Arts Educated

The Hive checks in with Dr. Kathleen Thomas who studies how art participation influences education results.


Dr. Kathleen Thomas and I are the kind of friends that giggle a lot. We giggle at the giggles. I forget she is an economist, because economists are serious like artists are moody. When not giggling with friends or raising her family, she works to statistically isolate the impact of arts education on overall academic performance. She builds an argument for the arts in elementary and secondary education.

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I grew up in a musical household. We used to go Christmas caroling in the neighborhood in four-part harmony – Mom on soprano and me on alto, my dad and brother on tenor and bass. My dad was a music major in college, and he sings and plays the piano. My mom has a beautiful soprano voice and plays the piano, too. I sang in church and school choirs from grade school to college and into my adult years. I also studied piano for over ten years. I’ve dabbled in musical theatre, sang in a small show choir in college, sang in coffeehouses while working on my master’s degree, and sang a partial season with Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus while working on my doctorate in economics. That was the hardest audition of my life – sight-reading and a written musical theory test! I continue to do both solo and choral vocal work today.

As a parent, I’ve often said that I don’t need research to know that I want my children to experience the arts. I had it growing up and it’s just really important. My kids are fortunate enough to attend a private school that does a good job of supporting music and the visual arts both as stand alone courses and as an integrated part of the curriculum. My eight year old daughter began piano lessons a year ago and sang in a small children’s choir at our church last year. Unfortunately, our church is small and there was not enough interest to sustain the program. I should mention that we are lucky to live near a university town. My daughter’s piano teacher is a university instructor and holds a doctorate in collaborative piano. We plan to start piano lessons for my son next year.

I think that arts education programs in public schools should be broadly available and engaging. Quality programs in the arts should not only be for wealthy, suburban kids who probably have opportunities for private training as well. Low-income students who may not have the resources or home infrastructure to support private instruction should have access to quality arts programming in their neighborhood schools. Arts education programs should be interesting and relevant to the cultural backgrounds of the students enrolled.

piano photos-4The research that I do is in education policy, so I straddle social science and education. In the past five years, I’ve started to look specifically at arts education, and its influence on education outcomes, and even broader outcomes.

If we look at observational data, what can we see about arts participation impact on high school drop out rates? What would our theory be? Why is it that artistic participation matters? When we think about why, when we look at the studies of past dropouts, we’re definitely going to hear that they failed their classes, right? They get to a point they don’t really see how to be successful: “Why should I be spending my time on this way if I’m not going to pass?” You hear things like, “It’s boring” or, “It’s irrelevant to my life.” When you look at what arts advocates very strongly support, it’s a theory of engagement. And so, figuring out the engagement piece is a really important part of the puzzle.

DSC00233There’s something about courses in the arts that engages students in their education and connects them to their schools in ways that the traditional subjects do not. As Jessica Davis puts it, students create out of their own life experiences. That gives them a sense of agency, a kind of authority over what it is that they’re creating. And that creates this environment where it attaches them – at least our theory is that’s it’s attaching them – to their school experience in ways that other courses don’t.

The idea is if the arts are somehow engaging students in their education – giving them a reason to come to school – then maybe they’ll stick around and take their math and science classes, too. And maybe if they can start making connections and being inspired, they can make it through. That’s what we were trying to find.

Think about how the arts create this safe place for students. They might not feel that in any of the other courses that they’re taking. And so much of this also happens in groups. If you are putting on a play, or participating in a musical performance, you are working together. The team is part of this larger organization, the high school. Right? Maybe there’s a district wide arts competition. You’re motivated to win this as a team. Maybe it’s a choral competition. Or any kind of an artistic exhibition – does that then give you the sense that “I am a part of this high school.” What does having that connection do to your larger education?

A lot of the kids who are struggling in schools, minority and low income students, are being pulled out of their arts classes and they’re going to have to drill and kill for the math course they failed the last semester. So we don’t have a representative sample of kids taking the arts. There’s something about the kids who choose to take music classes. The families that they come from encourage that. So is it the music class, or is it some characteristic of the kid? Maybe it’s just that they’re more motivated. Who decides to study the arts? Who are the kids who study visual arts and music? And would a self-directed learner succeed, even if he or she had not had an art experience?

There’s a lot of variation in the quality of instruction in our public schools. Kids have very, very different arts experiences. Sometimes I’m calling schools that are so wealthy. A school with resources has a fine arts department and a fine arts director that they can connect you to. In a wealthy school, any additional money that’s needed, the parents raise it.

When school budgets are constrained, what gets cut? The arts. If we’re talking about this new economy, this economy that is so technology driven, but yet it’s about innovation and creativity, why in the world would we be willing to take our most creative subjects out of the public school curriculum?

When you have school administrators who are faced with constrained budgets, we can bemoan the fact that they cut the arts. But they have every incentive to do so. What they really have to show in terms of accountability, in adequate yearly progress, is that their students are making improvements in reading and mathematics. The incentive for the administrator is clear: If we go through another budget crisis, let go of the arts teachers.

c_03What’s needed are experimental studies that show a causal effect between arts education and outcomes that we care about. Why do we need this information? Because policy is based on studies and that’s how you get money. We are talking about this in a K through 12 framework, but what about college and career readiness? There are so many other outcomes: social and emotional outcomes; health outcomes.

I have a grant right now from the National Endowment for the Arts to do a program evaluation of this nonprofit called Little Kids Rock. They are putting musical instruments in low income schools. The district has to have at least 50% of its student body on free or reduced price lunch. They are providing a small amount of teacher training and a pedagogy: kids need to be introduced to instruments they’re familiar with – guitar, drums, keyboard – and they need to play the songs that they hear on the radio. Because that’s what they identify with. Not only that, but the idea is to teach music the way that we teach languages: immersion. Do it – don’t have it explained to you. “Here’s the instrument, let me show you how to play a G chord, then I’m going to show you two other chords and then you’re going to play this song.” Connect them immediately.

dcp02528ALittle Kids Rock is at this point where their funders want to see evidence of the efficacy. The outcome is not “Can these students play guitar?” Yes, that’s important, but they are also interested in broader education outcomes.

If you really want to know if the arts, say, reduce high school drop out rates, you randomly assign students into an arts course – and others you do not – and you track the performance of both groups. By doing that, you are controlling for all of those things that might be driving someone’s decisions. Of course, that’s not how public schools work. You don’t randomly assign kids to their classes. You don’t even randomly assign kids to their schools.

We are in talks now with the Philly school district and with Little Kids Rock about trying to come in and do an evaluation that’s actually an experimental study with some level of randomization. We’re working with the Director of Music Education in that district, Frank Machos. He really gets it; I mean, he understands. He understands that we need to get in and control how the program is rolled out. He was open to us coming in and doing an evaluation, a good solid impact evaluation, and we’re in preliminary talks. It’s very exciting. I am hopeful there are more and more people in the field who are interested in outcomes beyond just test scores.


Associate Professor of Economics at Mississippi State University, Dr. Thomas specializes in public finance and education policy. Prior to joining the faculty at MSU, she was a researcher with the Texas Schools Project at The University of Texas at Dallas. She is currently examining access to arts education and how arts participation influences education outcomes. Her current research is funded by the Spencer Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her research has been published in Economics Letters, Southern Economic Journal, Journal of Cultural Economics, and Economics of Education Review.