Title: “Prelude: Music Makes Us Baseline Research Report”
Author(s): Becky J. A. Eason and Christopher M. Johnson
Publisher: Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
Topics: arts education, music
Methods: Analysis of administrative data for 6006 MNPS high school seniors graduating in 2012, survey of 71 music students in grades 5-12, focus groups with 93 music students in grades 5-12. Quantitative analysis involved an analysis of variance and structural equation modeling. Convenience samples were used for both the surveys and focus groups.
What it says: Music Makes Us is a public-private initiative in Metro Nashville public schools to improve music education through curriculum reform, strengthening existing offerings, forging partnerships with businesses and nonprofits, and improving infrastructure. The paper’s purpose is to establish a benchmark of music participation by middle and high school students and examine the potential impact of the changes to come on student achievement and engagement. Students who take music classes perform better on a range of measures including attendance, discipline reports, GPA, ACT scores, and graduation rates. Researchers theorize that music education leads to increased school engagement, which then leads to greater academic achievement. Qualitative inquiry supports the notion of a range of benefits for music education, including identity formation, habits of mind, skills transfer, mood improvement, and ability to conceptualize music’s role in students’ future life.
What I think about it: This study has some promising elements, but suffers from haphazard design and ultimately misses an opportunity to illuminate the relationship between music education and student outcomes in a meaningful way. The biggest problem is a failure to distinguish clearly between correlation and causation. While the quantitative analysis demonstrates convincingly that students who engage in more music classes achieve better outcomes, a highly plausible counter-hypothesis is that these students who are self-selecting into more music education are better equipped to succeed in the first place. The structural equation model comes tantalizingly close to teasing these factors apart by measuring the relationship between student characteristics (including 4th-grade standardized test scores) and music participation, and between music participation and both student engagement and academic achievement. However, unless I missed something, the model doesn’t contemplate the relationship between music participation and the outcomes of interest independent of student characteristics. Thus, the researchers’ conclusion that “increased music participation has important direct and indirect effects positive outcomes for Metro Schools students” seems ambitious. The survey and focus groups, selected by convenience sample and lacking demographic information or comparison to non-music students, don’t add that much of value to the study.
What it all means: This is a strange study – ostensibly commissioned as a baseline report, it nevertheless attempts to make claims about the value of music participation. With just a few tweaks to the design to more directly address the extent to which students participating in music classes succeed independently of their advantages or disadvantages, it could have been a notable contribution to the arts education literature. As it is, however, its value lies mostly in the baseline, descriptive functions that are its core purpose.