Though topics at the National Assn. of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention in Anaheim most often trend toward musicians, musical instruments and how they interact, one panel at the annual industry gathering tilted in a decidedly socially conscious direction.
Actress Alfre Woodard remembered 7-year-olds in New Orleans recounting fearsome memories of a family member being shot during a neighborhood gun battle. Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith recalled the joy on the faces of children of migrant workers in California's Central Valley when he delivered a carload of donated musical instruments to their school. Singer-songwriter Clarence Greenwood (a.k.a. Citizen Cope) talked of watching hopelessness turn into hope among children on a Native American reservation in rural Montana.
All three, along with Broadway actor John Lloyd Young, where sharing their experiences in the Turnaround Arts program during a presentation on the benefits of intensive arts education for students at eight of the nation's lowest performing public schools.
The results of a two-year study were unveiled Thursday, and the numbers demonstrated dramatic improvement in academic performance -- not just in math, science and reading, but also in improved attendance rates and significant reductions in disciplinary problems reflected in reduced suspension and expulsion statistics at more than half of the schools.
Among the study's key findings: Students in the eight schools that incorporated arts programs into their regular curricula exhibited an average 22.6% increase in math proficiency and a 12.6% improvement in reading proficiency. Those figures exceeded increases in the their districts as a whole (20.1% and 7.9%, respectively), and were markedly higher than other schools in their states receiving federal school improvement grants (SIG), at 16.2% and 5.6% respectively.
The NAMM Foundation is one of several public and private partners supporting the Turnaround Arts initiative, which was created by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in conjunction with the Department of Education and the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Some NAMM member companies stand to benefit by selling their products to schools with robust music programs, but the NAMM Foundation has helped implement the music programs in the Turnaround Arts schools and is providing grants for all the Phase 2 schools, including 10 in California, a NAMM spokeswoman said.
The arts-world celebrities focused on the qualitative aspects of exposing children to the arts, but said the statistical data were necessary to support efforst to reinstate arts programs in schools where they've been drastically reduced or elimated because of budgetary concerns.
“There is a danger of overstatement,” said Turnaround Arts Executive Director Rachel Goslins during her talk, which highlighted key points of the independent evaluation of the program conducted by
"This isn't to say that the arts were single-handedly responsible for all the improvmenets," she said. "There were a lot of things going on. But looking at the data, you can't say that it's hurt."
"I was like a lot of these kids," said Chili Peppers drummer Smith. "I never would have graduated high school in Michigan if it hadn't been for my music classes. That's what got me to go to school every day, and then go to my other classes."
Young said his approach as an advocate for arts in public education has been, "I take the contrarian role. I want to talk to those who aren't convinced.
"A lot of critics of the arts have a very limited view of what the arts are," said Young, who won a Tony Award in 2006 for his role as Frankie Valli in the Broadway production of "Jersey Boys." "I say to them, 'Every time your chest swells with pride when you see an American flag, that flag is the result of an artistic decision.' That box of Ritz crackers in the grocery store catches your eye because of an artistic decision. The arts are all round us, every day, but a lot of people don't see that."
Goslins noted that schools in several states have begun incorporating Turnaround Arts program strategies. In Southern California, there are now Turnaround Arts programs at schools in Compton, Inglewood and San Diego.
But for Woodard, the element that arts bring to those who embrace them can't be captured by statistics alone.
"Art and music and theater help you learn what it is to be human," she said. "When you feel more human, you're more likely to look at the people around you as human. And when you see other people as human, you're less likely to shoot them. You're less likely to bully them."