The link between arts education and academic achievement

Wheelock Family theater The Turn Around Arts initiative is a terrific thing. It is putting the arts into some of our neediest schools. In the NPR story, “ Creative Classes: An Artful Approach to Improving Performance ,” we read that “Savoy Elementary isn’t trying to turn these students into great artists; ultimately, they’re trying to get them to improve their math and reading.”It is too bad that we always seem to feel the need to justify the arts in our schools by reference to the kinds of non-arts skills that may be learned through the arts. We never justify math by claiming that math education improves reading, much less improves drawing ability!  And what about the evidence? Does studying the arts really improve math and reading?

describe the image We reviewed the literature on this and showed that there is no good experimental evidence for this claim (Winner & Cooper, 2000). Nonetheless, it is very possible that student achievement will improve in the Turnaround schools. Why might this happen? Because when the arts are infused into schools, kids may enjoy school more, and therefore attendance may go up. In addition, such programs are likely to excite teachers and engage them, thereby making their teaching more passionate.  In other words, if the arts improve math and reading, it may well be because the arts improve school culture, and it is the improved school culture that improves math and reading. It is difficult to imagine any kind of direct link between what kids learn in the arts and their skills in math and reading, but this kind of indirect link is plausible.

If we look for more specific connections between the arts and non-arts kinds of skills, the describe the image experimental evidence for direct links is stronger. For example, for children ages 8-10 who were in the Wheelock Family Theater program in Boston, we showed that a year of training in theater improves both empathy and emotion regulation (Goldstein & Winner, 2012). For adolescents who were majoring in theater at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, MA or the Boston Arts Academy in downtown Boston, MA, we showed that participation in the arts improves empathy and understanding of others’ mental states (Goldstein, Tamir & Winner, 2013). This link makes a lot of sense to us. Theater training involves putting yourself in other peoples’ shoes. Doing this is likely to help children to imagine how others would feel, to understand their own emotions, and to imagine how the world seems from different perspectives.

All students should have a chance to study the arts in school, regardless of whether or not the arts have positive side effects.

Question: Do you agree with Ellen and Thalia? Is teaching the arts just as valuable without showing a direct correlation to improved math and reading?

Additional Resources

Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind
Mute those Claims: No causal link (yet) between arts study and academic achievement
Expressive Suppression and Acting


Ellen Winner is Professor of Psychology at Boston College, and Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard University in 1978 working with Roger Brown on child metaphor. Her research focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children. She is the author of over 100 articles and four books.

Thalia Goldstein is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Psychology Department at Pace University. In addition to teaching Developmental and Cognitive Psychology, she runs the Social Cognition and Imagination (SCI) Lab. Her research interests lie in how children and adolescents engage in, understand, and react to fictional and pretense worlds. She has been sponsored by the National Science Foundation (postdoctoral and dissertation grants), the American Psychological Foundation, and the Department of Homeland Security. Thalia received her PhD from Boston College and her B.A. from Cornell University.

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