugees to consider different ways of expressing their own experiences and dreams. To give them the freedom to feel that it's ok to risk and to write more than one story, one poem, one idea to pass on to the next generation.
You joined RSSAA as a very young person. What do you remember about your experience with Waldorf education that has shaped your poetry and writing, or you as a person?
At first it was a startling experience, but a wonderful challenge engaging both my logical and creative sides. Our teachers there helped me find the confidence and initiative to direct my own learning and response to given lessons. One of the most important parts of that experience was creating my own textbooks. That absolutely impacted how I eventually made chapbooks and poetry collections later, and my enthusiasm for having experience on all sides of the publishing process. RSSAA prepared me for high school and college in such a way that I often felt way ahead of my peers and even a little out of place, enthusiastically seeking knowledge and ideas to share with others. It was always surprising to meet others who didn't have that energy and motivation. My years with RSSAA encouraged me to form lifelong friendships and to explore the deep connections between everything and to see my own experiences had a relationship to it all.
What role did the arts play for you as you grew up?
Growing up there weren't many books about my culture and my heritage in the encyclopedias or in popular culture. There was no clear timeline that helped me understand those essential questions: "Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where are we going?" The arts provided a way to risk, and to experiment, to pose questions. They weren't legal depositions, but could often touch on great truths while I explored the questions of my identity and what it might mean to reconnect with others to rebuild our community after the war. Initially this was often a rather non-linear process but it became essential, much like the process in solving a jigsaw puzzle.
Do you have advice for young people who want to pair the arts with advocacy?
There are many ways to articulate a vision for a better world. Sometimes by showing a new model of possibilities, sometimes through warnings of unintended or even intended consequences. Each technique has its uses and limitations, and an artist will always face a particular risk with advocacy: Do we reinforce the existing arguments or dismantle them for something better? Pushback is possible with both. We have to commit to learning as much as we can on a given issue, and then we have to give ourselves permission to risk a new way of expressing what matters to us. And sometimes, an artist must find ways to avoid the inertia that comes from waiting for "the perfect" and instead seek "the good" and "the necessary" at a given point of time. As you get started, the key thing to remember is that you don't need to be the last word, but a word that gets the conversations started to create change.