Debate over the impact of the arts on learning has persisted since the mid-1900’s when drawing and singing became part of the United States school curriculum. For community schools practitioners there is no debate. Exposure to the arts, arts education and education through the arts remain essential even in trying times.
There is solid evidence showing that arts education can have powerful effects on student achievement –that the arts nourish both the spirit and the brain. Music education, for instance, is required of all students in Japan, Hungary and the Netherlands; those three countries have the highest mathematics and science test scores in the world. Visual and kinesthetic arts have also been shown to have enormous impact on learning.
Arts education facilitates intellectual and personal development, with an even more profound impact on vulnerable students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. In addition, the arts contribute to lower recidivism, increased academic performance, reduced absenteeism; improved self-esteem, creative thinking, problem-solving, communications and marketable skills, as well as the ability to focus and sustain attention to details. An added bonus is that the arts help create happier, healthier and safer schools.
The community schools strategy addresses education through the arts as well as arts education. Educationthrough the arts (arts-integrated learning) is an instructional strategy that connects the arts across the curriculum –both during school day and during out-of-school time. Artists and teachers collaborate in designing lessons connecting subject matter to an arts project. Students might learn geometry and math skills through architecture; or they may write and produce a play, a musical or a film about a historical event; this parallel process appears to generate a cognitive resonance between the two subjects, deepening student engagement and learning in both.
Arts education requires the teaching of a specific art form. Some of the most effective arts programs are the result of partnerships between local and national art organizations and schools, which aligns with the community schools’ focus on joining forces for the good of children and youth. These types of partnerships are even more necessary during difficult economic times because they may help balance the cost of programs.
At the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), we believe that the arts are an essential component of education, and should be fully integrated into a school’s curriculum and instructional plan. A sustained dosage of quality arts education will have important short-and long-term effects on student achievement and has proven to re-engage disconnected students and deepen the connection of families and communities to education and learning.
Why is it that, whenever funding is cut from education, in spite of the evidence, the arts become the first casualty? Is it because they are still widely classified as affective and expressive, rather than academic or cognitive? Often, the arts survive as only add-ons to education, as curriculum enhancements, rewards to well-behaved students, or electives for the talented and affluent.
The spring 2011 issue of Partnership Press features some vibrant arts programs from the CAS community schools in New York City and from colleagues in Chicago and Montreal, striving to keep the arts as central to school reform and student engagement.