Artistic expression helps students excel

January 08, 1998|By Robert Sirota, Fred Lazarus and Eileen Cline

THE largest student in the second-grade class was a 10-year-old who should have been in the fifth grade. Despite having attended school for a number of years, she could barely spell ''cat.'' But after a couple of months in music class, she could spell Tchaikovsky. Amazing? No.

Many parents, teachers and others have known at least intuitively that the right kind of music or art or dance or theater instruction makes a significant difference in the intellectual as well as the emotional development of children. The anecdotal evidence is persistent.

Scientific proof

Then came the compelling data reported in the February 1997 issue of Neurological Research, indicating that those intuitions have sound neurological basis. Psychologist Frances Rauscher and physicist Gordon Shaw found that music training -- specifically piano instruction -- is far superior to computer instruction in stimulating the intellectual development of very young children.

Those children receiving twice-weekly keyboard lessons and daily singing lessons performed 34 percent higher on tests measuring spatial-temporal ability, a finding that suggests music uniquely enhances the higher brain functions required for mathematics, chess, science and engineering. Sound like a big project? They only spent 15 minutes a day -- a pretty small investment for such a huge dividend.

News of this research drew tremendous response from all over the country when it was released nearly a year ago. Were we listening?

In times of frantic scrambling to ''save'' kids from inner-city hopelessness, it is essential to invest time and money teaching youngsters to read, to get the basics. We hear it said that we cannot spare time for music and art and dance and drama -- that those activities can be added when we have the fundamentals under control. But Ms. Rauscher's researchers, working with 3-year-old children from welfare families, some born with drug addictions, found that the effect of music lessons on these kids was way above even the effect on middle-income families. What does that say?

In a 1995 study by the College Board, students with course work in music appreciation scored 61 points higher on the verbal and 46 points higher on the math portion of the SAT tests. Scores for those with course work or experience in music performance scored 51 points higher on the verbal and 39 points higher on the math portion than those with no course work or experience in the arts. Does that apply mainly to college-bound students? Doesn't seem so. In a 1993 study, students improved an average one to two months on reading for each month they participated in the ''Learning to Read Through the Arts'' program in New York City. Are we paying attention?

More recently, UCLA professor James Catterall analyzed data from a federal study of 25,000 students, showing that children with consistent and substantive involvement in the arts performed at significantly higher levels on all measures -- academic and various extra-curricula activities like public service. As was implied in the Rauscher study, a most critical finding is that children who are less advantaged in terms of socio-economic factors benefit from the arts at rates comparable to or better than the whole population, and do so increasingly as they move through school.

Future need

What about the average working person? Says Arnold Packer, a senior fellow of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies: ''. . . As business begins to understand how the arts contribute to an imaginative, flexible, problem-solving employee, they will increasingly value what workers know and are able to do in the arts.''

A panelist at a recent gathering of educators observed: ''I often wonder why it almost seemed that mainly rich kids were smart. Now we begin to realize that those kids are the most likely to get music lessons, dance lessons. . . The things that are not available to most kids whose schools cannot afford them and whose parents cannot afford them. . . Maybe there's a connection.''

Fortunately, it is getting harder to miss that connection. Emerging results and in-school programs around the country are strongly demonstrating that intelligently involving the arts in the curriculum -- not just for the ''talented few,'' but for all children -- proves to be an extremely powerful, effective and ultimately economical way to strengthen educational development.

Two-day meeting

Maryland is ahead of most of the country in its formal recognition of these powerful facts. Evidence of that is a two-day conference, beginning today, in support of the state's efforts on this issue. Johns Hopkins University President William Brody and state Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick will convene school superintendents, government officials, business and education leaders and other key policy makers from throughout the state for a ''policy summit and symposium,'' examining how the arts are being used to address educational reform goals around the nation.

Given the growing body of evidence, we applaud the enlightened forces in this state that are making this unprecedented event possible. The children of Maryland -- and, thus, everyone -- will reap significant benefits.

Robert Sirota is director of the Peabody Institute, Fred Lazarus is president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and Eileen Cline is a senior fellow in arts policy at the Johns Hopkins %J Institute for Policy Studies.

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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