It is hard to do experiments in schools, particularly large scale experiments. A true experiment requires randomly assigning participants to an experimental group (which gets some kind of treatment) and a control group (which doesn’t). Imagine trying to randomly assign students to two different math or reading programs, especially in the same school. You can imagine all the problems. How do we “try out” things on one group of students while keeping them from others?
Fortunately for us, Houston’s Arts Access Initiative (AAI) had circumstances that allowed researchers to design an experiment to explore their effectiveness. AAI provided diverse arts experiences for grades 4-8, including peer mentoring, teaching artist programs, field trips, before and after school programs, and more, depending on school needs. Some focused on music, some on dance, theater, visual arts, or creative writing. Schools had to apply for participation. Because so many schools applied to participate, AAI was able to randomly select the first 42 schools to participate and then delay beginning programs in the other schools, allowing them to serve as a control group. More than 10,000 students participated in the study. Those of you who remember your educational research classes will recognize, that is an unusual and important opportunity.
So what happened? For the whole sample, there were significantly fewer disciplinary infractions, higher writing scores, and increased compassion. The greatest impacts were found with elementary (rather than middle school) students, students with limited English proficiency, and students identified as gifted and talented. Of course there are limitations to the study, as there are in all studies. The impacts were significant but not large, at least not for the whole group. But it is interesting to see how the impact may vary across subgroups and consider how opportunities to participate in the arts can be particularly important to students. Thanks, Houston, for helping us learn.