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I Like Art (and Art Education) But

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What do the New York Yankees and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have in common? My answer is at the end of this column.

I like art, music, theater, and dance. I believe they enrich our lives. I believe they belong in the schools at every grade level because they stimulate children to think about, explain, replicate, and understand the world around them in imaginative ways. I love watching my five-year-old grandchildren Gideon and Sadia sing, bang, move, draw, paint, tell stories, and act. Their creativities reflect their different personalities. Sadia likes getting everything just so. Gideon, in art and life, plays everything outside the lines. Art supports their emerging literacy. As they draw letters and pictures and tell stories about what they drew they are learning to read.

All this being said, claims made in a recent report by the Center for Arts Education crediting the arts in school with promoting higher graduation rates are an exaggeration and misleading ("Staying in School: Arts Education and New York City High School Graduation Rates," October 2009). Their claims underscore what happens when a statistical correlation is used to suggest causality - you end up with a logically ridiculous argument. For example, if boys prefer chocolate ice cream and girls prefer vanilla ice cream and boys run faster, it does not mean chocolate ice cream makes you run faster. I have been gorging on chocolate ice cream for years and it just does not happen.

The study reports that "High schools in the top third of graduation rates had almost 40 percent more certified arts teachers per student than schools in the bottom third" and had "25 percent more partnerships with arts and cultural organizations than schools in the bottom third."

What the study actually demonstrates is that in schools serving students from middle class and professional families, students get to do art rather than reading remediation and test prep. These students are not performing well because they take art, but get a chance to take art because their parents demand it and because they are already performing well.

Unfortunately, invalid claims like these, using correlations to suggest causality, are constantly being made by politicians on the local, state, and national levels about education so they do not have to address the real underlying causes of educational and social inequality.

For example, the Bloomberg administration's claims that leaving kids back enhances learning, improves their performance in school, and offers them possibilities for the future, is based on minimal gains on standardized tests. But unfortunately the higher scores don't really measure any of these things. They only prove that when students take "practice" tests over and over again, and the practice test turns out to be a test, they score higher.

If we really want to improve education for young people, we need to stop manipulating statistics to pretend we have the miracle solution to all educational problems. Unfortunately there are no miracles.

In the meantime, it would be nice to have art in the schools just for its own sake.

What do the New York Yankees and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have in common?

I am a lifelong baseball and New York Yankee fan. I was born in The Bronx and lived about ten blocks from Yankee Stadium. I started going to Yankee games on "Ladies Day" with my mother when I was eight years old. I need readers to forgive me my allegiances. On the other hand, readers of my blogs know I really dislike Michael "Mayor Moneybags" Bloomberg.

The victories by the Yankees and Bloomberg illustrate the problem with confusing correlations with causes. The simplest correlation is that they both won because they were the "best".

But that conclusion obscures what actually was going on. What the Yankees and Bloomberg have in common is not just that they recently won (the World Series and the mayoralty), but that they used their great personal wealth to purchase victory. The Yankee payroll is at least 30% higher than the payroll of any other major league baseball team, while Bloomberg outspent his leading opponent by about 10 to 1. While both the Yankees and Bloomberg played by the rules, I don't think anyone doubts that outcomes would have been different if the games were played on a level "spending" field.