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Making the Grade Through Arts Education

Wed, Nov 07, 2018

UMD professors are researching how studying the arts impacts academic achievement.

An interdisciplinary team of scholars from the University of Maryland (UMD) is exploring the relationship between the arts and academic achievement. Led by Kenneth Elpus, associate professor of music education in UMD's School of Music, the team is using newly available data sets and innovative statistical methods to compare the academic achievement of K-12 students who voluntarily enroll in arts courses with those who do not. The research is supported by a two-year, $600,000 Arts in Education research grant from the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.

“Our research is asking important questions,” said Elpus. “What happens when students study arts in high school?  Are they more engaged? Does that engagement yield benefits during and after the transition to college?”

Two other UMD professors are collaborating with Elpus on the project: Stephanie Prichard, assistant professor of music education, and Laura M. Stapleton, professor of measurement, statistics and evaluation in UMD's College of Education.

The research builds on Elpus’ previous work, which focuses on the demographics of students enrolled in arts courses and the social and academic impact of those courses on students.

There is already some research which suggests that students who study the arts are more likely to get into college and complete a degree, but Elpus says that these studies do not account for the variety of arts courses available to students or the differing types of curricula that count as “arts education.” His own past research, for example, looks at the relationship between music education and academic achievement. This current study looks at participation in arts education more holistically by analyzing data from students studying not only music, but also dance, film, theater and studio art, all of whom are following the specific arts curricula developed by the International Baccalaureate (IB) Organization as part of its IB Diploma Programme.

Elpus also cautions that past research does not always account for the clear link between arts education and socioeconomic status. Students who study the arts tend to come from families with more social and economic resources than non-arts students. Moreover, students with greater social and economic means tend to have higher academic achievement in general. They are more likely to apply to and attend college, and they are more likely to complete their degrees.  

“Adolescents who study visual art, music, theater, or dance are already a select population,” Elpus said. “In order to make a fair comparison between kids who study art and those who don’t, you need to take into account all of the interwoven social and economic variables at play.”

To do that, the team is using a statistical research method called propensity score matching, which allows them to model how different variables are connected to the likelihood that a student would study an art form. First, they examine all the demographic characteristics of each individual in the data set and determine how each characteristic influences the likelihood that a student would enroll in an IB arts course. Based on this analysis, they calculate a score for each student in the data set that represents how likely that student is to study the arts. Then, they make comparisons among students with overlapping scores.

“Many of the students will have similar background characteristics, leading to similar propensity scores, but one will be an arts student and one will not,” said Elpus. “Propensity score matching lets us tell a fuller story about who studies the arts and how it impacts them by making a statistically fairer ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison.”

Bringing a creative, humanistic approach to quantitative research allows the team to ask unexpected questions that go beyond the original intentions of existing data sets. To conduct their analysis, they are using data from several different sources, including the National Student Clearinghouse, an educational reporting and data exchange organization, even though the data were not specifically gathered to research the impact of arts education on academic achievement.

“This pioneering research embodies the bold, innovative creativity for which the School of Music has become known,” said Jason Geary, director of UMD’s School of Music. “It holds the potential to fundamentally reshape the ways in which educational leaders think about the relationship between the arts and academic achievement.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2018