Arts programming in Boston schools linked to attendance, engagement gains 

Study finding follows decade-long effort to boost arts in district

A NEW STUDY says an effort to increase arts programming in the Boston Public Schools has helped boost student attendance and promote student and parent engagement with schools, outcomes that arts supporters say provide added rationale for maintaining or enhancing the role of arts in the schools. 

For students receiving arts programming, the study found that school attendance increased by roughly one-third of a day over the course of the school year compared with students not in art courses. The gains were greater for students with individualized education plans (IEPs) and those who had previously been chronically absent, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days. For students with IEPs, arts programming was linked with increased attendance of 0.7 days, while for those with a history of chronic absenteeism the gain was about 1.1 days per year. 

The study, which was released Monday morning, also found that teachers observed greater student and parent engagement at schools with arts programming.

“It really reinforced what we have learned from school leaders and teachers and parents about why arts matter,” said Marinell Rousmaniere, president and CEO of EdVestors, which commissioned the study with support from The Barr Foundation. “To have quantitative data to back the qualitative is a really important piece in making the case for arts education.”

Boston Public Schools students perform on Boston Common at 2018 annual citywide Arts Festival. (Photo by Elliot Haney)

There has always been a strong argument for “art for art’s sake.” All the intangible, hard-to-quantify ways that we’re enriched by creative pursuits have been a hallmark of human experience. But when it comes to the curriculum of US schools, that idea seems to have taken a backseat to a focus on core academic subjects or landed arts programming on the chopping block when schools were faced with funding constraints. 

According to a 2011 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, after a consistent increase in arts programming in US schools through most of the 20th century, arts education began to experience a steady decline starting in the mid-1970s. That report found that there were big racial disparities in the decreases in arts education, with white children experiencing relatively insignificant decreases but Black and Hispanic children experiencing a drop of 40 to 50 percent in arts offerings from that time until 2008. 

It was around that time, in 2009, that the nonprofit education organization EdVestors began working with the Boston Public Schools on a multiyear initiative to expand arts offerings in the district schools. Eleven years later, the new report the group is releasing represents one of the largest studies ever carried out of the impact of arts education in public schools. 

While the attendance gains were quite modest, the researchers say student absenteeism has been a problem on which it has been difficult to make huge gains, even with the most targeted interventions. 

“A third of a day doesn’t sound like a lot. But when we dive into education interventions that are designed to have any sort of impact on attendance, this is actually pretty comparable to some of the interventions touted as having impact on attendance,” said Daniel Bowen, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University and coauthor of the study. 

Bowen carried out the study with Brian Kisida, an assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, by looking at arts programming in Boston  over 11 years, starting in the 2008-09 school year. They gathered data on more than 600,000 “student observations,” with an individual student’s experience with arts programming over the course of a school year constituting one observation. 

The study found no consistent connection between arts programming and gains in core academic topics, although there were very small gains in math and English for the subset of students in middle school. 

The study also found a small increase in the rate of student suspensions connected with enrollment in arts courses. “The small increases in suspension rates are puzzling, as we are not aware of any prior research that has found that arts education experiences contribute to more disciplinary infractions,” the authors write. Indeed, they say the one prior study that tried to assess a causal relationship between the two variables found that arts programming decreased student discipline incidents. “That’s something we’re still investigating,” Kisida said of the suspension finding. One possible explanation he said, was that “a lot of times being involved in the arts actually means being at school more, so you have potentially more time to get in trouble when you’re staying after to be in the school play.” 

The study did not identify specific ways that offering arts courses was tied to greater student and parent engagement, but EdVestors officials say their conversations with school leaders suggest some obvious ways that arts programming might draw families in. 

“We’ve heard principals saying they have parent-teacher conferences planned around arts performances because you’re more likely to get parents prioritizing taking the time to come and meet teachers,” said Ruth Mercado-Zizzo, vice president for programs and equity at EdVestors. “There’s an added incentive for parents to come.”

Kisida said arts educators and supporters of arts programming in schools have been in a “defensive stance” in recent years, feeling a need to “justify their existence” in the face of a heightened focus on student achievement scores and district and state systems that hold schools accountable for student test results. 

He said that has prompted research looking for links between arts programming and academic gains. Kisida said a lot of that research, however, has been methodologically weak, unable to distinguish between any actual impact of arts programming and other characteristics of schools or districts with rich arts offerings than might differ from those without such programs. 

The Boston study was able to overcome those shortcomings by essentially comparing the same students within a district to themselves over the course of the 11 years, depending on whether they did or didn’t have arts courses in a particular school year. Kisida said the study also “set more realistic expectations of what the benefits of arts are.”  

He said the combined finding of modest improvement in attendance and the perception by teachers of greater student and parent engagement suggest overall benefits of arts education that go beyond those specific measures. 

“A lot of the things that we measure in social science are proxies for a bundle of other things,” Kisida said. “So to see that attendance goes up doesn’t just tell me there are X number of more hours a student is in school. It tells me there’s an effect on the student’s mindset, they’re more engaged, they’re happier there. There are other things going on that are unmeasured, and whatever attendance is a proxy for is probably a more important thing.” 

Those unmeasured things, say the researchers and EdVestors leaders, may be more important than ever as schools take on the challenge of reconnecting with students who may have gone a full year without being in school building or in face-to-face interactions with classmates or teachers. 

“We’ve been hearing a lot from educators and students about how difficult it’s been over the last year to engage and be enthusiastic about school and learning,” said Mercado-Zizzo. “What I think this study really demonstrated even pre-pandemic is that the arts are an incredible motivator to increase engagement and for students to want to be in school and feel they can be heard and for them to be able to express themselves in ways they can’t do in other content areas.” 

The 11-year arts initiative in the Boston schools has led to a huge jump in arts staffing as well as the development of partnerships between schools and outside arts organizations. The district has added the equivalent of 130 new full-time arts educators since 2009, bringing the total number of arts instructors in the system to over 300. 

Boston schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the new study affirms the value of arts in the curriculum. “This research provides evidence for what we already know: arts education engages students, builds community, expresses our shared humanity and experience, and contributes to joyful learning environments,” Cassellius said in a statement. “Building on the strength of the many BPS educators and partners that provide quality arts learning opportunities, Boston Public Schools will continue to prioritize the arts as we promote our students’ social and emotional health to fully recover from this pandemic and reimagine learning for our young people.”