There is a growing body of evidence that arts instruction can significantly strengthen students’ academic performance. The latest research, involving first and second graders at two Pawtucket RI public elementary schools, produced strong evidence that sequential, skill building instruction in arts and music, integrated with the rest of the curriculum, can greatly improve children’s performance in reading and math. The study was a collaborative effort of The Music School (in Providence RI), arts specialists in the Pawtucket school system, and the Kodaly Center of America.
In its first year, the study included ninety-six students, ages 5-7 in eight first-grade classrooms. Four “test arts” classrooms (two each in two schools) participated in a music and visual art program that emphasized sequential skill development and that integrated music and visual art with the rest of the curriculum. Students in the “test arts” classrooms received one hour of music and one hour of visual art per week. Four control classrooms (two in each school) received the school system’s standard visual arts and musical training (one hour of visual arts and forty-five minutes of music in alternating weeks).
After seven months, all students were given standardized first-grade Metropolitan Achievement Tests. Martin Gardiner, research director at The Music School, compared the results with kindergarten achievement test scores for the 83% of students for whom kindergarten scores were available. He found that, although students in the test arts classes had started behind the control students in percentage of students at or above the national average kindergarten Metropolitan Achievement Test scores, they had caught up to statistical equality in reading, and had pulled ahead in mathematics. 77% of those in the “test arts” classes were now at grade level or above in mathematics, as compared to 55% of those in the control groups.
The study was continued the following year in four “test arts” and five control classrooms in second grade at the same schools. Achievement tests were again given after seven months. As in the first year, test and control groups were equal on reading, and “test arts” pupils were ahead on math. The percentage of students at or above grade level in second-grade math was highest in those with two years of the “test arts” program, lower in those with one year, and lowest in those who no “test arts” participation.
Gardiner, a biophysicist, and colleagues theorize that “learning arts skills forces mental ‘stretching’ useful to other areas of learning: the maths learning advantage [found in this study] could, for example, reflect the development of mental skills such as ordering, and other elements of thinking on which mathematical learning at this age also depends.”
The “test arts” program (called the “Start With Arts Program”), developed by music teacher Donna Jeffreys and colleagues, was designed to integrate the areas of art and music with classroom subjects such as reading and math, while maintaining the integrity of the arts curricula. The collaborative team believes that the keys to the improvements in math and reading are the sequential skill-building arts curricula and the integration with the rest of the curriculum.