Does your middle schooler want to study music, theater, or dance? Do you fear it will be a distraction from academics and put their grades at risk?
A rigorously designed, decade-long study of more than 30,000 Florida students suggests the exact opposite is more likely.
It found students who took an elective arts class in sixth, seventh, or eighth grade had significantly higher grade point averages (GPAs), and better scores on standardized reading and math tests, than their peers who were not exposed to the arts. This held true after the researchers took into account "all the ways that students who did and did not take the arts in middle school were initially different."
While much research has suggested music and arts training confers academic benefits, the chicken-and-egg question has made definitive declarations difficult. At least one major study concluded music students do better at school largely because smarter, more capable kids are more likely to choose to study music.
The new study, in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, addresses that issue by following a large group of low-income students from kindergarten through eighth grade. This allowed the researchers to create a baseline level of each youngster's academic accomplishments, and determine if arts classes boosted their achievement level. The short answer is they did.
The research team, led by George Mason University psychologist Adam Winsler, focused on middle school, reasoning it is both a key period for brain development and "the first time students can choose to take full elective arts courses, and they can still enroll in these arts-related classes with limited skills."
Using data from the Miami School Readiness Project, the researchers tracked the progress of 31,322 ethnically diverse, primarily low-income students. They noted each child's level of school readiness at age four, including cognitive, language, and social skills, as well as their scores on standardized math and reading tests in fifth grade.
They then recorded whether the student had taken a dance, drama, music, or visual arts class in grades six, seven, or eight. Forty percent had done so; of those, 65 percent took such a class for only one year. Finally, the researchers looked at how those kids then did academically.
Not surprisingly, they found students who chose an arts elective "not only had better grades in elementary school," than their peers, "but also showed stronger social, behavioral, language, motor, and cognitive skills seven years earlier in preschool." This supports the aforementioned thesis that more capable kids are more likely to gravitate to the arts. However, even after taking into account any advantages enjoyed by the arts students, the researchers found a clear pattern of positive results.
"Those who experienced arts electives in middle school went on to earn significantly higher GPAs and higher standardized math and reading scores, and were less likely to get suspended from school, compared to students who were not exposed to arts classes," they write. "These are meaningful, important, and ecologically valid measures of actual student performance."
Given these findings, access to arts education "can be seen as an issue of social justice," the researchers write. They note that, in their sample, black students were less likely than white or Latino students to enroll in an arts class, for reasons that are unclear but should be explored.
Winsler and his colleagues conclude that "we need to protect and enhance" kids' access to arts education. As previous research has shown, arts and music training can sharpen developing brains, bolster creativity, and teach kids how to work together to achieve a goal — all of which contribute to successful outcomes, in school and beyond.
This story originally appeared as Middle school music and theater students get better grades"on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.