The new economy may require higher-order skills such as creativity, adaptability and teamwork, but most schools in low-income areas focus narrowly on "basic" academic skills, testing and discipline. The student boredom and academic failure that follow prompt calls for yet more testing and discipline.
The first school and others like it are proving that integrating the arts into the core of the academic program is a far more productive strategy. Recently the principal of Edgebrook, Chicago's highest-scoring non-selective elementary school, attributed her school's success to its embrace of the arts. "We were concerned we might see a negative impact on test scores," Diane Maciejewski said. "But actually, just the opposite happened."
A growing body of research is yielding data that support her claim. A study of 23 arts-integrated schools in Chicago showed test scores rising up to two times faster there than in demographically comparable schools. A study of a Minneapolis program showed that arts integration has substantial effects for all students, but appears to have its greatest impact on disadvantaged learners. Gains go well beyond the basics and test scores. Students become better thinkers, develop higher-order skills, and deepen their inclination to learn.
These successes make clear that the arts are not just affective and expressive. They are also deeply cognitive. They develop the tools of thinking itself: careful observation of the world, mental representation of what is observed or imagined, abstraction from complexity, pattern recognition and development, symbolic and metaphoric representation, and qualitative judgment. We use these same thinking tools in science, philosophy, math and history. The advantage of the arts is that they link cognitive growth to social and emotional development. Students care more deeply about what they study, they see the links between subjects and their lives, their thinking capacities grow, they work more diligently, and they learn from each other.