Revisiting Research: What Has Champs Changed?

Nick Rabkin

This article is part of the Revisiting Research series.

When Champions of Change was released in 1999, arts education had been losing ground in American schools for two decades after nearly a century of gains. By the mid-1970s, the transformation of the American economy that has been so destructive to national prosperity — manufacturing decline, job exports, and growth of the low-wage service sector — was already crippling the school systems financially. The “Reagan Revolution,” fueled by the misguided belief that only corrupt politicians and the “undeserving” poor benefited from public services, began debilitating local governments’ capacity to raise revenues. The tax rebellion is now a sustained principle of American politics. The school reform movement was crystallized by the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which argued that a “rising tide of mediocrity” had overwhelmed schools, where “appetizers and desserts” were substituted for “entrées” in the curriculum, implying that the arts were junk food. That report remains the template for school reform. Arts education is the first thing cut when this triple virus — economic dislocation, tax rebellion, and school reform — attacks.

For a century before Champions was released, arguments in favor of arts education had focused on “essentialist” ideas of the value of the arts themselves. Champions added seven powerful studies of the arts’ instrumental value to education. Those studies showed that the arts leverage learning across the board; that arts learning is strongly correlated with broad student gains, especially among low-income students; that student test scores rise more quickly in schools with a high-quality arts education program than in those without such a program; that after-school arts programs are more powerful catalysts for cognitive development than are sports or community service programs; and that doing Shakespeare engaged alienated students with difficult material.

The research-based arguments in Champions raised a legitimate challenge to school reform efforts that have marginalized arts education. They help education policymakers see how the arts can help them achieve their own goals. As more policymakers recognize that conventional school reform strategies have flatlined, even by their own limited standards, Champions offers the possibility to reverse the three-decade decline of arts education.

Equally important, serious instrumentalist arguments for arts education have challenged deeply held beliefs and practices in the arts community about the public value of the arts. Three decades of declining attendance and political attacks on the arts have shaken the assumption that providing excellent art was all the reason that was needed to claim public support. Champions modeled new ways of valuing the arts that have great potential for helping arts organizations adapt to a very different world from the one in which the nonprofit arts system was developed.

Beliefs generally trump research in the real world. Even the teaching of evolution is in trouble in schools, and few arts organizations have been brave enough to seriously rethink how they create public value. Research has never turned the tide of history all by itself. But Champions did change the conversation. It takes time to change beliefs.