Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Teaching, Writing, and the Value of an Arts Education

Art Room by flickr user cayoup

As we wind down another year of NEA research blog posts, I thought it fitting to end on a mildly aspirational note. For a topic, I need look no further than arts education, itself redolent with the themes of hope, striving, and self-discovery. It also helps that I have two arts ed research reports readily at hand. Each invites the reader---one deliberately, the other incidentally---to re-imagine the contours of arts learning and related skills development.

The first report is "Painting with Broader Strokes: Reassessing the Value of an Art Degree." Co-authored by Danielle Lindemann and Steven Tepper of Vanderbilt University, it mines responses from 13,581 arts alumni who took the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) survey in 2010.

The SNAAP population is comprised of alumni from arts undergraduate programs (81 percent), graduate programs (16 percent), and arts-focused high schools (3 percent). Targeting people who graduated from those schools or programs within the last 20 years, the survey not only tracks where alumni are now---their jobs and livelihoods---it also captures self-reported satisfaction with their arts training; how their jobs may or may not invoke their arts training; and what kinds of additional skills or knowledge, in hindsight, would have proved useful to arts alumni.

All this and more (it's a long survey), including rich qualitative data from open-ended responses, and demographic and wages information, are available in the report. For starters, the findings show that arts alumni generally succeeded in finding employment (only 6 percent were unemployed and looking for work), with just over 80 percent reporting that an artistic training was at least somewhat relevant to their current job. Among skills deemed the most relevant to alumni's current jobs were "artistic technique or technical skills," "teaching or mentoring," and "public speaking or performance."

Although a large majority of arts alumni find employment, nearly 40 percent currently work in a non-arts field. (For that matter, 91 percent of arts alumni report ever having worked in a non-arts job.) Among those who had landed an arts job, the largest single share of alumni were employed as K-12 arts teachers. (Graphic designers, postsecondary school arts educators, and musicians make up the next largest shares of arts job-holders among alumni.) Similarly, "Education, Training, and Library" is the occupational category attracting the greatest share of arts alumni holding non-arts jobs.

Even when not employed as teachers, arts alumni choose to donate time to arts instruction at a high rate. One in four arts alumni (24 percent) said they had volunteered to teach within the arts in the past three years.

Taken together with the findings shown above, it's clear that the arts and education are cognate fields. Perhaps it's no surprise, since our own research shows that artists are more likely to be college graduates (59 percent compared with 32 percent of all workers) and that education is a significant predictor of arts participation---often trumping gender, race or ethnicity, and income.

This is to some degree (pun intended) what the SNAAP researchers mean by suggesting that we consider "broader strokes" to describe the societal value of arts training. It may be that something intrinsic to these programs, curricula, and pedagogy made alumni likely to pursue and obtain jobs as arts educators and/or to volunteer in this capacity.

Now I want to shift to another report, this one issued a few months ago by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center of Education Statistics (NCES).

If the SNAAP report shows us a broader way of understanding the relevance of arts training, then the NCES report is a reminder not to overlook the art of writing as a complex series of skills with measurable components.

Conducted in 2011 as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as NAEP, or "the Nation's Report Card"), the NCES study tested how well 8th- and 12th-graders wrote in response to prompts inviting creative and analytical text.

For example, 8th-graders were asked to "immerse themselves in an imaginary situation"---in this case, a desert island---and, by consulting an audio recording of island noises and an "imaginary journal," to write about their fictional experience.

Each level of competency is scored by set criteria, from "Below Basic" and "Basic" to "Proficient" and "Advanced." The study found that 27 percent of 8th-graders performed in the latter two categories (with only 3 percent in the "Advanced" category).

Yet there's obviously hope. Why? Because even among the 8th-graders who scored lowest on the test (ranking below the 25th percentile), writing emerged as a favorite activity for one out of three students (34 percent). Among 8th-graders who scored in the top quartile, the majority (58 percent) said writing was one of their favorite activities. Among 12-graders, writing was a favorite activity for 44 percent of students.

NCES is to be lauded for designing this test, which complements the all-too-rare national arts education assessment. (That NAEP report came out in 2008, and focused on music, visual art, and theater.) As the NEA has reported in "To Read or Not to Read" and other places, writing ability and its component skills are increasingly sought by employers.

A unique feature of the NCES writing report is that it adopted word-processing metrics (number of keystrokes and the like) to evaluate performance, since, after all, students tested on a computer.

Going back to those 8th-graders, then, it turns out that in the high-scoring group, 41 percent used the backspace key more than 500 times (!), compared with 5 percent of the lowest-scoring group. Fifty-seven percent of high-scorers used spell-check 1-10 times, compared with 31 percent of low-scorers. And although only 29 percent of all 8th-graders used an online thesaurus, they scored higher, on average, than those who didn't.

Warning: I wrote much of this on my federally issued Blackberry, which doesn't have a thesaurus.

Happy holidays.

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