Cultural Activity Matters

Some people have been puzzled as to why I’ve been studying how cultural activities, like visiting an art museum or seeing live theater, affect students.  Why don’t I do what almost everyone else in our field does and just study how various interventions affect math and reading test scores?

Well, I’ve been making the argument for a while now that there is remarkably little evidence linking near-term changes in test scores to changes in later life outcomes for students, like graduating high school, enrolling in college, completing college, and earnings.  I have yet to see anyone bother to refute my observation of this weak and inconsistent connection between test score changes and life changes.  No matter, researchers, foundations, and policymakers continue to plod along as if changing test scores should be the focus of our efforts. Whether kids go to art museums or see live theater is at best an amusing sideline or at worst a harmful distraction from the primary goal of education, which they believe is boosting math and reading test scores.

But now we have a rigorously designed study out of Denmark that shows cultural activity among students is strongly (and likely causally) related to later academic success.  The study appears in Social Science Research, a Sociology journal that was co-founded by James Coleman.  It examines a large sample of monozygotic twins in Denmark to see if their cultural activity was related to their teacher-given GPA, exam-based GPA, and rate of completing secondary school.  To measure cultural activity they relied on a survey administered to the mothers of those twins that asked about what their children did when they were 12 years old.  It asked things like: “How often child went to any type of museum” and “How often child went to the theater or a musical performance.”

By comparing outcomes among identical twins, the researchers hope to control automatically for a large set of unobserved environmental and genetic factors.  We could reasonably believe that a large portion of the variation in cultural capital among twins was due to chance and not differences in their upbringing or ability.

The researchers found that the twin whose mothers reported having higher cultural capital at age 12 had significantly higher marks on their end of compulsory school exams at age 15/16.  They also found “an
increase in cultural capital of one standard deviation is estimated to increase the likelihood of completing upper secondary education by 12.5 percentage points.”

Cultural capital was not a significant predictor of the grade point average students received from their teacher when they were 15, which was contrary to the researchers’ expectations.  Earlier theory had suggested that cultural capital might improve academic performance by making students falsely appear more knowledgable, even if their command of the material were no greater.  As they put it: “Bourdieu argued that cultural capital, that is familiarity with the dominant cultural codes in a society, is a key determinant of educational success because it is misperceived by teachers as academic brilliance and rewarded as such.”

This study found that not to be the case.  Instead, their findings are more consistent with the arguments advanced by E.D. Hirsch and others that cultural capital gives students a stronger foundation of broad knowledge that then facilitates future knowledge acquisition.  And the significant increase in completing secondary school may be a function of that broader knowledge, as opposed to the narrow knowledge captured in math and reading standardized tests.  Cultural activity may also increase graduation rates by giving students more ways to be engaged with school on top of traditional academic coursework.

So the next time someone asks me why it matters whether students go to art museums or see live theater, I can tell them that there is at least as much rigorous evidence showing the long term benefits of cultural activity as there is for interventions designed to boost standardized test scores.


16 Responses to Cultural Activity Matters

  1. Xname says:

    I’m confused. How is this a casual study? Was the treatment randomly assigned between the twins?

    • This is definitely not an RCT. It could be causal if we believe that a large part of the variation in cultural activity among twins stems from chance factors or at least factors that are exogenous to their later academic success. If one twin happens to take an art class, go on a field trip, have a friend, etc… who gets them more interested in cultural activity than the other twin, who largely shares the same ability and upbringing, then we can see how that cultural activity causes later outcomes.

      • Xname says:

        Can we assume the participation of cultural activists was not by kid’s self selection? It is hard to believe when the kids were 12 years old. Especially when you look at the survey items, many of those activists were voluntary. If the activists were voluntary, it is hard to see how the factors impact their choice on cultural activists are exogenous to their later academic success.

      • Even if children are voluntarily choosing their cultural activities by the time they are 12, those choices likely flow from earlier (arguably) random events that made them want to choose certain activities. Identical twins are beginning with nearly identical genetic and environmental resources, so any differences in their early-life choices may indeed be exogenous.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Even if children are voluntarily choosing their cultural activities by the time they are 12, those choices likely flow from earlier (arguably) random events that made them want to choose certain activities.

        “Made them want to”? You don’t believe in free will?

        Even if you don’t, the causal arrow is still really ambiguous here. Did cultural capital make them successful or did they possess qualities of personality (acquired with or without free will) that caused them both to do well in school and to seek out cultural capital?

        This matters, of course, because the two stories point to different policy goals.

        Believe me, I definitely want the cultural capital story to be true. But I’m cautious about giving this study much weight.

        Edit: You could still justify field trips if you think that this is one of those cases where making kids go through the motions of virtuous actions helps form virtue. Making kids do chores is good for them; on the other hand, I understand the research on mandatory community service work is not positive. So a lot depends on context.

        Re-edit: What the study does clearly lend support to is rethinking the relationship between cognitive and non-cognitive educational outcomes. Clearly something is going on! And, as you rightly note, whatever it is, it’s got a stronger relationship to long-term outcomes than the technocrats’ myopic focus on short term test score changes.

      • By “made them” I meant “made it more likely that.” Either way, even activities voluntarily chosen at an early age among these sets of twins are not clearly endogenous. We can’t fully sort out the causation here with confidence. I just said that these results are “likely causal.”

        This is about as strong as other studies that are not RCTs but use other rigorous techniques to approximate an RCT. Ashenfelter and Rouse had a famous piece published in QJE using the same technique of comparing twins to make causal claims about the returns on education. See

    • Remember that Chetty, et al, which is the study used to show any connection between changing test scores and changing later life outcomes, was also not an RCT. Both Chetty and this Danish study approximate random assignment.

  2. Momof4 says:

    I attended a small-town 1-12 school, in the 50-60s. My first four teachers were Normal School grads; 1 yr post HS at a time when most did not attend HS. Every year, art, architecture and music were part of the history curriculum. Books, magazines, pictures, film strips, films and records were used, to give us a better grounding in art/music appreciation than any of my kids had at affluent suburban schools – their art and music teachers were interested only in performance. We learned to sing patriotic songs, folk songs, cowboy/trail songs and spirituals. I am all in favor of that, but I think that most field trips are not particularly useful, considering time and money.

    In recent years, I have been to many museums, with my grandkids, and the school groups have mostly wandered around aimlessly, with lots of socialization – including among teachers/chaperones. I think that their time and money would have been much better spent with good dvd versions and classroom discussions.

    • Greg Forster says:

      No doubt those trips would have done more good if they had been better organized, but that doesn’t mean they did no good.

      As for staying in class with a DVD, first of all what’s a DVD (sorry, couldn’t help it) and second don’t underestimate the formative power of going to a special location that’s dedicated to having a particular experience. That’s the real reason movie theaters are still in business.

    • I’ve spoken to many docents/curators at historical museums, sites in MA (lots of them in MA). They are prepared to teach kids about their site and think most elem. tchrs don’t prepare their kids adequately. I visited the Mayflower replica in Plymouth years ago, and watched a whole busload of fifth graders from MN go through the ship. The cultural informant acting as Gov. Bradford told me he had not gotten one question. Who knows if the kids had heard of the Mayflower Compact?

      What older tchrs did, newer tchrs don’t. Their prep programs need to take THEM on field trips, and big foundations need to be encouraged to pay for field trips and a sub for practicing elem. teachers (as Waltons did, I was told years ago, for classes in AR–to get them to Crystal Bridges Museum of Art). I have never ever seen Walton Family Foundation praised for its efforts/money spent to get ARK kids to that museum.

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