The American education system has been a hot topic since March. How we educate our children, where we educate them, and how we do right or wrong by them has made headlines in nearly every US state since the Spring. The conversation has been at best, a controversial topic and at worst, a national crisis. In the midst of all the turmoil, there has been an entire industry of arts professionals who have jumped to the helm to support children with their pursuit of learning. With the theater industry almost entirely out of work, many actors, designers, puppeteers, and visual artists have taken to the internet to teach their craft. For some, it might be the need for income. For many, it’s a much deeper personal knowledge of how theater can open up skills for that child, no matter what that child may pursue.
If you want your child to succeed with skills, the research shows that access to theater arts programming gives them a boost. Any person who has spent time in theater arts can tell you how their experience in theater shaped their entire life, even if they did not choose a career in the arts. In fact, especially if they did not choose a career in the arts.
But doesn't my kid need to focus on math? Many parents, already frustrated with school districts both public and private, are struggling to feel confident that their child will get the education they need to succeed during the COVID 19 pandemic. Why should our children access arts education if they are already limited in how they access their “regular” subjects of math, language, and science? The answer is clear: when students have access to theater arts, they do better in other academic areas. The College Entrance Examination Board examined SAT test scores in 2001 and found that students involved in drama activities outscored their peers in both language and math sections. As if that was not enough, the board continued to examine the scores in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005 and consistently came to the same conclusion. The most impressive results showed that students involved in a drama performance scored 65 points higher in language and 35 points higher in math compared to their peers, who did not participate in theater arts activities (1). But, it's the exposure for students who were not interested in performing that is most compelling. Students who chose not to perform but still wanted to take classes in drama arts for the experience, still outscored their peers in language and math by 55 and 26 points respectively. Test scores are not the only evidence to suggest that the arts prime students for better learning. Enrollment in theater arts is also directly correlated with students' current ability and this is perhaps an even more powerful conclusion. In a 2014 peer reviewed study, authors determined that sixth graders achieved higher levels of literacy ability and mathematical ability if they were receiving theater arts interventions through school (2). The ability of their peers not receiving theater arts interventions was measurably lower.
So how did we develop the view that the arts should be separated from academics if the arts have been proven to help our kids excel? Part of the popular conception follows the notion that arts education falls tightly into the category of “enrichment,” a category that suggests the arts are superfluous and unnecessary. The term enrichment likely started as a positive, to imply that a life with art in school was more enriching or that an education is enriched through the arts. After school arts programs as well as daytime assemblies fall under the umbrella of enrichment for many schools. Yet, the term also implies to parents, school systems, and educators nationwide that the learning is extra, in addition to, and therefore not of primary importance to knowledge acquisition. This view is decisively disconnected from the research if we consider that a lack of engagement with theater arts is directly correlated with less knowledge and less ability. It means that when we do not offer theater arts, we possibly make the acquisition of language and math skills more difficult for that child. If we can see that students who have access to theater arts outperform those academically who do not have access, we can discern that the arts are not merely an addition to a good education but somehow a tool or pathway to helping achieve that good education. The arts are not an addition, they are a thruway.
While many agree that the arts are imperative for careers that require expression, communication, and empathy, it is easily overlooked that the arts improve our wider academic abilities. The benefits are not limited to expressive communications. The knowledge that theater can further the skills that students need in careers such as accounting, law, and nursing has the power to change the perspective of many parents. The next time you wonder how to help your future accountant prepare, consider the benefit of a drama class. Then, sit back, relax, and know that research is on your side.