A new NEA study finds disadvantaged students do better academically if they are intensely involved in the arts.  Miller-McCune
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Students from the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder tend to do less well in school than those from more upscale families. But newly published research identifies one sub-group of these youngsters who tend to exceed expectations: those who participate heavily in the arts.

“At-risk teenagers or young adults with a history of intensive arts experiences show achievement levels closer to, and in some cases exceeding, the levels shown by the general population studied,” a team of scholars writes in a new National Endowment for the Arts Research Report. “These findings suggest that in-school or extracurricular programs offering deep arts involvement may help to narrow the gap in achievement levels among youth.”

This will be good news for the characters of Glee, and their counterparts in real life — especially those from poor families. The primary focus of the report, titled “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth,” is on teenagers and young adults in the bottom 25 percent of the socioeconomic scale (as measured by family income, parental employment and the parents’ level of education).

For that group, the authors write, there is a remarkably strong association between participation in the arts and a wide variety of positive outcomes.

“In two separate databases, students who had arts-rich experiences in high school showed higher overall grade point averages than did students who lacked those experiences,” the researchers write. These band members and ballerinas even had slightly higher-than-average GPAs in math.

What’s more, those higher grades paid off. Disadvantaged high school students heavily involved in cultural activities enrolled in competitive colleges — and in four-year colleges in general — at higher rates than their counterparts who avoided the arts.

The researchers, led by UCLA education policy analyst James Catterall, caution that this data does not establish cause and effect. It is possible that the same factors that lead some kids into the arts also make them more likely to excel in other arenas.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that engagement with the arts provides motivation or stimulation that has an impact far beyond the studio or practice room.

The NEA report is based on four separate sets of data: The National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (Kindergarten Class of 1998-99), the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth of 1997. Each of these studies followed children for a number of years; three of the four tracked their activities in high school and then measured their life achievements into early adulthood.

Engagement in the arts was gauged by giving students one point for each arts activity they participated in (either in class or extracurricular), with “extra points for recurring exposure to a specific arts activity, for service in an arts leadership position, or for advanced-placement coursework in the arts.”

Crunching the numbers from the four studies, the researchers found 71 percent of “low-SES students” who were heavily involved in the arts attended “some sort of college” after graduating from high school, and 39 percent attended a four-year college.

In contrast, for those who had little or no involvement with the arts, 48 percent attended a college of any type, and only 17 percent attended a four-year college.

“Most of the positive relationships between arts involvement and academic outcomes apply only to at-risk populations,” the researchers. Most, but not all. Among high school students from higher-income, higher-education families (the top 25 percent in socioeconomic terms), those who were involved in the arts had a significantly higher GPA than those who did not: 3.17 compared to 2.97.

Among this relatively privileged group, “college-going rates were higher if students had engaged in arts-rich experiences in high school,” the researchers report. “Ninety-four percent of the high-arts group went on to a four-year college, vs. 76 percent of the low-arts group.” And they did well once they got to college, with 55 percent earning “mostly As” compared to 37 percent of the non-arts-involved group.

In an introductory note, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman complains that “over the past four decades, budget pressures and an increasing focus on just reading and math have crowded the arts out of too many school days. What’s lost? The chance for a child to express himself. The chance for the idiosyncratic child who has not yet succeeded elsewhere to shine. A sense of play, of fun, of discovery.

“James Catterall and his fellow authors have shown that something else is lost, too: potential. Students who have arts-rich experiences in school do better across-the-board academically, and they also become more active and engaged citizens, voting, volunteering, and generally participating at higher rates than their peers.”

Landesman’s takeaway from the study is clear: “I firmly believe that when a school delivers the complete education to which every child is entitled — an education that very much includes the arts — the whole child blossoms.”