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Arts Education Matters

 Though the arts receive relatively little attention from policymakers and school leaders, exposing young people to art and culture can have a big impact on their development. The problem is that almost no one is bothering to study and document the extent to which the arts and culture can affect students. Instead, policymakers, researchers, and schools are typically focused on what is regularly and easily measured: math and reading achievement. This leads defenders of the arts to attempt to connect the arts to improved math and reading scores—a claim for which there is almost no rigorous evidence. Other arts advocates believe that the benefits cannot and need not be measured.

But the important effects of art and cultural experiences on students can be rigorously measured. In fact, we recently conducted two studies that used random-assignment research designs to identify causal effects of exposure to the arts through museum and theater attendance. In the museum study, we held a lottery with nearly 11,000 students from 123 Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma schools, roughly half of whom were assigned to visit Crystal Bridges of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., while the other half served as the control group. In the live-theater study, we conducted a lottery to offer free tickets to roughly half of the 700 Arkansas students applying to see “Hamlet” or “A Christmas Carol” at a professional theater in Fayetteville.

By comparing outcomes for students who had these art experiences—by chance—with the outcomes of those who did not, we can identify with confidence what the arts do for young people. The approach we took, which is typical in medical research, creates treatment and control groups that are, on average, identical in their backgrounds and prior interests, with only chance determining the distinction between the two groups. Therefore, any subsequent differences we observed in the students were caused by touring an art museum or seeing live theater, not a result of pre-existing differences among them.

We were also careful to focus on outcomes that could plausibly be altered by the arts. We didn’t look at math- and reading-test scores because we have no reason to expect that arts experiences would have an impact on them. Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner, who are affiliated with the education research group Project Zero at Harvard University, have conducted systematic reviewsof the research literature and found little credible evidence that the benefits of the arts transfer to other academic subjects. We should no more expect the arts to boost math scores than expect math to enhance appreciation for the arts.

Instead, we looked at whether exposure to the arts affected students’ knowledge of the arts and altered their desire to consume the arts in the future. We also looked at whether art experiences had an effect on student values, such as tolerance and empathy. Finally, we looked at whether students’ ability to engage in critical thinking about the arts was affected by these experiences.