There have been a number of conversations sparking up this week about the inherent value of theatre, the arts in society. A particularly vocal area has been about value of the arts in education. These conversations have been going on over at the #2amt hashtag as well as various blogs and facebook. One document of particular interest was National Art Education Association’s 10 Reasons the Arts Teach. The major problem I find with a lot of the discourse is a certain lack of specificity. Clayton Pool of Theatre Bay Area sums it up pretty well in his post at the TBA Chatterbox. We as an industry have an undeniable tendency to resort to generalities and poetic language when questioned about the intrinsic value of our work.
I’m going to talk about a specific area where we have to justify ourselves the most, theatre in schools and classrooms. As many programs are being cut around our nation’s schools, arts are one of the first to go. Theatre educators everywhere are being asked to justify the cost of their programs when the students have more urgent shortcomings in their performance in areas such as math, sciences, and language fluency.
Instead of focusing on the ‘soft’ skills we can anecdotally show we improve such as creativity, critical thinking, empathy, ability to make judgments etc, we need to speak the language of the policy makers.
The Data Is Out There
I can tell you that in the 2 years of work I did running Urban Renaissance in Columbus, OH which served underprivileged schools in the area free of charge, providing readers theatre and playmaking workshops, we did some informal studies to evaluate if what we were doing was working (we were all students in many ways reinventing the wheel!). On average, what we saw was 17-21% improvement in our 3rd Grade class in language fluency over the course of an academic year in comparison to the average of all the other 3rd Grade classes. The highest improvement was in the lowest performing of the students, and both years, our class went from on average performing below national standards to exceeding them.
There Is More
When I decided to write this article, I decided to find out if somehow we were alone in gathering data from our work. I dug up two separate studies on the benefits of Readers Theatre in classrooms for reading fluency. In “I never thought I could be a star”: A Readers Theatre ticket to fluency (From PBS), Martinez, Roser and Strecker report that the class they worked with for the study was performing 76% below the standard for 2nd Grade in oral reading speed before the Readers Theatre work whereas after 10 weeks, 75% read at levels approaching or exceeding the standard.
In Implementing Readers Theatre as an Approach to Classroom Fluency Instruction (From EBSCOHost) Young and Rasinski report an average reading fluency improvement of 64.9 WCPM during the year when they were working the classroom vs. an improvement of 29.1 WCPM by the same students during the previous year.
And that’s not all. There are broader studies out there as well. For example, looking at the correlation between arts education and SAT scores, The Arts Education Partnership published the following chart in their Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement (2006):
Speak Their Language
The examples above are proof that the resources are out there. I know many companies out there who are making educational outreach efforts are understaffed, and even when they are gathering the data, the manpower to do something with it is hard to come by, but right now anything is better than nothing. We need to collectively start speaking the language of the policy-makers.
Share Your Success
What successes have you had as an educator? What measurable improvements can you share with us? This is the beauty of an online community. We can gather our meager resources, and share what we have been able to observe, then we can move forward, armed with more facts, figures, and a community working together to advocate for itself instead of one struggling alone in their isolated little silos.