Catterall, James S. (2009). Doing well and doing good by doing art: The effects of education in the visual and performing arts on the achievements and values of young adults. Los Angeles/London: Imagination Group/I-Group Books.


This study is based on the researcher’s prior work analyzing data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS:88), a data set of information on approximately 25,000 secondary school students over four years, in which he found significant connections between involvement in arts learning and general academic success. In 2009, the researcher analyzed ten additional years of NELS data related to the same students, then age 26. The results strongly connect arts learning with both general academic success and pro-social outcomes (i.e., outcomes such as volunteerism, involvement in the community, or civic participation). Moreover, the study finds that students of low socio-economic status benefited significantly from attending schools characterized as “arts-rich” (i.e., possessing a rich and complete arts curriculum) as opposed to those who had attended schools characterized as “arts-poor.” Benefits were tracked in terms of college attendance, academic achievement in terms of grades, and level of terminal degree.

Key Findings:

  • Extensive and deep involvement in arts activities was a significant predictor of students’ later academic achievement and community involvement. The relationship between arts-rich educational opportunities and subsequent achievement persisted, even when controlling for socio-economic status (SES). In fact, the relationship strengthened for lower-SES students.
  • Low SES students benefited significantly from attending schools characterized as arts-rich (i.e., possessing a rich and complete arts curriculum) compared to peers attending arts-poor schools with regard to college attendance, grades, employment, and level of terminal degree. Findings also provide evidence of strong advantages in volunteerism and political participation.
  • English language learners (ELL) who attended arts-rich high schools were significantly more likely to pursue a bachelor’s degree at age 20 and expect either a bachelor’s or masters degree or higher.

Significance of the Findings:

This study provides important empirical evidence of the significant role that the arts play in preparing young people for success, both in school and in life. The implications for the education of underserved low SES and ELL students are particularly significant.

The researcher’s decision to focus on academic success and pro-social outcomes as dependent variables is important in signaling that preparation for a future workforce is not the only valuable aim of education; preparation for civic life is also an important measure of the efficacy of public education.

Finally, this study provides much-needed longitudinal data on the impact of arts education over time.


The study employed statistical analysis of data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS:88), a database of the U.S. Department of Education that tracks student responses to survey questions over time. Statistical significance of inter-variable relationships was tested using the Chi square.

Limitations of the Research:

The main limitations of this study are the constraints contained in the NELS:88 database. For example, when seeking indicators of an individual’s “doing well,” NELS does not address well a number of outcomes that would be useful, including quality of family life, quality of friendships and social relations, and general satisfaction indicators.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What can future research reveal about the cognitive, affective, and social mechanisms that give the arts their power to impact children’s futures? Given the apparent power of arts learning to improve academic achievement, what are the costs and benefits of having and not having arts in our schools?