Arts Education is Good, But Does it Help Students in Reading and Math?

Today’s Rocky Mountain News explains Colorado education leaders’ attempt to put greater emphasis on the arts in the state’s new standards and assessments:

[Commissioner of Education Dwight] Jones and [Lieutenant Governor Barbara] O’Brien addressed a news conference called to highlight a report showing that many Colorado students are not exposed to the arts, which include music, theater and dance, as well as the visual arts.

The report, prepared for the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Council on the Arts, shows that art is offered at 93 percent of elementary schools, 86 percent of middle schools and 83 percent of high schools. But 29,000 students attend schools that do not offer art, the study found. Statewide, 53 percent of high school students don’t take art, which is not mandatory even at schools where it is offered.

The study found that 75 percent of principals say the arts are being squeezed by the need to focus on reading, writing and math.

One of the findings of the new report says that arts education “associates with higher scores” on CSAP tests. But as my smart friends at the Education Policy Center point out, the fact that the two items are associated with each other does not mean one is causing the other. We can’t be sure that arts programs help students do better on reading and math achievement tests.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. I like to sing and play blocks and cymbals, and fingerpainting is one of the highlights of kindergarten class. My family and I think that the arts are important, and we like the ability to choose a school that emphasizes the arts in its curriculum. But Colorado needs to be careful before jumping into spending a lot of scarce resources on arts programs as the way to help students learn to read and do math better.