The Case for a Broader Approach to Education

The Americans for the Arts recently released a poll finding that the vast majority of Americans agree that “the arts are part of a well-rounded education for K-12 students.”  Over half of respondents “strongly agree.”  Unfortunately, the current trend in ed reform is out of sync with this popular support for the arts in education.

The narrow focus on math and reading achievement is driving out other subjects, including the arts.  Ed reformers may offer rhetorical praise for the arts and a broader education, but most quietly believe that math and reading are of such primary importance that shifting away from the arts to attend more to math and reading might actually be a good thing.

Like most other ed reformers, I used to believe this too.  But more research is beginning to show that a broader education, including the arts, may be essential for later success in math and reading as well as the proper development of civic values and character skills, including tolerance, empathy, and self-regulation.  The narrow focus on math and reading may goose math and reading test scores in the short term but at the expense of the longer-term and broader goals of education.  Parents seem to understand how essential the arts and a broader approach to education are even if this has escaped the highly-credentialed minds of “policy experts” trying to manage schools from afar through test results.

Let me briefly provide some evidence to support the claims above.  First, we have good reason to believe that the arts are being squeezed out of the curriculum.  For example, research by Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem has found a dramatic decline in the role of the arts in school between 1998 and 2011.  Using teacher surveys from the ECLS-K, they find that far fewer teachers in Kindergarten and 1st Grade report teaching Music, Art, Dance, and Theater on a daily or weekly basis, and far more teachers report never covering these subjects at all.  (See their Table reproduced below)

Bassok Table

What evidence do we have that this shift away from the arts to focus more narrowly on math and reading has negative consequences?  David Grissmer and his colleagues are producing a series of studies that suggest how much later success in math, reading, and science depends on early acquisition of the kind of “general knowledge” and fine-motor skills learned through art and other subjects.

In one of these studies they find: “Whereas the early math and reading tests focused mainly on procedural knowledge, the general knowledge test focused mainly on declarative knowledge (i.e., elementary knowledge or comprehension of the external world). General knowledge was the strongest predictor of later reading and science and, along with earlier math, was a strong predictor of later math. General knowledge measured at kindergarten entrance may reflect early comprehension skills that are necessary when reading changes from a more procedural task in early grades (learning to read) to incorporating more comprehension around third through fifth grades (reading to learn).” This is essentially empirical support for the type of argument E.D. Hirsch, Robert Pondiscio, and the folks at Core Knowledge have been making for years.  It’s important for students to know a lot of things about the world, including about Art, History, etc…, to progress academically.  If we narrow education to the mechanics of math and reading as captured by yearly testing, we short-change the broader knowledge that is the key to academic success later.

Less intuitively, they find that the development of fine motor and other “visuo-spatial” skills are also very strong predictors of later academic success.  These are the kinds of things students learn by playing musical instruments or making art projects — activities disappearing from the early school curriculum.  Yet these fine-motor and coordination skills seem to be an important part of brain development that improves math and reading achievement years later.

Grissmer and his colleagues summarize the implications of their findings better than I could:

Our results suggest that the focus of interventions should shift from a primary emphasis on changing the direct math and reading instructional environment to interventions that build better foundational skills of attention and fine motor skills and a better understanding of the world outside schools. The results suggest that current direct math and reading instruction is insufficient to build attention and fine motor skills. Building these skills may rely more on subjects and curricula that have been deemphasized to provide more math and reading instruction: the arts, music, dance, physical education, and free play. Each of these subjects and curricula may need to be redesigned to focus on building foundational skills in the same way that math and reading have been redesigned in recent years. Building stronger knowledge of the external world also suggests that improving early science and social studies curricula are important. Paradoxically, higher long-term achievement in math and reading may require reduced direct emphasis on math and reading and more time and stronger curricula outside math and reading.

“Building stronger knowledge of the external world” might include going on culturally enriching field trips, which have also been disappearing from schools.  In addition to the general knowledge these experiences convey, the research I’ve done with others at the University of Arkansas on the effects of field trips to art museums and to see live theater suggests that these culturally enriching experiences change student values to promote greater tolerance and empathy.

Given that short-term gain in math and reading achievement are only weakly related to later life outcomes, while a broad education that includes the arts and culturally enriching activities may be associated with long-term success, education reformers should wonder whether they are simply rediscovering what most Americans already know — “the arts are part of a well-rounded education for K-12 students.”

(Edited for typos)

34 Responses to The Case for a Broader Approach to Education

  1. Mike G says:

    Generally agree with the thrust of your remarks, Jay.

    Maybe I’m missing it, but here’s the puzzle.

    I buy CK theory. I’m open to the fine motor argument. I buy that schools spend less time there. I love your clever RCT on what seemed to test a very well organized student experience at the museum.

    Where I’m skeptical, though, is how art and music and dance taught in TYPICAL public schools actually generates the gains in Core Knowledge, fine motor, and well-roundedness.

    To give an example, the striking contest b/w my 5-year-old’s dance class at her public school and her after-school dance class at “Miss Maria’s Dance Studio.” It’s night and day. It almost seems impossible, to my eye, that the former has much beneficial education value besides a fun physical break. The latter is amazing.

    Is there any evidence that addresses this question…that typical public school versions of art, music, field trips, etc…that THOSE in typical form create much value?

    • Thanks, Mike G. You raise an excellent point. Anything can be done poorly. And we have little reason to believe that dance, art, music, theater, etc… done poorly should be of much benefit. The only information we have on the quality of these efforts at most public (or private) schools is the same kind you have for your daughter. People can observe directly and talk to others whose opinions they respect. That seems to work reasonably well to ensure quality at “Miss Maria’s Dance Studio,” so it could also work for schools if people had choices.

    • momof4 says:

      In my experience, as a parent and as a recent visitor to several museums hosting various school groups, is that most field trips to museums are pretty useless. Even at a children’s museum, the school kids ran around doing random things while teachers/parents just watched, while the homeschooled kids and kids with parents had a specific plan and each exhibit was explained by an adult. A good DVD tour, with good commentary, would probably be better.

      I’d rather see schools teach handwriting, art/architectural and music history than focus on doing art/music (other than the usual holiday-type artwork). All of my ES teachers (and 1-4 had no college, just a year of Normal School) included this with every history unit. Friday afternoons were typical timing for this – using film strips, books, pictures, records etc.- all of which we studied independently over the next week. Now there is the internet and excellent DVDs.

      I agree with the above comment on the quality of instruction in public schools and I would extend it to PE, which my kids considered to be torture. They were all elite, full-time athletes and had no need of PE – which is also true for all elite athletes and dancers. All ES kids should have recess, however.

      • If the teachers can’t manage students or promote learning in a public setting where everyone can see them, I can only imagine how little learning and how much chaos must reign in their classrooms. Field trips do not turn bad teachers into good ones, but they do allow good teachers to be more effective.

  2. sstotsky says:

    Most music educators do not need research evidence to tell them that unless kids practice a musical instrument on their own, for a number of years, they will not acquire much of a musical education no matter what a licensed music teacher does in a public school. Most kids do little reading on their own. Even fewer do much practicing of a musical instrument on their own–or sing in a choir. Amateur musical organizations used to abound at the local level–for adults (who would influence their own children’s leisure time). It would be easy to look at a few communities over time to understand the decline. How many families have a “Chinese
    grandmother” to monitor practicing?

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Interesting choice of image to illustrate your post, Jay, in light of what Socrates says about the arts in the Republic.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    A “broader” approach to education, you say? But how can it be broader if it’s not . . . dare I say it . . . bolder?

  5. So the big question to ask here- the standards movement seems to have been pushing on string with the possible exception of MA. Even in MA however researchers have displayed a deplorable lack of curiosity regarding just what elements of policy have a demonstrable link to improvement and rather have accepted as an article of faith that it was about the rich curriculum. This observation may or may not have internal validity but it certainly seems to lack external validity having flopped in a great many other states.

    More broadly however Hanushek and Loveless studies tell us that the standards movement has been pushing on a string. Whatever was happening in MA the wretched AIMS test with teachers drilling to over-exposed test items was doing approximately nothing to improve curriculum or outcomes out here in my patch of cactus for instance. I can hope that the new standards and tests will prove more productive, but again Hanushek and Loveless would certainly not lead one to expect fantastic results.

    So assuming that you are right Jay what actions do you believe state policymakers should take today?

    • The first principle of ed reform, like medicine, should be “do no harm.” So we should stop pushing top-down accountability systems that narrow the curriculum — failing to produce lasting gains in math and reading and shortchanging all of the other goals of education.

      I don’t think we can effectively mandate a broad curriculum. It will produce many of the same perverse reactions, including narrowing of the curriculum within subjects instead of across subjects. If we can’t mandate it, we should expand choice so that parents can pursue it. As the Americans for the Arts survey suggests, parents generally want a broad liberal arts education. We can’t technocratically manage our way to a liberal arts education, but we can “choose” our way to it.

      • matthewladner says:

        Also do we have any evidence that some types of testing narrow curriculum more than others?

  6. matthewladner says:

    I share your sentiments- if in fact you examine the schools using CK you find a great many charter and private schools. People are banging down the doors of the Great Hearts schools here in AZ, and the state test has little to do with the way they shape their program, and my experience has been that rather than obsessing over the state test, they are relatively indifferent to it but rock it anyway.

    • Eric Brandon says:

      I think that your comment about the state tests is really important. Instead of focusing exclusively on reading and math tests, giving students a broader (and high-quality) education will actually prepare them for those very same tests. We don’t need to teach to the test. We need to give students a good education. Period. The education reforms of the past 20-30 years have not done this. The tests are the sole focus, and they have crowded out other aspects of the curriculum, including the arts.

  7. sstotsky says:

    Do we have any evidence that any state did what MA did? What exactly did flop elsewhere? I’d love to see the studies. Sandra

    “This observation may or may not have internal validity but it certainly seems to lack external validity having flopped in a great many other states.”

  8. matthewladner says:


    You may feel differently, but it seems to me that an unspoken article of faith in the standards movement that other states could enjoy academic success similar to that achieved in MA if they would draw up a set of academic standards in math and reading and field tests based upon those criteria. There is some evidence that states who were doing no testing at all some some NAEP gains after introduction, but it is also impossible to ignore the fact that state testing became a very hollow exercise in many states.

    It seems to me first of all MA had a much more complex set of reforms working to begin with, and that they may have succeeded in much deeper fashion in enriching curriculum than most, perhaps all other states.

    Thus the Hanushek and Loveless studies finding no relationship between state tests and standards and outcomes may have an explanation in that these things make for poor tools in driving curriculum, if that is a large part of what really matters.

  9. sstotsky says:

    My feelings are not the issue. My question is about what you say is faith in the standards movement. Why would intelligent researchers look simply at a statistical relationship between standards and outcomes, or after tossing state tests into the brew, expect a coherent and sensible answer about the worth of standards? If the curriculum is really what is at stake (and this is what matters in all countries I am familiar with), why not look directly at the curriculum? In MA, we knew that first-class standards were just the first step. If they weren’t good to begin with, why insert them into PD, student tests, and teacher training, and teacher tests?

    I am frankly baffled by the faith in anything called a standard when most of them didn’t meet any sensible person’s definition of a standard. The question I have been raising for a couple of years is why ed researchers/policy wonks thought they could go directly from whatever they called student standards to student tests and expect miracles in the classroom. Anyone familiar with the classroom (and I am) knows that the teacher makes the difference, not the test–or any test score. The US ED and its friends don’t understand how a classroom works, and are making the nation’s parents and children miserable. I just attended a meeting in RI last night and listened to a long number of horror stories by baffled parents there of what is happening to their children.

    Who can be held accountable for the mess that is now called public education in this country? How do we get out of this mess? No one is being helped, lease of all the kids who need education the most.

  10. matthewladner says:

    Color me baffled as well. I don’t want to go back to an opaque system but the endless squabble over standards has never seemed more silly- a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing?

  11. sstotsky says:

    What was opaque about the former system?

    Most parents would be happy to see real geography, US history, etc. taught in the early grades. The RI parents told me that nothing is being taught except math and a skewed ELA curriculum. Their children are learning nothing useful or truthful. One reported an example reading that taught them that their rights come from the government.

    • MatthewLadner says:

      The public school system I grew up in had real estate agents as defacto school brokers and no campus level testing data. I have no idea what the agents based their opinions upon other than hearsay. Years later when I had to make schooling decisions as a parent I made use of testing data as a part of my decision making process along with other factors and was happy to have the opportunity to do so.

      • lauren says:

        Since testing data correlates almost perfectly with family income, you could have looked at median income in the places you were considering living and been just as happy with your schooling decision, but without the effect of narrowing curricula down to ELA and math (and teachers do teach to the test when their jobs depends on it).

  12. Eric Brandon says:

    Comparing my experience 40 years ago in public education to that of my children during the last 10 years has brought me to some of the same conclusions reached in this article.

    I don’t think that my children are getting a better education than I did. They aren’t any better at reading or math, but they have not had the same exposure to other subjects that I had.

    For instance, my classes in elementary schools produced plays including The Taming of the Shrew. My children never had the chance to be in a play.

    My children have spent the time that could have been put into such an endeavor on test preparation, testing, and watching Disney movies after the tests because the children who failed needed extra tutoring. Those who passed watched movies. Not very educational. But I don’t blame the teachers. They are evaluated on tests scores. They are acting rationally by trying to maximize the test scores. They system is the problem.

    In middle school, my children only have 6 periods. I had 7. I learned how to type, took a journalism class, took science classes with real labs, etc. My children wasted time discussing the best strategies for filling in the bubbles. They also don’t have good science labs. The science classes are very focused on memorizing science facts for the tests. There is so much more to science than memorization.

    So, I think that not only arts education, but even science education, has suffered with a focus on reading, math, and test scores.

    I’ve concluded that my public school education in the 1970’s prepared me for college better than what the public schools are doing for my children.

    And this has nothing to do with the quality of the teachers. My teachers were a mixture of great, average, and lousy. The same mixture exists today. The big difference is the overemphasis on standardized testing, especially in reading and math. This is crowding out other subjects and also crowding out instructional time. I see the overemphasis on testing as very counter-productive.

  13. sstotsky says:

    Long before real estate brokers might have gotten into the picture, most schools put out information on where their high school graduates went after graduation. Parents looking to buy a home somewhere could look at that kind of information. A school system’s reputation was something everyone knew informally–by word of mouth. No need for any test data at all. Test data became something one looked at maybe after statewide testing was mandated–in the 80s and 90s. But everyone knew which towns/cities had good schools long before then.

    I understand why there is an attempt from USED on down to make it appear that we learn something from mandated testing. But I can’t think of anything we supposedly learn from mandated federal/state tests that schools/teachers didn’t learn before. What is sad is that with all the mandated testing since the 80s and 90s our public schools are in worse shape than they ever were. Why can’t the topic even be discussed? The charter movement hasn’t made an overall difference to the quality of the regular public schools. Nor have the tests. New cases for new ideas need to be made.

    • matthewladner says:

      I don’t think the evidence supports the notion that public schools are in worse shape than ever before, except from an efficiency standpoint which is damning but largely unrelated to testing. In terms of academic outcomes NAEP long term reading and math trends have improved- sometimes by a little and sometimes by a lot.

      Word of mouth is still very much in use and always will be, but now is supplemented by the ability of parents to examine raw test scores, to consider ranking systems, and to read online reviews by other parents. It seems to me that word of mouth alone operating during a time where there was a profound increase in the amount of economic and racial segregation in the public school system often amounted to “hey where do the rich white kids go to school around here?”

    • Triumph104 says:

      Education is a multi-billion dollar industrial complex. It is easy to make money if you come up with a “solution” to an imaginary problem.

      It is possible to tell how good a school is simply by going to SchoolDigger and looking at the school’s racial makeup and income. The only discrepancy will be exam schools and schools that cheat. To know if a high school is good go over to US News and World Report and check out the pass rate on AP exams.

      • matthewladner says:

        So you believe that schools that outperform or under perform their demographics are unicorns? Personally I would say the former are rare but do exist, and the latter sadly common.

  14. […] All reading and math skills — without exposure to the arts — makes Jack a dull boy — and not much of a reader, argues Jay Greene. “More research is beginning to show that a broader education, including the arts, may be essential for later success in math and reading as well as the proper development of civic values and character skills, including tolerance, empathy, and self-regulation.” […]

  15. […] scores do not appear to capture very well the quality of schools or programs. In addition, a series of studies by David Grissmer and colleagues found that early math and reading achievement tests are not even very good predictors of later […]

  16. […] test scores and important measures of later-in-life outcomes. Moreover, evidence suggests that a more holistic education is better in the long run than a narrow focus on reading and […]

  17. […] An overwhelming majority of Americans believe the arts are part of a well-rounded education. But for the past 20 years, policymakers have prioritized reading and math and assumed that taking time away for other subjects would cause test scores to stagnate or worse. As a result, the amount of time schools devote to the arts—along with social studies and science—has declined dramatically. […]

  18. […] An overwhelming majority of Americans believe the arts are part of a well-rounded education. But for the past 20 years, policymakers have prioritized reading and math and assumed that taking time away for other subjects would cause test scores to stagnate or worse. As a result, the amount of time schools devote to the arts—along with social studies and science—has declined dramatically. […]

  19. Beginner Life Coaching

    The Case for a Broader Approach to Education | Jay P. Greene's Blog

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