Funding Evidence-Based Research to Ensure Equitable Arts Education Engagement

By Jane R. Best and Bao-Long Chu

Communicating the importance of the arts in students’ education experience continues to challenge practitioners and arts champions alike. Citing research on the undeniable effects of arts education on students’ ability to succeed can serve as a powerful way in messaging the importance of arts. Arts Education Partnership (AEP) developed ArtsEdSearch as a resource for policymakers and education stakeholders and leaders to better understand and articulate this message.

The passage in 2015 of the flagship federal education policy legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), brought new opportunities for arts educators to access school funding for the arts to address issues such as disadvantaged students, professional development for teachers, and how the arts might contribute to instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

ESSA not only captured the attention of state and federal policymakers interested in how the arts might be elevated in schools but also many private funders, including Houston Endowment, invested in ensuring all children have equitable access to the arts as part of their well-rounded education. Yet, along with new possibilities for funding comes the ongoing need to demonstrate and document the value of the arts in a child’s life.

In a recent Brookings Institution piece, Daniel Bowen and Brian Kisida review the historical research, practice, and policy challenges for arts education to date. More importantly, they present new evidence of the benefits of arts education. This gives arts stakeholders a large-scale, randomized control trial study that shows why investing in the arts matters so much to students, schools, and communities. The authors write, “while we recognize art’s transformative impacts, its place in K-12 education has become increasingly tenuous. A critical challenge for arts education has been a lack of empirical evidence that demonstrates its educational value. (…) Over the last few decades, the proportion of students receiving arts education has shrunk drastically.”

As Bowen and Kisida note, the arts remain a prime target for cuts when education administrators and policymakers face accountability-driven tradeoffs. As their study shows, this problem is compounded in Houston, where a decentralized school system challenges campus principals to independently determine their commitment to the arts in their curriculum and their budget, creating access inequities and arts deserts throughout the district.

Houston Endowment provided lead funding support in the development of the collective impact effort Arts Connect (Arts Access Initiative). The three-year pilot phase, from 2015 to 2018, produced asset mapping and evaluation of data through surveys and campus inventories to identify arts-deprived schools.

Bowen and Kisida’s report pulls from evaluations of the pilot through a randomized control trial to investigate the causal impact of increasing K-8 student arts learning opportunities provided through school-community arts partnerships in 42 Houston Independent School District (HISD) elementary and middle school campuses.

Results from the study demonstrated that increasing students’ arts educational experiences increases compassion, reduces disciplinary infraction, and improves writing fluency. In addition, the researchers noted that “student subgroups, particularly Limited English Proficiency and gifted and talented elementary students, demonstrated higher school engagement and college aspirations, as well as increased arts-facilitated empathy, disposition for arts transfer and perceived value of the arts.” These results tangibly demonstrate the importance of the arts for a well-rounded education and provide a robust advocacy tool for the collective effort.

Houston Endowment believes that access to quality arts learning is an issue of equity. Low-income students have been disproportionately affected by the decline in arts education during the school day. “Investigating Causal Effects of Arts Education Experiences: Experimental Evidence from Houston’s Arts Access Initiative”, conducted in association with the Houston Education Research Consortium, Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University, is a major achievement, both for demonstrating the positive effects of arts education on student performance and for the opportunity it presents to leverage those results with policymakers and education leaders.