Saturday, July 29, 2006

The invisible almost shines

The New York times reports that art education benefits literacy skills in third graders, at least according to a study conducted with funding by the Guggenheim Museum.

Does learning about paintings and sculpture help children become better students in other areas?

A study to be released today by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum suggests that it does, citing improvements in a range of literacy skills among students who took part in a program in which the Guggenheim sends artists into schools. The study, now in its second year, interviewed hundreds of New York City third graders, some of whom had participated in the Guggenheim program, called Learning Through Art, and others who did not.

The study found that students in the program performed better in six categories of literacy and critical thinking skills — including thorough description, hypothesizing and reasoning — than did students who were not in the program. The children were assessed as they discussed a passage in a children’s book, Cynthia Kadohata’s “Kira-Kira,” and a painting by Arshile Gorky, “The Artist and His Mother.”

The Guggenheim’s program began in 1970 in response to New York City Public Schools cutting programs for the arts. It’s hard to imagine that this was a big issue in 1970 since it is still such an issue today. You’d think that there wouldn’t be anything left to cut. But I guess there’s still a little bit of blood left in that big old apple.

Of course it’s not just New York. Programs for the arts are being cut in schools all over the country in favor of additional classes in reading, writing and arithmetic. And it’s not just the visual arts, but music and even academic subjects such as science, history and social studies are being cut.

The ability to test is what distinguishes which programs are out of favor. Curriculums for art and music are all over the place, if at all. Without a national curriculum, it is impossible to even conceive of an arts or music test for fifth graders nationwide. Even with a curriculum, the competitive judging of a students art or music knowledge and skills would be so subjective as to make it worthless, if not actually harmful.

But whether a student is actually talented as an artist or a musician is not the issue. The question is whether or not an arts education is helpful to an overall education. Is it good for the brain? Most people see the answer as simple common sense. Unfortunately in this case there is no "common" sense on the subject. Some think the answer is obviously yes, others that it's obviously no. The value of an arts education is something that has proven difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

I can tell you this from personal experience. I spent over a year researching the finest independent schools in New York City. I did a lot of reading, I spoke extensively with independent experts, I visited the schools, met with teachers and headmasters, and sat in on many classes. These schools, many of which are rated as among the best in the country; these schools that feed the Ivy league and other elite universities; these schools that are as exclusive as exclusive gets; these schools emphasize the importance of an arts education. Their arts programs are one of their strongest selling points.

The belief is that an arts education teaches skills that get to the heart of basic intelligence, especially in young children, such as sequencing, pattern recognition, and spatial reasoning. As the child progresses through the grades. the belief is that the arts provide an essential base for the understanding of our place in the world, of history, civilization, social studies, and ethics. It’s an overused example, but Guernica says more about the morality of war than most of the history books combined. Music builds complex pathways in the brain. The theatrical arts bolster confidence an public speaking. The creativity that goes into any of the arts applies to everything else in life. The best in any field, be it medicine, law, business, architecture, or whatever, are creative individuals. Learning to be creative enhances a person’s opportunities in almost any field.

That’s what the elite education establishment believes, and I think it’s safe to say that educators in general agree. But we live in a time in which metrics rule. Value must be quantified. If the numbers do not support it, then it does not exist.

So the folks at the Guggenheim give it a go. And although they report some happy results, not all is well in metric-land.

Yet the study also found that the program did not help improve students’ scores on the city’s standardized English language arts test, a result that the study’s creators said they could not fully explain. They suggested that the disparity might be related to the fact that the standardized test is written while the study’s interviews were oral.

“We purposely chose to have students talk to us instead of writing because we thought they would show language skills, not purely reading and writing skills,” said Johanna Jones, a senior associate with Randi Korn and Associates, a museum research company conducting the study over three years with a $640,000 grant from the federal Department of Education.

Does this failure of an arts education to improve results on standardized tests indicate that arts education is not as valuable as its adherents believe or does it indicate a limitation of the standardized test?

Well, I have my opinion, as do you. But what I find interesting about this study is that the people who conducted it have their opinion as well, and they do not hide it.
“We really held our breath waiting for this year’s results, and they turned out to almost exactly the same — which means that last year’s don’t seem to have been an anomaly,” she said. “That’s a big deal in this world.”

While it is unknown exactly how learning about art helps literacy skills, she said, “the hypothesis is that the use of both talking about art and using inquiry to help students tease apart the meaning of paintings helps them learn how to tease apart the meanings of texts, too. They apply those skills to reading.”

The researchers admittedly have a hypothesis and great hopes that the studies will prove them right. And as much as I, too, believe that their hypothesis is correct, I am uncomfortable with researchers cheerleading for particular results, especially when those results also match the hopes and dreams of those funding the research.
Officials at the Guggenheim said they hoped the study would give ammunition to educators in schools and museums around the country who are seeking more money and classroom time for arts education.

“Basically, this study is a major contribution to the field of art and museum education,” said Kim Kanatani, the Guggenheim’s director of education. “We think it confirms what we as museum education professionals have intuitively known but haven’t ever had the resources to prove.”

So I wouldn’t even categorize the Guggenheim’s effort as a nice try. It is an exercise in advocacy research little, if any, better than outright propaganda.

I understand that showing a link between arts education and an improvement on standardized reading tests would be a great thing, but I don’t think unapologetic advocacy research is going to do a lot to help the cause. And it’s possible that the link simply doesn’t exist. My layman’s guess would be that it would be more likely to show up on math tests than literacy.

And my layman’s advice would be to consider a different type of testing. If arts education enhances brain functioning, it should show up on a CAT scan. or whatever kind of scan shows brain activity. That’s the kind of test I’d like to see. Take brain scans of kids at the beginning of third grade. Teach one group a curriculum heavily integrated with arts, music and recreation. Teach another group today’s preferred curriculum with its heavy emphasis on preparing for standardized exams. Then let them take both brain scans and standardized tests. I’d like to see those results.