Investigating Causal Effects of Arts Education Experiences
Experimental Evidence from Houston's Arts Access Initiative
IssueArts education / Arts participation by young people
Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research
Daniel H. Bowen and Brian Kisida
Based on “a randomized controlled trial with 10,548 3rd-8th grade students” at 42 schools in Houston, this report provides causal evidence that arts education “experiences can produce significant positive impacts on student academic and social development”.
Previous research cited in the report shows that, since the 1980s, there has been a decrease in arts education experiences in American schools, with different changes for diverse groups of children:
- A reduction of 77% for students whose parents have less than a high-school education
- A decrease of 49% for African-American students
- A reduction of 40% for Hispanic / Latinx students
- “Virtually no change” for white students
The Houston study “is the first large-scale randomized control trial of an arts education program implemented in an authentic educational setting”. The researchers indicate that they can “confidently infer a causal relationship between the treatment and assessed outcomes” because of the random assignment of schools to a new “Arts Access Initiative” as well as the care taken in constructing the non-arts-enhanced control group of schools. As such, the influx of arts experiences was the only significant difference between students in the “treatment schools” (i.e., those receiving new arts experiences) and those in control schools.
Students participated in arts opportunities available through “school-community partnerships with local arts organizations, cultural institutions, and teaching artists”. The arts initiatives incorporated a range of disciplines and experiences:
- Theatre (54%), music (18%), visual arts (16%), and dance (12%)
- Teaching-artist residencies (33%), on-campus professional artist performances (31%), field trip experiences (27%), and programs outside of regular school hours (9%)
The researchers outline three statistically significant, positive finding related to an increase in students’ arts educational experiences: 1) a reduction in “the proportion of students receiving a disciplinary infraction”; 2) an improvement in writing achievement; and 3) an increase in students’ compassion for others. In addition, “estimates are typically in the positive direction for all other outcomes, but fail to achieve traditional levels of statistical significance”. For the overall sample, the research does not “find significant effects overall on student attendance, math, reading, or science achievement, or other survey-based measures”.
The report and its appendices outline the positive outcomes of arts experiences for many sub-groups of students, including some groups who have seen substantial decreases in such experiences over prior decades. For example, African-American students saw a statistically significant improvement in school engagement.
Despite the positive findings, the researchers caution that they only examine shorter-term outcomes and do not know “which particular types of [arts] offerings were more likely to bring about desired effects”.