Skip To Content

Speeches and Writings

The Role of the Arts in a Democratic Culture | Page 4

October 13, 2017: National Association of Schools of Art and Design

Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.: President, Spelman College

Lesson #3, the third and final lesson, I want to share with this morning. Art is fundamental to education.

 During the Obama administration, I had the privilege of serving as the Vice-Chair of  the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH). A few years into Obama’s first term, the  PCAH commissioned a report on the role that the arts played in improving schools and student academic performance. 

The report compiled data from research completed between 200 and 2010, that looked at correlations between academic performance and the presence of sustained, well designed arts program.  Unabashed in it bias, the report was entitled--: “Re-investing in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools.” Released in 2010, the report documented outcomes that state with consistency that the presence of the arts of well-designed arts interventions creates a culture and climate in schools that has a profound impact on the learning environment.

The report’s findings are divided into three different types of investigations:

  • Longitudinal studies;
  • .Brain research; and
  • An evaluations of model arts in education integration programs, that is programs that make use of the arts to teach subject areas

Longitudinal Studies

A seminal longitudinal study, conducted by researcher, James Catterall, chose a cohort of low income students who had access to well-designed art programs in their K-12 years and tracked them over ten and twenty years.   Catterall compared the arts enriched group to a control group of low income students who did not have access to high level arts programs.  The results from this study were startling. The arts cohort were more likely to attend college, have successful careers and volunteer in their communities. Researchers concluded that their life time outcomes looked more like the outcomes of high income students.

Brain Research

Brain research on the impact of the arts on the physical development of the brain and cognitive function was equally impressive.

  • One set of findings correlated early music training with phonological development, a precursor to reading;
  • Another study determined that students who practiced a specific art form on a regular basis experienced improved attention spans and general cognitive improvement
  • Another study of arts integration models reported that the use of multiple senses to repeat information resulted in greater long term memory.

Arts Integration Models

The report also included results from model arts integration programs in Maryland, Oklahoma and North Carolina, some of which members of the President’s Committee visited.   The model programs cited targeted the entire school in their application of arts programs and also forged productive relationships with community based cultural organizations.  School leadership, including the principal, staff as well as faculty participated in professional training with teaching artists so that everyone in the community proceeded with a shared view of using the arts in teaching and learning.  Schools that participated demonstrated improved academic performances in math, reading, science and social science as compared to schools without arts integration models. They also demonstrated dramatic improvements in levels of engagement like reduced discipline, better attendance, and greater parental involvement.

Based on these findings, the members of the PCAH went on to develop a national program, supported by private and public funding, called Turnaround Arts. To underscore the findings of the report in what we thought was the most dramatic way possible, we decided that we would conduct a pilot project that targeted failing schools. A school was failing if the Department of Education had been assessed as failing and was on a list maintained by DOE. The program goal was to work with each school to customize a program that would be part of the school’s strategy to turn it around from a failing to a successful school.

By a process of application, schools requested participation in our pilot project. We chose 8 schools to participate.  They served student populations in places as diverse as Des Moines, Iowa, Portland Oregon, New Orleans, Louisiana, Boston, Massachusetts, Washington DC, Bridgeport, Connecticut and Lame Deer Montana.