For anyone who doubted the utility of the arts, the report, “Arts Education Makes A Difference in Missouri Schools”, put out in March 2010 by the Missouri Alliance for Arts Education, states clearly what arts educators already knew: schools with higher participation in arts classes or programs have better rates of desirable factors like fewer disciplinary problems, higher attendance rates, and high graduation rates. However, the Conclusions sections of the report does make sure to note that “we can’t claim that participation in fine arts courses causes higher academic achievement,” [italics mine] yet definite correlations between participation and achievement do exist. In an another important feature of the findings, even children of lower socio-economic groups exhibited a correlation between participation in arts education and improved performance.
When I first began teaching creative writing at an arts magnet high school, I imagined having students like the ones I knew when I had attended its predecessor program in the early 1990s and spent two years in the technical theater component. Back then, the individual arts programs were open to any student in the county – public or private school – and students stayed at their home school for four periods and were either bussed to or drove to Carver High School for two periods each school day; the students in the arts programs were devoted to their art forms, and all of us planned to go to college to major in our art. (I did begin college as a theater major, before switching to English later.) However, coming eleven years later to the school’s newer all-day incarnation as a teacher, I was taken aback immediately at how few students were dedicated heart-and-soul to their art form; in my eight years of teaching, only about 1/3 of my students go to college to study English, creative writing or journalism, and some of my students over the years have expressed open disdain even though they voluntarily applied for and stayed in the program. While these facts used to leave me very diconcerted — I wanted students who wanted to pursue writing as badly I wanted to help them pursue it — my ideas about the role of arts education in the lives of young people have changed in more recent years.
“Arts Education Makes A Difference in Missouri Schools” is a case-and-point for how I think now about being an arts educator, because it highlights the larger benefits of including the arts in an overall curriculum and how participating in the arts affects all aspects of the students’ lives. I began to understand this larger notion last year when I was leading a group of teachers in writing a federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) grant application – unfortunately, we didn’t get the money – and the questions that application asked over and over were, in some form: how will the programs for which funding is requested benefit an overall educational experience? The Missouri report and the MSAP application both point to the same ideal, which is: arts education is not simply mentoring for a specific future career path, but it is more deeply about utilizing the arts to form more developed thought practices and more creative, dynamic habits in dealing with life and the world. For instance, the correlation between arts participation and fewer disciplinary problems rests in the fact that people who are allowed to express themselves freely and openly do not feel suppressed, do not harbor ill will, and do not react in unacceptable ways when that ill will builds up. (Why do we recognize this phenomena in places like Libya but not in our own schools?) Read the report, if you have time.