School Days and the Arts: a Perfect Match

09/29/2011 06:06 pm ET | Updated Nov 29, 2011

This post was co-authored with Paul Sznewajs, Ingenuity, Inc.

It is good to see that almost all the suggestions about how a longer school day might benefit Chicago's public school students include time to study the arts. Whether the school day is extended or not, though, the arts should be part of every day for Chicago students and schools should be filled with the visual arts, music, theater, and dance.

We are not talking about simply filling time with something fun. We are talking about using school time in a way that will significantly improve education.

Research consistently shows that the arts leverage student achievement and development far beyond raising test scores in reading and math. Participation in the arts builds essential 21st century skills like innovation, creativity, and critical thinking. Arts education strongly correlates to substantially better student engagement, academic performance, test scores, and college attendance, along with significantly decreased dropout rates and behavioral problems. And the correlations are strongest for low-income students, whose need is the greatest.

New analysis shows that the influence of arts education is sustained for years into young adulthood. Low-income youth who have had substantial arts education are much more likely to have gone to and finished college, hold promising jobs, and be active in their communities as young adults.

What better city to see the vision of bringing the arts to every child in every school than Chicago? The new leadership at CPS has signaled its readiness to consider innovative ideas to improve schools here, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel himself credits the importance of the arts in his own life.

Here are assets that can be brought to bear in Chicago:

• A creative universe of more than 200 arts organizations have built partnerships with many Chicago schools.

• Chicago has restored many of the art and music teacher positions it eliminated from its elementary schools in 1978.

• There is a dedicated and well-prepared corps of teaching artists working in many schools to supplement those arts teachers. (Please see my new report on teaching artists, released by NORC at the University of Chicago.)

• CPS's Guide for Teaching and Learning in the Arts is one of the most comprehensive in the country.

• Over a tenth of CPS elementary schools are arts "magnet cluster" schools, neighborhood schools that have chosen the arts as a lever for their efforts to improve.

• Arts integration, a strategy that marries the arts to teaching and learning across the curriculum, is more richly developed here than in any other city.

• Our philanthropic community has a long and committed history of support for arts education in the schools.

Finally, Ingenuity Incorporated was recently established. It caps a two-year effort by 400 volunteers, working as the Chicago Arts Learning Initiative, to engage all the forces working to advance the arts in our schools and be a continuing source of research and data on progress being made.

If the keys to the future include creativity and innovation, schools badly need strategies to develop those higher order skills. Now, because this is such a time of change in Chicago schools, there is an opportunity, to advance the arts in our schools and ensure that they make their full contribution to our children's preparation for life.