Research shows students benefiting from arts field trips, but will they recede after COVID?
Kevin Mahnken | January 6, 2021
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Parents have worried all year that arts education will be among the casualties claimed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting pressures on local school budgets. Depending on how long districts are forced to cut programs, fire or reassign staff, and cope with remote learning, some advocates warn, little money or instructional time could be left over for activities outside of core academic subjects.
Those concerns may grow louder following the release of research this fall that shows young students receiving measurable academic and social-emotional benefits from exposure to the arts. Even a few brief trips to cultural institutions can lift engagement, tolerance, course grades, and standardized test scores for participating students, the authors find.
The study, circulated as a working paper by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute, offers the latest round of findings from the first-ever multi-visit experiment measuring the long-term effects of field trips. Lead author Heidi H. Erickson, a visiting assistant professor of economics at Kennesaw State University, said that she and her collaborators were surprised to see the size of the effects generated by a handful of outings during the school year. Previous research had focused on “much more comprehensive” arts enrichment and integration programs that were administered over a longer span of time, she noted.
“Here, we are able to demonstrate that a relatively simple intervention — and we consider it pretty low-touch; three field trips in a year, maybe six field trips in two years — can actually have some substantial impacts,” Erikson said. “They’re not just limited to social benefits, but it shows that smaller interventions can actually have some significant effects on academics as well.”
To test those effects, the researchers randomly assigned fourth and fifth graders from 15 Atlanta elementary schools to receive three field trips to an art museum, a symphony orchestra, and a theater production. Those students were compared with a control group that was sent on one field trip, either to one of the arts organizations or another destination in Atlanta.
Students were asked to complete surveys at the beginning and end of their school year to gauge their interest in the arts, tolerance for others, political tolerance, empathy, and school engagement. The research team also examined administrative data detailing the students’ performance on the Georgia Milestones standardized tests, course grades, and attendance and disciplinary records.
Survey responses indicated that students who received the arts field trips were more likely to express a desire to consume or participate in arts in the future. They were also more likely to demonstrate tolerance, as demonstrated by their higher levels of agreement with the survey prompt that “different people can have different opinions about the same thing.”
Those results are somewhat in keeping with prior research, which found that one-off visits to art museums boosted children’s critical and creative thinking. But the effects of the repeated field trips on academic outcomes were more noteworthy still: Two years after going on the trips, participants earned significantly higher combined scores on their math and ELA standardized tests. They enjoyed higher course grades as well.
Erikson noted that, while it was unclear just how the field trips had improved academic performance, students who had received more exposure to the arts subsequently did better in several measures of school engagement. One year after the trips, participating students had .19 fewer behavioral incidents than those in the control group (an 83 percent decline) and were less likely to be absent from school.
“As we started to look at measures like disciplinary infractions, attendance, measures of conscientiousness, we started to wonder if maybe there was a school engagement effect happening,” she said. “School is now a little more exciting to students, they’ve had these great experiences with their classes, they feel a little more connected, and they’re just trying more.”
The authors note that arts field trips like those tracked in the study are sometimes viewed as a liability by teachers and school leaders, who meticulously budget their instructional time. Three days out of a year devoted to art, theater, and music — even if, as in the case of the study, the costs of the visits were covered — can represent a large resource expended, especially given the pressure for schools to perform well on their states’ educational accountability systems.
During the aftermath of the Great Recession, education observers noted that field trips waned as districts dealt with massive budget cutbacks. Survey data from school administrators indicated that nearly one-third reported eliminating such trips in the years following the 2007-09 financial meltdown.
While hesitant to point to specific risks from continued school closures and financial retrenchment, Erikson said she worried that perceived “extras” like class trips and arts education would recede in the wake of the pandemic. Given the countless new responsibilities piled on schools during times of crisis, from providing free meals to connecting kids with the internet, enrichment activities may be in danger of being lost in the shuffle.
“The longer the current education conditions go on, there’s a concern that we short-change students from having a holistic and broader educational experience. Exposing kids to a broader world, connecting kids to their teachers and classmates, connecting them with a world outside their school — that’s where field trips fit in. With the pandemic and so many schools [still] online, I do think there’s a risk of serious negative consequences from being isolated from each other and disconnected.”