Correlation and causation in arts education

The summary of a new CDE and Colorado Council on the Arts (CCA) study titled “The Arts, Creative Learning and Student Achievement” is proof positive that someone should have spent more time with math. The first paragraph of the summary reads:

The benefits are clear: The new study shows public schools in Colorado that offer more arts education have higher academic achievement and lower dropout rates.

Um, not really. The study in no way shows that more arts results in higher achievement and lower dropout rates – this would be causation. The study says that schools with more arts education also have students that score higher on achievement tests and fewer dropouts – this is correlation. Correlation does not imply causation. The “benefits” of arts education from this study are none, and the summary is intentionally misleading (as in listing of “benefits” that include higher CSAPs and subjective claims that arts education is “as integral to learning as reading, writing and math”). One might as well argue that because wealthy people have season tickets to the Opera, having a season ticket is what makes you wealthy. The entire summary – resplendent in color and illustration – should get a straight “F”.

Let me offer a second hypothesis: schools with student bodies that are more affluent will not only have higher test results and lower dropout rates, they will have more art programs — partly through student and parent demand, partly because students will be able to pursue more electives as their basic skills are stronger. See: Denver School of the Arts (great academics, low dropout, admissions-based, and 12% FRL). Any reasonable study would simply look at FRL or some other poverty indicator and perform a regression analysis. That two publicly funded bodies like CDE and CCA would neglect something this analytically simple is disquieting, and to it’s credit, the study itself makes no such claims:

Many people somehow accept the idea that the arts help other academic areas – were that it were so easy. One of the earliest studies for the claim – the so called Mozart Effect – has been shown to be scientifically meaningless.

A former colleague recently looked far and wide for a good arts-based curriculum with some evidence of above-average student achievement for high populations of FRL students. He did not find one. Over the last few years I have asked various people for a single piece of solid scientific research showing that increased art programs result in an enhanced ability to do core subjects (math, reading, writing). I have never seen one that held up to any scrutiny.

I remain open, but the kind of amateurish claptrap like this report summary do the opposite as they intend: it shows what even the most facile understanding of statistics might avoid.

Update (Tues night): If there was any doubt about advocates claiming causation “The benefits of arts education are clear. Student involvement in the arts has a positive impact on their overall achievement and helps keep them in school,” said Elaine Mariner, executive director of the Colorado Council on the Arts.

Article here. Wow do I wish we could get her to take the 10th grade math CSAP.

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