A longitudinal study of the impact of the arts including music – NELS:88

At the Music Mark conference in the UK in November 2018, Susan Aykin, National Lead for Visual and Performing Arts at Ofsted (the English government’s education inspectorate), used the following quote as part of her presentation:

Students with the highest involvement in the arts, including minority and low income students performed better in school and stayed in school longer (NELS Longitudinal Survey, 25,000 pupils over 10 years).

We thought that delegates and others might like to know the source of the study, so here’s a summary.

What was the NELS Longitudinal Survey?

In 1988, the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS:88) surveyed 25,000 8th graders (13- to 14-year-olds) in 1,000 public and private schools across the United States and re-surveyed these students in 1990 (10th grade – 15- to 16-year-olds) and 1992 (12th grade – 17- to 18-year-olds).

The Study was managed by the National Center for Education Statistics at the Office for Educational Research and Improvement, United States Department of Education.

The study concluded in 2000, after five waves of data collection, when participants had reached age 26.

What does it tell us about the impact of music participation in young people?

There is no definitive report about music participation over the ten years, but various reports have drawn out sample data. The most powerful evidence about music is from NELS’ own summary after two years – but we can find no follow-up analysis of these particular findings:

First two years – impact on grades and awards

Data from the analysis of the first two years of the study showed that music participants received more academic honours and awards than non-music students, and that the percentage of music participants receiving As, As/Bs, and Bs was higher than the percentage of non- participants receiving those grades.

Sources: NELS:88 First Follow-up, 1990, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington DC & https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/nels88/ 

Ten years – impact on maths proficiency

Another report in 1999, referencing the 10-year study, highlights that students who report consistent high levels of involvement in instrumental music over the middle (age 11 to14) and high school (age 14-18) years show “significantly higher levels of mathematics proficiency by grade 12” (age 17-18) – regardless of students’ socio-economic status. They found that, of low socio-economic status students who exhibited high math proficiency in the 12th grade, 33% were involved in instrumental music compared with 15% who were not involved. They also found that the differences in those who are involved with instrumental music vs. those who are not is more significant over time. This data is also referenced in Dr Susan Hallam’s research synthesis, The Power of Music.

Catterall, James S., Richard Chapleau, and John Iwanaga. “Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: General Involvement and Intensive Involvement in Music and Theater Arts.” Los Angeles, CA: The Imagination Project at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, 1999. This report is also featured in a collection of studies called Champions of Change – the impact of the arts on learning, published in 2002.

A review of cultural education in England by Darren Henley, current Chief Executive of Arts Council England and previous managing director of radio station Classic FM, also references the study. It also points to the maths connection, relating this and findings from other arts, to low income students: “Low-income students involved in band and orchestra outscored others on the NELS math assessment; low income students involved in drama showed greater reading proficiency and more positive self-concept compared to those with little or no involvement.”

Henley, D., Cultural Education in England Review, DCMS 2012.

Ten years – impact from arts participation in general

The findings up to that date relating to the arts (but not specifically music) have been summarised in the report, National Endowment for the Arts report: The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies and are further summarised as follows:

  • P12: Academic Achievement – Teenagers and young adults of low socioeconomic status (SES) who have a history of in-depth arts involvement show better academic outcomes than do low-SES youth who have less arts involvement. They earn better grades and demonstrate higher rates of college enrolment and attainment.
  • P14: Academic Achievement – Both 8th-grade and high school students who had high levels of arts engagement were more likely to aspire to college than were students with less arts engagement.
  • P16: Academic Achievement – Students who had intensive arts experiences in high school were three times more likely than students who lacked those experiences to earn a bachelor’s degree. They also were more likely to earn “mostly A’s” in college.
  • P24: Conclusions – (1) Socially and economically disadvantaged children and teenagers who have high levels of arts engagement or arts learning show more positive outcomes in a variety of areas than their low-arts-engaged peers. (2) At-risk teenagers or young adults with a history of intensive arts experiences show achievement levels closer to, and in some cases exceeding, the levels shown by the general population studied. (3) Most of the positive relationships between arts involvement and academic outcomes apply only to at-risk populations (low-SES). But positive relationships between arts and civic engagement are noted in high-SES groups as well.

 See also: Quick Guide to Using the NELS:88/2000 Data  

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