When school budgets are cut, programs in music and the arts are often the first to get axed. While this makes a certain amount of sense because music isn’t always considered “essential” to education, recently in the U.S. we’re starting to see another justification for cutting music out of schools. The No Child Left Behind Act demands that students meet a certain basic level of academic success, or a school’s budget can be cut. “Extras” like music classes and recess only distract from the primary goals of learning English, math, science, and history, some say.
But does music participation actually cause students to do worse in the core academic subjects? Some studies have found the opposite, with kids’ IQ scores improving after a year of music lessons. Other studies have found that students who participate in music tend to have higher grades and test scores in other subjects. This, however, is only a correlation–we don’t know if music caused the improvement. Kids in music classes might be better in other subjects just because better students are more likely to take music classes. Maybe these kids would do even better in school if they weren’t distracted by music.
Peter Miksza took a look at data from the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Study to see if he could find stronger evidence of the impact of music on performance in school. He analyzed the records of 5,335 students who either participated in school music programs from 8th through 12th grade or did not participate at all (students who participated only part of the time were excluded from the analysis). Here are some of the results:
As expected, he found that math, reading, science, and social studies test scores were significantly better for the music participants. But he also found that socioeconomic status (SES) correlated with academic success. Perhaps SES could explain the entire difference in achievement between music students and non-music students.
So Miksza created several statistical models of the data that accounted for the SES of the students. Even after accounting for SES, in nearly every case, music students maintained their advantage over non-music students. The one exception was a small effect on reading scores: while music students had an advantage in reading scores, that advantage diminished over time. This could be due to a ceiling effect: the music students may have reached the limits of the test’s ability to discern differences between students of different abilities. In all the other tests, the advantage of the music students was maintained from the 8th through the 12th grade.
A couple of caveats about this study. As Miksza takes pains to point out, it’s not a controlled study; these results are only correlations, so we can’t say whether overall achievement would improve if all students were required to participate in music, for example. Also, while there was a gap in achievement between the music students and non-music students, the size of this gap didn’t change over the course of the study. How can we say that music participation helps improve academics if the music students were better in their other classes to begin with? Perhaps earlier music study (before 8th grade) leads to improved academic performance, while later music study only doesn’t harm it. From this study alone, we don’t know the answer. However, we do have some compelling evidence to suggest that removing music from the curriculum won’t cause students to improve. Instead, it will only deprive those students of the many advantages they gain from having music in their lives.
Peter Miksza (2007). Music participation and socioeconomic status as correlates of change: A longitudinal analysis of academic achievement. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education (172), 41-57