Why arts education is vital to the workforce of tomorrow

October 16, 2017



Recently I was asked to speak about how the arts — and specifically arts education — will contribute to the workforce of the future. The convening at which I spoke was primarily concerned with STEM education and its importance to the future of this country, and we took pride in not only affirming that importance but pushing for the arts to be acknowledged for their value as well.

The world is changing rapidly, and the skills needed for college, career, and citizenship in the 21st century are different from those currently being emphasized and tested in our schools. We also know that we need to produce students who can think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and collaborate versus simply scoring well on tests. In addition, we want our students to be engaged, passionate, and given ample opportunity to explore their interests.

Our business leaders — from Jamie Dimon to Jeff Bezos — are desperate for innovators who are intellectually curious, capable of overcoming adversity, and willing to take risks. In light of that fact, it is especially saddening that we lose our curiosity at too early an age. Four-year-olds constantly ask questions, wonder how things work, and test their assumptions about the world around them.

Unfortunately, the evidence reveals that by the time children are 6 ½ years old, they stop asking questions because they have learned the “right” answer is prioritized over the provocative question.

At the Burke Foundation, we’ve chosen three key areas in which to invest our resources: Early Development, Children’s Health, and Achievement Through Arts.

We’ve learned that the arts are a vital component in fostering curiosity, self-expression, and risk-taking. Yet, despite the many positive returns on the arts, they remain consistently underfunded and are the first to be cut in a crisis. This is one area where we as philanthropists can make a difference in guiding and supporting the development of well-rounded children.

Each of us has sat through a beautiful, inspiring performance — whether being drawn in by a theater production or moved at a concert. I have two young boys and had that magical feeling when watching my kids’ preschool class perform Where the Wild Things Are. I loved seeing the colors, costumes, and children finding their voices and having a chance to push their boundaries and express themselves. It was as magical for them as it was for me.

The impact of the arts on us isn’t just an intangible, and we’re learning more every day about the effect they have on us from a neuroscientific perspective.

The Washington Post featured an article called Your Brain on Arts and shared: “While art is considered the domain of the heart, its transporting effects start in the brain.”

We now know that when we watch a performance next to other people in an audience, we feel a strong sense of social connection and are attuned to the emotions and reactions of others around us.

In addition, given our brain’s capacity for empathy, we get a neural rush when art tells us a story—whether it’s through dance, visual art, theater, poetry—that speaks to the human condition. We generally laugh more, cry more, and enjoy ourselves more at a live performance than watching something at home.

Being new to the Burke Foundation, I wanted to understand how to unleash this potential and delve into complex questions about the value of the arts. I wanted to understand how that value can be measured and communicated. I also wanted to know how we, as a foundation, could stand to make a meaningful impact in the lives underserved youth in New Jersey and New York through arts education programming.

Since my arrival at the Burke Foundation, we’ve been engaged in a field scan process to guide our approach, and I’ve found that my perspective on the importance of arts education has deepened through conversations with more than 30 researchers, practitioners, and foundations active in the field.

Here is some of what we found:

We began by looking at the systems in place. Poverty is increasing in New Jersey, and it’s one of only three states where the number of families living in poverty is growing. In addition, New Jersey currently has one of the largest achievement gaps in the US when comparing low-income kids versus their higher income counterparts.

We also learned that closing that achievement gap in our schools is harder when students suffer from poor attendance, are not engaged in the classroom, and have parents that are not involved in their education.

In our search for productive approaches to get students more engaged, and to provide them with a reason to come to school and participate, we realized that music, dance, and theater programs give students a sense of mastery and excitement that is hard to find in other disciplines. We found that arts education can be a powerful tool for getting kids engaged in school and helping them see it through.

As part of our research process, we also dug into the evidence base. We spent some time with Professor James Cattarall, a giant in the field of research around arts education and creativity. He recently passed away, and while we don’t know him well we are grateful for the guidance he offered us and touched by his passion for supporting and empowering young people.

Cattarall’s research has indicated that low-income students with a high engagement in the arts had a school drop-out rate of just 4 percent, compared to 22 percent for low-income students with a low engagement rate in the arts. He attributed the lower drop-out rate to various factors. He hypothesized that the arts reach students who might normally fall through the cracks, speaks to students who have different learning styles, and creates more opportunities for student engagement.

Professor Catterall found that underserved youth who have high levels of arts engagement show more positive outcomes in a variety of areas than their low-arts-engaged peers. Importantly, his research also found that underserved young people with a history of intensive arts experiences showed achievement levels closer to, and sometimes exceeding, the levels shown by the general population.

We learned about many impressive results when the arts are integrated into education, such as:

  • Students not wanting to miss school on a day that there is arts programming
  • Better rates of homework completion in classes with an arts integration focus
  • Teachers reporting connecting better with their students and often saw them in a new light
  • Greater involvement by parents who come to see their kids’ performances

One of my favorite examples involves a theater and dance program, ArtsConnection’s DELTTA, that allows English language learners to excel and learn English much faster than a regular class.

These findings tell us that anyone considering ways to close the achievement gap should look to arts education as an option. It’s a proven vehicle to engage the three key stakeholder groups necessary to improving kids’ academic outcomes: students, parents, and teachers.

During our field scan, our experts repeatedly came back to the notion that the arts have a unique ability to engage the whole child. And while the arts share similar characteristics with activities like sports — which fosters teamwork and friendships and requires grit and dedication — it can also offer something truly unique by being an avenue for self-expression, communication, and creation.

At the Burke Foundation, we believe the arts serve as a powerful gateway for engaging the minds of at-risk youth and contributing to their cognitive, socio-emotional, and personal development. We learned the intrinsic and extrinsic qualities of arts education collectively play a critical part in helping underserved kids thrive, by keeping them engaged in school, giving them a safe space to express themselves, teaching them critical thinking and collaboration, developing their cognitive skills and social-emotional core, and giving them a sense of community, among so many other things.

The arts can prepare them for a wide variety of jobs in the modern world, many of which are as focused on persuading others, operating within teams, and crafting new solutions to pre-existing problems.

The arts offer many tangible benefits to young people, but there is also something distinctly human about them that we can’t forget. It is an opportunity to make sense of one’s life, create and express meaning, and cope with remarkably difficult circumstances.

The Burke Foundation, a member of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, was founded in 1989 by the late Jim Burke and Diane Burke with the mission of improving the health and well-being of children in the NJ/NY region. Over the last year, the Burke Foundation has expanded significantly in its grantmaking capacity and intends to fund research-backed interventions that will have an outsized impact.