Making the Case for Arts Education in Urban Schools

Should all students receive art education? Does art education correlate with achievement in other academic areas? What are the social outcomes of art programs in public schools? Is there research to support evidence-based practice in art instruction? Arts education in public schools is an area rich in policy questions, and because it affects public funding distribution, it is an ideal subject for a by-the-numbers assessment.

A simple way to assess the importance and impact of arts education programs on students is to look at the academic, psychological and social effects of arts education on urban schools. It is important to note that urban public schools often serve greater numbers of students of low socioeconomic standing (SES) and English Language Learners (ELL), in addition to special needs students1. The Institute of Education Sciences Condition of Education Report found that in 2012-2013, higher concentrations of students from low SES backgrounds (those who qualified for free lunch programs) and minority students were enrolled in urban public schools than in suburban or rural schools.2

Urban Schools Have Unequal Access to Arts Education

Unfortunately, in many districts arts education has borne the brunt of funding cuts as school districts made changes to accommodate No Child Left Behind policies, and then in the wake of cutbacks during the Great Recession of the late 2000s. The difficulty in maintaining arts education continues in an environment of severe teacher shortages. Cuts to the arts come at a time when the creativity and mode of thinking that arts education fosters is perhaps most needed by students. They must navigate a competitive higher education landscape and job market that place value on individuals savvy in art applications, especially digital art.

Arts education aids students in skills needed in the workplace: flexibility, the ability to solve problems and communicate, the ability to learn new skills, to be creative and innovative, and to strive for excellence.

— Joseph M. Calahan, Director of Corporate Communications, Xerox Corporation

Urban schools especially have struggled to maintain arts programming. A new analysis, “Equity, the Arts, and Urban Education: A Review” published by The Urban Review, found that student access to arts education declined from 65 percent in 1982 to a low of 50 percent in 2008, and that access fell more sharply for black and Hispanic students than for their white counterparts.3 Urban schools, the schools that most often fail to meet state standards across multiple years, also tend to have a much higher population of disadvantaged students. Under No Child Left Behind legislation, underperforming schools were forced to reduce their arts programming in order to devote more time to math and language arts teaching and test preparation, according to The Urban Review report. However, research demonstrates that this policy lacks effectiveness and creates a dearth of arts education in urban schools.

A 2012 study, “The Effects of High-Stakes Testing Policy on Arts Education,” noted that withholding arts education in order to designate more time for standardized testing subjects did not improve test scores.4 It actually correlated with lower scores at some schools. As explained below, access to arts education improves students’ psychological, social and academic outcomes.

Key Takeaway: Arts education is often among the first areas to receive cuts due to funding or state standardized test score requirements. However, studies show that cutting arts education may in fact lead to lower student test scores.

More Art Equals More Achievement

More than two decades of research is available on the academic outcomes of arts education programming. A pivotal 2000 study, “SAT Scores of Students Who Study the Arts,” demonstrates that strong support for arts education has a positive effect on academic outcomes. The study found that the more years of art classes a student engaged in, the higher his or her SAT score was, especially when four or more years of art classes had been taken.5  

Those findings were strengthened by a 2009 study, “Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art,” by James Catterall. The study followed 12,000 students, tracking their academic development from age 18 to 26. Catterall found that SES students who engaged in the arts showed significantly higher rates of college attendance, favorable college grades, and better job opportunities. Additionally, this study noted that ELL students showed improved academic performance in schools that offered more arts education.6

A 2014 study, “Positive Impact of Arts Integration on Student Academic Achievement in English Language Arts,” likewise noted that arts education has a broad impact, improving academic outcomes in other subjects.7 With a focus on the importance of standardized test scores, this study found that schools that introduced art concepts into lessons on other topics saw an 11 percent increase in the number of students that scored proficient on ELA standardized testing.

The arts significantly boost student achievement, reduce discipline problems, and increase the odds students will go on to graduate from college.

— Arne Duncan, Former U.S. Secretary of Education Remarks at the Arts Education Partnership National Forum in April, 2010

Arts education research is also available on subject-specific achievement:

But why does art education boost student’s achievement in other subjects? Some researchers point to social cognitive theory as an explanation. The theory proposes that we learn through association, through forming connections between things. The more mediums involved in learning, the more opportunities there are for connections to be made and strengthened. For example, if you could choose between watching an all-text presentation on a topic or a presentation that included diagrams and pictures, you’d probably chose the latter — not only is it more engaging, the material would be easier to understand.

Key takeaway: Arts education not only fosters students’ creativity and artistic skills, but also contributes to greater achievement in math and reading. 

Arts Education Leads to Pro-Social Outcomes

Research has demonstrated that students who receive arts education are more likely to participate in pro-social activities. In “No Child Left With Crayons,” Sharon Verner Chappell and Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor explain, “When students engage in arts processes, they develop distinct and complementary social practices: developing craft, engaging and persisting, envisioning, expressing, observing, reflecting, stretching and exploring, and understanding art worlds.” This study suggests that arts education is an outlet for students to recognize how the world views them and how they wish to be seen. It proposes that arts programming in schools and in the community that draws inspiration from the language and culture of disadvantaged populations promotes positive social critique and advocacy for justice.11

Additionally, the study by Robinson found that arts education promoted schools environments that were “collaborative, caring, and inclusive of students with special needs.”12 Arts education was also seen as fostering greater volunteerism and political participation.13

Key takeaway: More arts education may result in more accepting, proactive and pro-social school body. 

Arts Education Fosters Positive Psychological Development

recent study found that students who received 15 weeks of dance or music instruction showed decreases in their depression scores on the Children’s Depression Inventory. Additionally, the students who received music instruction showed an increase in their self-esteem scores after the 15 weeks, as measured by the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Additionally, both dance and music groups showed an increase in executive functioning skills, including time-management, focus, decision-making, and planning.

The arts are not a frill. The arts are a response to our individuality and our nature, and help to shape our identity. What is there that can transcend deep difference and stubborn divisions? The arts. They have a wonderful universality. Art has the potential to unify. It can speak in many languages without a translator. The arts do not discriminate. The arts can lift us up.

— Former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan

Key takeaway: Dance and music instruction may reduce the risk of depression, increase self-esteem, and lead to brain development in regions associated with executive functioning. 

Access to arts education has many benefits both inside and outside of the classroom. Research suggests that arts programming may lead to greater academic achievement in terms of test scores, may enhance prosocial skills such as community involvement and volunteerism, and likewise may play a role in the development of important cognitive skills including planning and decision-making. Thus, arts education could serve as an important tool for disadvantaged and urban schools in meeting both academic and social goals.


Barnett, B. G., & Stevenson, H. (2016). “Leading High Poverty Urban Schools,” School Leadership in Diverse Contexts (S. Clarke & T. O’Donoghue, Eds.) 23-43. Retrieved from External link .

2 Institute of Education Sciences. “Concentration of Public School Students Eligible for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch,” The Condition of Education Report. Retrieved January 29, 2016, from

3 Kraehe, A. M., Acuff, J. B., & Travis, S. (2016). “Equity, the Arts, and Urban Education: A Review.” The Urban Review. doi: 10.1007/s11256-016-0352-2

4 Baker, R. A. (2012). “The Effects of High-Stakes Testing Policy on Arts Education.” Arts Education Policy Review, 113(1), 17–25. doi:10.1080/10632913.2012.626384.

5 Vaughn, K., & Winner, E. (2000). “SAT Scores of Students Who Study the Arts: What We Can and Cannot Conclude About the Association.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4), 77. Retrieved from

6 Catterall, J. S. (2009). “Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art: The Effects of Education in the Visual and Performing Arts on the Achievements and Values of Young Adults. Los Angeles: Imagination Group/I-Group Books.

7 Kylie A. Peppler, Christy Wessel Powell, Naomi Thompson & James Catterall (2014). “Positive Impact of Arts Integration on Student Academic Achievement in English Language Arts,” The Educational Forum, 78:4, 364-377, DOI: 10.1080/00131725.2014.941124

8 Podlozny, A. (2000). “Strengthening Verbal Skills through the Use of Classroom Drama: A Clear Link.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4), 239.

9 Vaughn, K. (2000). “Music and Mathematics: Modest Support for the Oft-Claimed Relationship.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34, 149-166.

10 Robinson, A. H. (2013). Arts Integration and the Success of Disadvantaged Students: A Research Evaluation. Arts Education Policy Review, 114(4), 191-204.

11 Chappell, S. V., & Cahnmann-Taylor, M. (2013). No Child Left With Crayons: The Imperative of Arts-Based Education and Research With Language “Minority” and Other Minoritized Communities. Review of Research in Education, 37(1), 243-268. Retrieved February 16, 2016, from

12 Robinson, A. H. (2013). Arts Integration and the Success of Disadvantaged Students: A Research Evaluation. Arts Education Policy Review, 114(4), 191-204. Retrieved February 16, 2016, from

13 Catterall, J. S. (2009). “Doing well and doing good by doing art: A 12-year national study of education in the visual and performing arts: Effects on the achievements and values of young adults. Los Angeles: Imagination Group/I-Group Books.