In a world of constant technological change, the ability to adapt is priceless. Creativity is a necessary skill in the modern workplace, and in a 2010 survey by IBM, American CEOs identified it as the best predictor of career success. But those same CEOs said they believed that Americans were becoming less innovative.
For years, employers and colleges have asserted that recent high school graduates lack fundamental critical thinking skills, and the data concurs. U.S. scores on the Torrance test, an internationally recognized measure of creativity, have been steadily declining since 1990. Those were the findings of a study conducted by Kyung Hee Kim, a professor at the College of William and Mary, who analyzed the Torrance scores of K12 students and declared that we are in the midst of a “creativity crisis.”
Lori Meadows, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council, says that educators must respond to the crisis by promoting original thinking in schools, and the best way to do that is through arts education. In September, Meadows organized a “Creativity and Innovation” forum where Kentucky educators and business leaders discussed how arts education prepares students for the working world.
“We wanted people to understand that arts education isn’t just about doing art for art’s sake,” she says. “It’s about developing skills for careers and lifelong learning.”
Exposure to the arts encourages students to think for themselves and gives them a creative outlet that makes them more enthusiastic about school, Meadows says.
Arts education a “must-have”
Research shows that arts education has short- and long-term benefits. For decades, UCLA professor James Catteral has studied the impact of arts education, and he has discovered that students with an arts background have an advantage in the school and work.
In 2009, Catteral released a study called “Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art,” which included 12 years of data on a cohort of 25,000 low-income, high school students. The study revealed that students who took classes in music, drama, and visual art averaged higher test scores and attendance rates than those who did not. Students who took art also were more likely to perform well in college and to get a job.
This correlation was statistically significant, and it persisted even after Catteral controlled for other factors, such as race and socioeconomic level.
The potential for arts instruction to improve student outcomes is something that Tom Shelton, Kentucky’s 2011 superintendent of the year, stressed during his keynote address at the Creativity and Innovation forum.
“The arts are an integral part of what we need to provide students,” says Shelton, who won a state prize for his administrative work in Daviess County and serves as superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools. “The arts are not just a nice-to- have. They are a must-have.”
Shelton has started numerous arts programs during his two years at Fayette County. He gave out $1,000 grants to visiting artists in schools, and he hired teachers for music, art, and drama classes.
Shelton also integrated arts education into the curriculum of the county’s newest school, the STEAM Academy, which was originally going to focus exclusively on the traditional STEM subjects. This makes him a notable outlier in Kentucky, where many schools eliminated arts classes in recent years.
Arts education is one of the most effective ways to get students excited about learning, and it is no accident that most of Shelton’s honor-society students are involved in the arts. “The way that you drive student achievement is through student engagement,” he says. “When you improve morale, you improve performance.”
A valuable credential
Businesspeople on a panel at the Creativity and Innovation forum agreed that arts education was important because it helps students practice problem-solving and innovating—two skills necessary to be a desirable employee.
Susan Brewer, a human resources manager at Gray Construction, says that soft skills, like creativity, are “the greatest predictors of job performance.” She says she considers these skills far more important than technical skills, since a smart and inventive person can easily be trained and will ultimately contribute more.
Brewer was not alone. Several of the five panelists said they considered creativity more important than specialized knowledge when hiring, because market conditions change rapidly and they want workers who can adapt to those changes.
Erica Strecker, the creative design manager for a ceiling fan manufacturer, says that hiring well-rounded thinkers is an important part of the philosophy of her company, Big Ass Fans. “My boss always says, ‘Give me an English major, and I can teach them anything.’”
Strecker says that many of her company’s best hires were artistically gifted and capable of contributing ideas that were outside-the-box.
Kris Kimel, the president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, says schools need to focus less on memorization and more on innovation, and that arts education is a crucial part of that.
“We’re providing a standardized education in a world that’s highly unpredictable,” he says. “I don’t know how we let ourselves slip into a school system that is absolutely counter to the way the world actually works. It’s a Newtonian system in a quantum world.”
Ilana Kowarski is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.