Arts Education and the High School Dropout Problem

Thomas. M. K., Singh, P. & Klopfenstein, K. (2015). Arts education and the high school dropout problem. Journal of Cultural Economics, 39 (4): 327-339

Abstract:

High school dropout is a significant public education problem in the United States. The associated costs of high school dropout are high and are born predominately by low-income and minority students, and to an extent, society at large. Promising interventions often center on student engagement. Arts education advocates believe quality education in the arts can engage at-risk students in ways other subjects cannot and may be an important tool in high school dropout prevention. Although some studies point to lower dropout rates, the majority do not follow a large student sampling over time or account for student and school characteristics expected to influence a student’s educational path. This study fills this gap in the current literature by tracking approximately 175,000 first-time 9th graders for 5 years using survival analysis with longitudinal administrative data from the University of Texas, Dallas Education Research Center.

Key Findings:

Cumulative credits in the arts are consistently associated with reduced dropout, even after controlling for prior student achievement and contemporaneous course completion in core subjects.

Students who have not earned a full credit in the arts face an increased risk of dropping out of high school at every year during the study.

Students at lowest risk of high school dropout are those that chose to study the arts more intensely and have moved beyond the one-credit graduation requirement.

Significance of the Findings:

The findings provide evidence that the arts are a potential lever in education reform. Despite the inability to make causal claims, the findings reveal an arts participation effect after controlling for student and school characteristics and employing rigorous statistical methods. While the risk of dropping out diminishes substantially once the student and school characteristics available in the data has been controlled, it does not disappear. Including the arts in required coursework as an intervention strategy may reduce the dropout rate in at-risk populations.

Methodology:

The study tracked approximately 175,000 first-time 9th graders for 5 years using survival analysis with longitudinal administrative data from the University of Texas, Dallas Education Research Center. Students from magnet or charter schools as well as those without the 8th-grade Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores were excluded from the study. The arts are defined in this study as the aggregate of courses in visual arts, music, theater, and dance.

Limitations of the Research:

While selection bias at the school level was addressed in the model, the selection bias of the students who choose to enroll in arts courses while in high school was not. The arts students in the cohort followed tended to be higher-income, non-minority students attending high school with few low-income students. While the data allows control for a wide set of student and school characteristics expected to influence both arts enrollment and the decision to drop out of high school, it is likely that a student’s decision to take an arts course is at least partly explained by information not available to researchers in a state education database.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What are the isolated salient conditions under which in-school arts participation can reduce dropout?

How does a student’s choice in an arts class affect the dropout rate?