Art Works Blog

Taking Note: After-School Activities & the Arts

Row of Seats by flickr user trancedmoogle

Just before the holidays, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) released a 171-page stocking stuffer, America’s Youth: Transitions to Adulthood. The report compiles and analyzes nationally representative statistics about youth and young adults (ages 14 to 24) from various sources, including other governmental agencies, not-for-profit organizations, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, whose ongoing Monitoring the Future study has tracked the “changing lifestyles, values, and preferences of American youth” since 1975.

Here are three top-line findings from the report. First, in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 47.1 million youth and young adults. While this number is higher than the 46.2 million in 1980, it represents a decline in their share of the total U.S. population (from 20 to 15 percent).

Second, a far greater proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds are now enrolled in school when compared to three decades prior. And third, the gap between labor force participation by males and females ages 20 to 24 has narrowed. In 1980, 86 percent of young adult males and 69 percent of females were in the labor force. By 2010, however, that difference was only about six percentage points (75 percent of males versus 68 percent of females).

How is this information relevant to arts research? As arts managers know too well, knowledge of youth demographic and behavioral patterns is vital to understanding how to build the future of arts participation. To that extent, the NCES report at least provides sound market research. But surely one of the most important variables is how those youth and young adults choose to spend their leisure time.

For example, according to Table 33 of the report, nearly 24 percent of high school seniors participated in after-school music or performing arts activities in 2009. What’s striking is that this percentage has not grown or fallen substantially over the last two decades. (The data come from the Monitoring the Future study, based on survey results capturing whether 12th-graders had participated in various after-school activities either “to a considerable extent” or “to a great extent.”)

In fact, the relative share of high school seniors participating in any kind of after-school activity has not changed appreciably from 1990 to 2009, when 36 percent joined athletic teams, 13 percent joined academic clubs, 11 percent student council/government, nine percent worked on their high school newspaper or yearbook, and 35 percent participated in “other” school clubs or activities. Indeed, the real story may lie with the gender split of youth participants.

The NEA’s own Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) and related studies have long chronicled the gender imbalance favoring female versus male attendance at many types of live arts events.  Monitoring the Future suggests that the difference becomes apparent even before adulthood. From 1990 to 2005, roughly 30 percent of female 12th-graders did music or other performing arts activities after school, compared to only 17 percent of males. For that matter, with the exception of sports, females were more likely to do after-school activities of any type at a greater rate than males.

I was mulling the implications of these findings when the most recent issue of the magazine Education Next hit my desk. The cover headline is "Basketball, Band, and Drama: Afterschool Activities and Academic Success."

An accompanying story, "Academic Value of Non-Academics" by June Kronholz, explores findings by researchers who have identified positive academic outcomes associated with extracurricular activity participation. Unlike many writers on the subject, Kronholz delves into plausible reasons for those correlations, drawing from interviews with students and faculty alike. (Such linkages should not be overlooked, she asserts, especially in light of looming budget cuts in many school districts for these same activities.) One of the data sources she cites as valuable to understanding the role of extracurricular events in shaping student outcomes is the Department of Education’s National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS).

The NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis is working with education researcher James Catterall, professor-emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, to produce a report that will be released in a few months. It will document the same kinds of correlations across three longitudinal databases besides NELS.

Further down the road, the NEA will release results from an analysis of yet another longitudinal dataset---the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), which, like Monitoring the Future, is conducted by the University of Michigan. PSID tracks early childhood and teenage populations over many years; at present, such efforts give us the best shot we have of investigating a potential cause-and-effect relationship between extracurricular arts engagement and positive academic and social outcomes.

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