Involvement in the arts and human development: General involvement and intensive involvement in music and theatre arts

Catterall, J., R. Chapleau, et al. (1999). Involvement in the arts and human development: General involvement and intensive involvement in music and theatre arts. Chapter in E. Fiske (Ed.), Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning. Washington DC: Arts Education Partnership and President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, 1-18.1


This briefing presents results from a two-year exploration of interactions between the arts and student achievement. This research enlisted the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS:88), a panel study that followed more than 25,000 students in middle and high schools for ten years. The first phase of the study examines involvement in the arts across all disciplines. The second phase examines the potential importance of sustained involvement in a single discipline, here using instrumental music and the theatre arts as case examples. The researchers focus on these two arts disciplines in the one case because of related research suggesting links between music and cognitive development at younger age levels, and in the other because of related research on drama and theatre in education.

Key Findings:

Involvement in the Arts and Academic Success. Positive developments for students engaged in the arts are seen at each step in the research and comparative gains for arts-involved students became more pronounced over time. This includes students of low socio-economic status.

Music and mathematics achievement. Students who report consistent high levels of involvement in instrumental music over the middle and high school years show significantly higher levels of mathematics proficiency by grade twelve. The differences in measured mathematics proficiency between students consistently involved versus not involved in instrumental music, grew significantly over time.

Theatre arts and human development. Sustained student involvement in theatre arts (acting in plays and musicals, participating in drama clubs, and taking acting lessons) associates with a variety of developments for youth: gains in reading proficiency, gains in self-concept and motivation, and higher levels of empathy and tolerance for others. The analyses of theatre arts were undertaken for low socio-economic status students only.

Significance of the Findings:

This research is unique in its longitudinal design and its basis in theory related to the arts and human development. It provides solid findings establishing a relationship between arts education and student achievement. Analysis of low socio-economic status students show gains in all variables measured. These results have particular significance to policy directed to this population, which experiences significantly less involvement in the arts.

The second analysis provides evidence for the argument that different art forms impact cognitive processes differently and thus should be expected to result in distinct outcomes. More specifically, it offers support to existing literature that makes claims for relationships between mathematics achievement and music performance.


The analyses of this study were based on a multi-year survey of more than 25,000 students sponsored by the United States Department of Education from 1997-1998. This study offered the first reported analysis of information in the NELS:88 survey about student participation in the arts. Arts credit was given to students for taking arts-related classes in or out of school as well as involvement and leadership in school activities such as theatre, band, orchestra, chorus, dance, and the visual arts. The first analysis investigated the hypothesis that higher involvement in the arts would result in greater academic performance. The most “involved” students of the first study were those who participated in several disciplines.

Depth of involvement in a single art discipline was explored in the second analysis. The first three panels of the NELS: 88 survey—eighth, tenth, and twelfth grades—were used for this work. The researchers performed two separate inquiries to examine depth of experience in the arts: The first effort examines connections between involvement in music and cognitive development specifically in regard to mathematics achievement. The second effort examines intensive involvement in theatre arts. The hypothesis was that students highly involved in theatre will outscore other students not highly involved in theatre in outcome measures related to reading skills, self concept, and empathy and tolerance. This analysis included only low socio-economic status students.

Limitations of the Research:

As intended by the researchers, this study is limited to non-arts outcomes related to engagement in the arts. Steps were taken to ensure reliability of causal explanations to the differences in groups of this report. However, a rival hypothesis that could not be ruled out is that systematically the more arts-involved students attended more effective schools. Applying various tests for group differences that would compete with arts involvement as explanations for reported outcomes may be a possible next step in similar research.

Questions to Guide New Research:

This work suggests the value of more up-close and more controlled research that can further test the present findings. Productive approaches to additional research may include phenomenological studies that probe the meanings of art experiences to individual children or educators. They might include school-level or larger scale studies of initiatives attempting to bring arts integration to the curriculum.

1 Summary text adapted from Fiske, E. B. (E.d.), (1999). Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts. Arts Education Partnership and President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.