Longer School Day, Lasting Benefits
Over the last 30 years, and particularly in the last decade after the passing of “No Child Left Behind”, many schools turned their focuses to reading and math proficiency. As a result, the presence of arts education diminished in schools all over the country. Schools and students themselves were forced to choose between focusing on rigorous core classes and participating in the Arts. According to the Center for Education Policy, only 50% of high school graduates received an adequate arts education in 2008, slipping from 65% in 1980 (9).
The Wallace Foundation and the National Center on Time & Learning recently released a study on five progressive schools that expanded their school days to not only develop concepts learned in core subjects, but to incorporate the arts in a meaningful and lasting way. At these schools, the arts aren’t considered “extra”. Instead, they are a requirement: students participate in at least one hour daily of arts-specific classes. These schools simply added an hour or more to their existing school day to provide a more well-rounded education for their students. The results were overwhelmingly positive.
The five schools in this study each lengthened their school day, but all have different methods for including the arts: • One school expanded their class time to 90-minute blocks across its 7.5-hour day. This enables the students to focus more fully on the subject at hand, and expand on the subject for longer. Each student gets to devote one time block to the arts each day. Even smarter yet, the blocks rotate daily so that no one class always gets the benefit of morning energy or is made to suffer through after lunch slumps. • Another school promotes “studio culture”. Studio culture encourages students to come in early and to stay after school to invest in and complete their ongoing projects in order to meet higher standards. • Another school gets its fill of the arts by using resident teaching artists. They support 5 full-time and 21 part-time AmeriCorps fellows to work as teaching artists.
Regardless of the different delivery methods each school uses to integrate the arts, the Wallace Foundation found strong connections between studying the arts and success in the classroom. Students began to develop important skills in their arts electives that are usually associated with “classroom” learning. Some of these skills include: “contributing to habits of persistence through careful practice; greater awareness of how to collaborate (by preparing a play, for example); or learning how to internalize and apply feedback by mastering a particular skill (say, a dance step) with the help of an instructor”(6). They also found that these skills are more likely to develop in an arts setting: “Of the claimed cognitive effects of arts participation on children, the enhancement of learning skills is more likely to occur than the enhancement of knowledge acquisition in non-arts subjects, like the development of mathematical skills” (6).
Countless examples of personal and cognitive growth in students emerged during the study. At one of the schools, a classroom of English language learners participated in an unstructured art period each day. The administration found that their confidence in speaking grew as they talked about their artwork, and their vocabulary increased as they shared information about their artwork (7).
At another school, a theatre-based youth violence prevention program took place over the course of 27 weeks. This program managed to curb the aggressive and violent behavior in its fourth-grade students, while the control group students’ aggressive behavior increased over time. Participants in the drama program also learned important skills and social behaviors, like self-control and cooperation (7). At another school, a teacher recounts her positive experience when introducing one of her students to theatre:
“I have a student who is diagnosed with ADD and autism. His sometimes aggressive persona is not always appropriate during the school day. But in drama class, I give him roles that tap into his rare ability to say and act upon what he feels. His last role was as Pozzo, the whip-snapping, slave-driving master that Estragon and Vladmir encounter in [the play] Waiting for Godot. My student scared us all to death, which is exactly what the character must do. And by venting appropriately during the scene, he was calmer afterward, almost to the point of being serene” (17).
In this case, and for many, the arts provide a healthy outlet for emotions and ideas. It is no wonder why so many students are benefitting from artistic expression in these schools.
To quote the study, “Arenas of academics and the arts are often positioned as competitors in a kind of zero-sum game, rather than as partners in a potential educational synergy that holds both intrinsic and instrumental benefits for students” (5). The Wallace foundation found that test scores were either unaffected by the new infusion of the arts or, the more likely scenario, improved drastically in a short period of time. The new methods that the five schools have adapted have received incredible recognition nationally. One school, BART, was ranked in the top 5 percent of schools in Massachusetts for raising student achievement in English and in the top 6 percent for math, as measured by the state’s MCAS exams. Even though just 20 percent of BART parents had the opportunity to go to college, 100 percent of BART’s 2012 graduates have been accepted to college (21). At another school, Edwards, chronic absenteeism has dropped from 42 percent to 29 percent and discipline referrals have decreased by 10 percent after the schedule change (57).
So why did we share this study with you? Because we all need to understand why the arts play an essential role in schools. Year after year, we hear about how school budgets cannot support the arts. In fact, arts are usually the first things to go. But when combined, academia and arts create a beautiful synergy. In school, the arts would always get me through the challenging part of the day. Sitting and struggling in math class, I would always look forward to choir rehearsal the next period, where I knew I would succeed, and that thought alone would keep me going. Here at UG, we emphasize the importance of the arts and how it relates to the success of Chicago students. Our teaching artists and programs help Chicago children find their voice, speak up, and give them something different to look forward to during the school day.