Barry, N., Taylor, J., Walls, K. & Wood, J. (1990). The Role of the Fine and Performing Arts in High School Dropout Prevention. Center for Music Research, Florida State University, Tallahassee.


The Arts and High School Dropout Prevention project was designed to investigate arts teachers’ claims that students identified as being at risk of dropping out of school attend and perform well in their art classes. Employing a qualitative approach, the study found that significant numbers of students identified as at-risk of dropping out attributed staying in school to arts participation. The study also revealed some of the aspects of effective arts classes that support increased engagement, motivation, and learning. While limited by sampling issues, this study makes a contribution to our understanding of how to document and describe the processes and outcomes of arts education.

Key Findings:

Of the 40 total students surveyed, 22 students who responded said that they had seriously considered dropping out of school; six (27%) said that they remained in school because they liked the arts or music; and three (14%) said they stayed because they wanted to go on in an arts field. Out of the 22 students who responded to the survey, 41%41said that the arts played a role in keeping them ins chool. In another survey question, thirty-six of the students were asked directly whether participation in an arts course affected their decision to remain in school. Of these, 30 out of 36 (83%) said yes. When asked how the arts course influenced them, seven (23%) cited job opportunities. Field observations of 11 at-risk students revealed that in arts classes, these students were “on task” 84% of the time, as compared with only 73% of the time in non-arts classes. From this study it appears that academically at-risk students are more often engaged in arts classes than in academic classes. Whether such engagement is what led students not to drop out cannot be determined from this study.

Significance of the Findings:

This study, although somewhat dated and limited by its methodology, is an important early piece in the emerging research on the power of the arts to engage, motivate, and keep students in schools.


Forty students at risk for high school dropout were surveyed (including both students currently in high school and some who have graduated but were once thought to be at risk). Students were asked why they had decided to stay in school. In addition, eleven at-risk students were observed in arts classes as well as academic classes for their degree of attention and engagement.

Limitations of the Research:

This study did not actually measure dropout rates, but rather asked students who did not drop out about their reasons for remaining. Future research should compare dropout rates for two groups of equally at-risk students, ones who do participate in the arts and ones who do not. Ideally these students should be “assigned” randomly to arts or non-arts. Without random assignment, the research remains subject to the self-selection hypothesis: perhaps students who are motivated enough to choose to take the arts and who then become engaged in these classes are also those who are motivated enough to remain in school. Future research might compare arts vs. sports to determine whether for some students, engagement in the arts keeps them in school, while for others, engagement in sports is what motivates them to stay.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What are the precise effects of arts programs in preventing dropouts? Under what circumstance are these effects strongest?