Why Arts?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the arts lately. We are in the final stages of preparing a report on the arts in expanded-time schools and, as I spend these weeks visiting and writing about schools with strong arts programs, I’ve come away with a new appreciation of just how much impact arts education can have on children’s lives.

One of the schools I visited—the Cole Arts and Sciences Academy in Denver—is headed by Julie Murgel, an innovative principal, who is crystal clear about their effect. She talks almost lovingly of how the many arts opportunities in her school are key to developing in her students the higher-order thinking skills that they will need to thrive in the 21st century. Principal Leo Flanagan of the Clarence Edwards Middle School in Boston points to the fact that his school—which has both the time and the institutional commitment to dedicate about two hours a day to arts programming—offers proof of the value of music and visual arts and theater for student’s academic performance. The Edwards school is one of the very few in the state to post high growth in both ELA and math for two years running. 
But, in some ways, these arguments for arts education—how they promote behaviors and learning that lead to strong cognitive skills—miss the point. What is most striking about the students in these schools we met is how participation in whatever form of art they are involved in ignites a flame. A Cole eighth grader explained to me that, yes, her elective in Shakespeare has enabled her to be a better communicator in her academic classes, but what really mattered to her was that the activity allowed her to follow her passion. “I just love acting,” she muses.
Similarly, we heard a group of students wax on about how their participation in band or in the school musical has, and I quote “changed my life.” Consider what Yvonne had to say about her own experience: “Ever since sixth grade when I auditioned for Grease, musical theater has taught me how to feel comfortable and communicate with others. It makes me feel good just being there, like I’m home. I come to school and do my work, but I can’t wait to get to theater and express who I am and show my real personality.”
Of course, this uplifting testimony does not come about by accident. It takes the intense devotion of faculty and administrators in these schools to be sure that the enrichments are of high quality, that students have the chance to choose in what activities they want to participate, and, of course, that there is sufficient time to allow these interests to bloom into real passions. Because these schools have substantially more time in the school day, they can allow students to spend serious time practicing their dance routines or perfecting their paintings and, then, through this hard work these kids are able to develop the love they need to improve.  It is a virtuous cycle enabled by the very simple—but oh so difficult—matter of committing sufficient time.
Keep your eyes peeled for when we release the full study on arts sometime this summer so you can get a full picture of just how valuable these programs can be.