In September 2018, Pedro Noguera, professor emeritus from UCLA, testified before the New Mexico Legislative Education Study Committee about equity in schools and remarked that – as we all know – students who participate in athletics or performing arts in their schools have better outcomes than students who do not.
Do we all know that? If we did, wouldn’t we fund school performing arts programs the way we fund athletics? Roughly half a high school’s students participate in school arts programs, based on national statistics. Are we providing funding for only half our students?
James Catterall, also with UCLA, dove deep into a national study of 25,000 students and found specific support for the benefits of performing arts participation. “Intensive involvement in the arts during middle and high school associates with higher levels of achievement and college attainment,” he wrote.
Catterall published his research in two books on education. Perhaps most notable for us is Catterall’s finding “this pattern holds for children from low socioeconomic status.”
Specifically, high school theater gives students benefits not found elsewhere. You can’t design sets or costumes without geometry. You can’t design lights or sound without physics. Nearly every play is a history project, and all plays are studies in language arts as students parse the script to determine how to speak their lines. Catterall noted specific benefits of theater involvement – “gains in reading proficiency, gains in self-concept and motivation, and higher levels of empathy for others” – especially for those students in lower socioeconomic strata.
Today, educators seek to incorporate Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in schools to develop the whole child, to help each individual better use academic and extracurricular lessons throughout their lives. SEL is in theater’s DNA. Ancient Greeks staged plays, hoping their citizens would learn from the actions of Oedipus or Medea. They did. Audience members found these dramatized stories emotionally involving and instructive: cathartic was their word.
More recently, scientists discovered mirror neurons in our brains. They allow us to learn actions by watching them being performed. The same happens with emotions. When we watch a play about bullying, scientists learned, our mirror neurons replicate the victim’s emotions so well we feel bullied ourselves.
Catterall did find that student participation in arts and athletics each had carryover effects after high school. Both groups advanced to colleges, though arts students did so at a higher rate. Both groups participated in their communities as adults, though athletes often limited volunteerism to sports-related activities. Arts graduates read more books and newspapers than athletes.
In our largest high schools, we offer football for a 16-week period led by a coach and three or more assistants for three to four dozen boys. Theater teachers often direct 100 students or more each semester in several plays. If they produce a musical, 75 or more students will work on that one show. A music director or choreographer might run some rehearsals, but the director is often the sole adult in charge. Often that director is also spending significant amounts of time leading fundraising efforts, since most high school drama programs have to raise nearly a third of their annual budgets.
How much could we improve educational outcomes if we supported school arts programs the way we support athletics?