Cultural Activity Matters

By 05/23/2017

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Some people have been puzzled as to why I’ve been studying how cultural activities, like visiting an art museum or seeing live theater, affect students. Why don’t I do what almost everyone else in our field does and just study how various interventions affect math and reading test scores?

Well, I’ve been making the argument for a while now that there is remarkably little evidence linking near-term changes in test scores to changes in later life outcomes for students, like graduating high school, enrolling in college, completing college, and earnings. I have yet to see anyone bother to refute my observation of this weak and inconsistent connection between test score changes and life changes. Whether kids go to art museums or see live theater is often viewed as at best an amusing sideline or at worst a harmful distraction from the primary goal of education, which they believe is boosting math and reading test scores.

But now we have a rigorously designed study out of Denmark that shows cultural activity among students is strongly (and likely causally) related to later academic success. The study appears in Social Science Research, a Sociology journal that was co-founded by James Coleman. It examines a large sample of monozygotic twins in Denmark to see if their cultural activity was related to their teacher-given GPA, exam-based GPA, and rate of completing secondary school. To measure cultural activity they relied on a survey administered to the mothers of those twins that asked about what their children did when they were 12 years old. It asked things like: “How often child went to any type of museum” and “How often child went to the theater or a musical performance.”

By comparing outcomes among identical twins, the researchers hope to control automatically for a large set of unobserved environmental and genetic factors. We could reasonably believe that a large portion of the variation in cultural capital among twins was due to chance and not differences in their upbringing or ability.

The researchers found that the twin whose mothers reported having higher cultural capital at age 12 had significantly higher marks on their end of compulsory school exams at age 15/16. They also found “an increase in cultural capital of one standard deviation is estimated to increase the likelihood of completing upper secondary education by 12.5 percentage points.”

Cultural capital was not a significant predictor of the grade point average students received from their teacher when they were 15, which was contrary to the researchers’ expectations. Earlier theory had suggested that cultural capital might improve academic performance by making students falsely appear more knowledgable, even if their command of the material were no greater. As they put it: “Bourdieu argued that cultural capital, that is familiarity with the dominant cultural codes in a society, is a key determinant of educational success because it is misperceived by teachers as academic brilliance and rewarded as such.”

This study found that not to be the case. Instead, their findings are more consistent with the arguments advanced by E.D. Hirsch and others that cultural capital gives students a stronger foundation of broad knowledge that then facilitates future knowledge acquisition. And the significant increase in completing secondary school may be a function of that broader knowledge, as opposed to the narrow knowledge captured in math and reading standardized tests. Cultural activity may also increase graduation rates by giving students more ways to be engaged with school on top of traditional academic coursework.

So the next time someone asks me why it matters whether students go to art museums or see live theater, I can tell them that there is at least as much rigorous evidence showing the long term benefits of cultural activity as there is for interventions designed to boost standardized test scores.

— Jay P. Greene

Jay P. Greene is endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

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