Arts and Education

At PS 46 in Harlem, the corridors, the classrooms and the courtyard are full of collages and prints and drawings, posters and paintings, murals and sculptures. Art is everywhere. I am visiting the school to see its own artist, Robin Holder, at work with the children of PS 46 and their teachers. Robin is with the students three days a week -- leaving her own space to be in their space, challenging them to create, to imagine, to learn through art-making. I love visiting this school.

Robin has been trained for the classroom by Studio in a School. Thirty-six years ago, when budget shortfalls were threatening arts education, Studio was founded to place professional artists in New York City public schools to work with teachers and to bolster dedicated principals. Today, at 160 schools and community sites, 30,000 children benefit from Studio's programs. Despite that record, though, and other accomplishments in the field, it is still true that the value of arts education is not well comprehended; its contributions to students are still not validated. So, today, in addition to putting artists with children and teachers, Studio conducts research on the effects of arts education on children's lives and learning. Studio's programs reach kids and communities with art, and also with understanding.

Much of that learning can be witnessed right in the classroom, of course. Today, for instance, Robin and second graders are painting deserts (which none of them have ever seen) and learning about deserts. They talk about water and oceans and peninsulas, about the importance of water. Robin asks, "Who discovered something today?" They learn about landscapes, too; they look at the work of artists who have painted deserts and other scenes as well. They talk about that work and how it was done. Robin asks "What will happen if you paint something new and you don't like it?" They agree that they will finish it anyway, because, as they say " is possible to do something you don't like, but it's really good anyway." Robin calls that "a life lesson." She says, "Let's look at what you've done!" and the children talk about their work and about deserts and about mixing colors and about volcanoes (it is not quite clear how volcanoes have come up).

These are the kinds of things that happen in a Studio classroom. But Studio believes that we must know more to really understand the arts in education. So, from 2009 to 2012, with a U.S. Department of Education grant, Studio and Metis Associates, a national evaluation firm, studied the integration of the arts into the curriculum of elementary schools. Six schools were randomly selected; three of them integrated art, English and math. Three of the schools studied art, but without this integration. As reported in the "Framing Student Success Evaluation," the results in these third through fifth grade classes are startling:

  1. Students in the integrated program outperformed control students in both language and math learning.
  2. Students in the integrated program scored significantly better on fourth grade reading and writing tests.
  3. Students in the integrated program made greater gains in Studio measures of "engaging and persisting, stretching and exploring, observing and envisioning", and in their "Reflecting skills".
  4. Three quarters of all the students achieved proficiency in the visual arts.
  5. Teachers in the integrated program reported that they collaborated more frequently and continued to collaborate.
  6. Teachers in the integrated study reported greater job satisfaction than their peers, and grew to appreciate the value of art in teaching other subject areas, and in enhancing student creativity.
  7. Principals reported that they learned more about supervising the arts, and about engaging parents through use of the arts.

Studio in a School professionals have reason to be proud of these results. But they are also aware that this is a small sample, and therefore not definitive. Tom Cahill, Studio's President, says that the results show that we need much more research about the arts and the curriculum. "We need to understand more profoundly, more perfectly, how the arts reach children, inspire learning and cultivate creativity. We need to know, really know, how essential the arts are. "

Based on what has been learned, Studio in a School has secured a new grant from the Department of Education. Its results are soon to be released. Again, they provide evidence that the arts can lift learning results, motivate teachers, help principals and parents find the promise in children. They underscore what George Young, the Principal of PS 46, says, "The arts are the soul and spirit of my school."

My hopes? That more and more artists like Robin Holder will take their artistic abilities, their talents, and their respect for children into classrooms. That more and more principals and parents will know the colorfulness and creativity, the courage and comprehension, that art provides. That more and more children will make discoveries and find joy through the arts.