First Person: The Economics of Art Education

Dr. Kathleen Thomas and I are the kind of friends that giggle a lot. We giggle at the giggles. I forget she is an economist, because economists are serious like artists are moody. When not giggling with friends or raising her family, she works to statistically isolate the impact of arts education on overall academic performance. She builds an argument for the arts in elementary and secondary education.

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As a parent, I’ve often said that I don’t need research to know that I want my children to experience the arts. I had it growing up and it’s just really important. 

The research that I do is in education policy, so I straddle social science and education. In the past five years, I’ve started to look specifically at arts education, and its influence on education outcomes, and even broader outcomes.

If you really want to know if the arts, say, reduce high school drop out rates, you randomly assign students into an arts course – and others you do not – and you track the performance of both groups. By doing that, you are controlling for all of those things that might be driving someone’s decisions. Of course, that’s not how public schools work. You don’t randomly assign kids to their classes. You don’t even randomly assign kids to their schools.

If we look at observational data, what can we see about arts participation impact on high school drop out rates?  What would our theory be?  Why is it that artistic participation matters?  When we think about why, when we look at the studies of past dropouts, we’re definitely going to hear that they failed their classes, right?  They get to a point they don’t really see how to be successful: “Why should I be spending my time on this way if I’m not going to pass?”  You hear things like, “It’s boring” or, “It’s irrelevant to my life.”  When you look at what arts advocates very strongly support, it’s a theory of engagement.  And so, figuring out the engagement piece is a really important part of the puzzle.

There’s something about courses in the arts that engages students in their education and connects them to their schools in ways that the traditional subjects do not. As Jessica Davis[1] puts it, students create out of their own life experiences.  That gives them a sense of agency, a kind of authority over what it is that they’re creating.  And that creates this environment where it attaches them - at least our theory is that’s it’s attaching them - to their school experience in ways that other courses don’t.

The idea is if the arts are somehow engaging students in their education - giving them a reason to come to school - then maybe they’ll stick around and take their math and science classes, too.  And maybe if they can start making connections and being inspired, they can make it through.  That’s what we were trying to find.

Think about how the arts create this safe place for students. They might not feel that in any of the other course that they’re taking. And so much of this also happens in groups. If you are putting on a play, or participating in a musical performance, you are working together. The team is part of this larger organization, the high school.  Right?  Maybe there’s a district wide arts competition.  You’re motivated to win this as a team.  Maybe it’s a choral competition.  Or any kind of an artistic exhibition - does that then give you the sense that “I am a part of this high school.”  What does having that connection do to your larger education?

A lot of the kids who are struggling in schools, minority and low income students, are being pulled out of their arts classes and they’re going to have to drill and kill for the math course they failed the last semester.  So we don’t have a representative sample of kids taking the arts.  There’s something about the kids who choose to take music classes. The families that they come from encourage that.  So is it the music class, or is it some characteristic of the kid? Maybe it’s just that they’re more motivated. Who decides to study the arts? Who are the kids who study visual arts and music?  And would a self-directed learner succeed, even if he or she had not had an art experience?

There’s a lot of variation in the quality of instruction in our public schools. Kids have very, very different arts experiences. Sometimes I’m calling schools that are so wealthy. A school with resources has a fine arts department and a fine arts director that they can connect you to. In a wealthy school, any additional money that’s needed, the parents raise it.

When school budgets are constrained, what gets cut?  The arts.  If we’re talking about this new economy, this economy that is so technology driven, but yet it’s about innovation and creativity, why in the world would we be willing to take our most creative subjects out of the public school curriculum?

When you have school administrators who are faced with constrained budgets, we can bemoan the fact that they cut the arts.  But they have every incentive to do so.  What they really have to show in terms of accountability, in adequate yearly progress, is that their students are making improvements in reading and mathematics.  The incentive for the administrator is clear: If we go through another budget crisis, let go off the arts teachers.

What’s needed are experimental studies that show a causal effect between arts education and outcomes that we care about.  Why do we need this information? Because policy is based on studies and that’s how you get money. We are talking about this in a K through 12 framework, but what about college and career readiness? There are so many other outcomes: social and emotional outcomes; health outcomes.

I have a grant right now from the National Endowment for the Arts to do a program evaluation of this nonprofit called Little Kids Rock.  They are putting musical instruments in low income schools.  The district has to have at least 50% of its student body on free or reduced price lunch.  They are providing a small amount of teacher training; a pedagogy: kids need to be introduced to instruments they’re familiar with - guitar, drums, keyboard - and they need to play the songs that they hear on the radio.  Because that’s what they identify with.  Not only that, but the idea is to teach music the way that we teach languages: immersion. Do it – don’t have it explained to you, here’s the instrument, let me show you how to play a G chord.  I’m going to do that right now, and then I’m going to show you two other chords and then you’re going to play this song. Connect them immediately.

Little Kids Rock is at this point where their funders want to see evidence of the efficacy.  The outcome is not “Can these students play guitar?”  Yes, that’s important, but they are also interested in broader education outcomes.

We are in talks now with the Philly school district and with Little Kids Rock about trying to come in and do an evaluation that’s actually an experimental study with some level of randomization. We’re working with the Director of Music Education in that district, Frank Machos.  He really gets it; II mean, he understands.  He understands that we need to get in and control how the program is rolled out.  He was open to us coming in and doing an evaluation, a good solid impact evaluation, and we’re in preliminary talks.  It’s very exciting.  I am hopeful there are more and more people in the field who are interested in outcomes beyond just test scores.

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Associate Professor of Economics at Mississippi State University, Dr. Thomas specializes in public finance and education policy. Prior to joining the faculty at MSU, she was a researcher with the Texas Schools Project at The University of Texas at Dallas. She is currently examining access to arts education and how arts participation influences education outcomes. Her current research is funded by the Spencer Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her research has been published in Economics Letters, Southern Economic Journal, Journal of Cultural Economics, and Economics of Education Review.




First Person: Fly Fishing 101


December 19, 2015

The sides of the brook trout are sprinkled with dots and dashes of red, orange, yellow, and the occasional blue. Its belly – especially in the fall – turns to bright orange, while its upper back is dark green or even black, providing stunning contrasts.

The first time I held a brook trout, I thought that an artist had painted all the colors of a fall Appalachian forest on this one small, living palette. Yet the camouflaged back of this fish makes it almost invisible in a stream. It is not until one is pulled from the depths of its icy, dark pool that we can see and truly appreciate these small masterpieces.

– Michael Steinberg, The Brook Trout as Icon1

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There is a collection of fly rods in the corner of Professor Michael Steinberg's office. They stand at attention, faithful dogs waiting for the masters who will let them out. They have eaten and snoozed and want no more of indoor comforts. Out! Let’s go out!

Each spring, Steinberg offers a course on the literature of fly fishing. In the cold rainy months of the Southern winter, he meets with students in the classroom to discuss the assigned readings, but at the first hint of good weather, they head outside. In the South, winter is short, so the class spends the majority of the semester on the water. Here in Tuscaloosa, waterways abound.

Steinberg and I sat down at Taco Mama on University Boulevard on a bright October afternoon to discuss fly fishing and the importance of an overlooked art.

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I was always a fly fisherman. I started as a kid in Missouri. I’d fish on farm ponds, rivers, creeks. I taught myself. My dad, a conventional tackle fisherman, had a fly rod – I’m not even sure where he got it – I played around with it and it kind of stuck with me. Even as a kid, it represented for me a precise level of skill.

I gave it up for a long time; I didn’t have time or money. I went back to it after graduate school. I’d have conversations with students about fly fishing. There were photos of fly fishing on my door. We like to teach what we like. I like to fly fish. Offering fly fishing. . .people would say that’s not very rigorous. You’re just teaching fly fishing. But, sometimes, you need exposure to something new to make sense of other things in your life. Sometimes, students need classes that completely get them out of their environment.

Fly fishing makes students more observant, more productive, more mindful of what they’re doing. There’s so much to be aware of – insects, wind, vegetation. Fly fishing is delicate. Fly fishing requires a fine, precise set of creative skills: casting, reading water, identifying insects. I’ve met very few dumbasses who fly fish. A sign of a good fly angler is that he cares less about the size of the fish than that he brought something to the surface. Fishing allows you to peer into an unknown world, into the unseen.

In early American culture, fishing was “the work of idle hands,” non-productive, akin to card playing, but there’s a whole creative and financial world surrounding fly fishing. We talk about the literature of fly fishing; there is a connection to the personal, to science, to the creative.

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Beyond creative inspiration provided by the brook trout is the fact that its presence tells us a great deal about the health of the larger environment. The brook trout is an indicator species for streams, lakes, and watersheds in largely unspoiled conditions. This association with clean, intact environments is another reason the brookie has developed a dedicated following among fly anglers. When I have a brook trout in my hand, I know the water in which I am standing is close to pristine.

The Brook Trout as Icon 2

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There are few activities in my life where I’m not thinking of food, sex, my family, the bills. But, when I’m on the river, I can go all day without eating, without thinking of my children. In some ways, it is very selfish because in that moment I don’t care what my kids are doing, I don’t care where my wife is.

There’s a quote from The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: “When one pays attention to the present, there is great pleasure in awareness of small things.” There is great pleasure in noticing the details. I like sitting at dusk or dawn and just listening to things. Zen is about the here and now and I think that sums up fly fishing. If you’re not focused, you’ll miss the wind, the trees behind you, the fish rising up. The rocks are slippery, the current is rushing. You have to be mindful.


Professor Michael Steinberg teaches Environmental Literature, Arts and Science of Fly Fishing, Sporting Conservation, and Field Study in Belize in New College at the University of Alabama. For his forthcoming book on brook trout, Steinberg fished in every state and province from northern Georgia to Labrador. The book is about conservation in each state, but also a personal journey about Steinberg’s link to northern Maine, and to his family.


1 The American Fly Fisher: The Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing. 40(2):15-18.
2 The American Fly Fisher: The Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing. 40(2):15-18



First Person: Cognition & Design

Starkville, Mississippi
June 19, 2015

I met Kasia Gallo in the Barnes & Noble coffee shop on the campus of Mississippi State University to discuss her current research on creativity and cognitive science. Later, we continued our discussion by email. She wrote of creative process, the medium of words, the role of design thinking in any field, and her reluctance to call herself a photographer.

Gallo is currently pursuing her PhD in Educational Psychology with a minor in Cognitive Science. She received her Bachelor of Architecture and her Master of Landscape Architecture degrees from Louisiana State University. She teaches Design Studio, Urban Planning, and Scientific Writing for Behavioral Sciences. She has worked in both academia and the private sector, and has published and presented on sustainable design and writing practice.

I self-identify as designer, in the broadest sense of the word. Design encompasses, to me, all sorts of ways to engineer experiences – through the visual, and the verbal, but also through interaction with people. Art is the product. For example, a photograph and the words that go with it of a carefully and mindfully designed and lived experience. It all goes together – searching for images, taking the picture, processing it so that it is beautiful, then sharing it with others. The process can be solitary, or involve multiple “players”. It’s all about chasing beauty: just right point of view; just right cropping; just right words.

Beauty: the adjustment of all parts proportionately so that one cannot add or subtract or change without impairing the harmony of the whole.
— Leon Battista Alberti

For beauty is a disease, as my father maintained; it is the result of a mysterious infection, a dark forerunner of decomposition, which rises from the depth of perfection and is saluted by perfection with signs of the deepest bliss.
— Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

I love this second quote! The idea that whatever beauty you find, it is on its way to ruin. Paint fades and peels off. Marble eventually will crumble. There is urgency in seeing it, experiencing it. Brilliant way of thinking.

I design experiences wherever I am. For example, I teach a scientific writing class for education psychology majors. Even there, we talk about the process of writing, the process of revising. About using metaphors to help people visualize, process, understand complex information. Students take on bad, cluttered, confusing scientific sentences and paragraphs and rewrite them to make them clean and beautiful; words are a medium like any other.

Nothing to add nothing to take away without detriment to the whole.
— Alberti

So much of what we do involves complex thinking. My schooling in cognitive science helped me to see how we use our brains in similar ways in varied tasks. Take metaphors and analogies: they come to play in designing computer interfaces and robots, in concepts for art pieces, in making writing clean and beautiful, even in cooking. Same type of thinking, applied in so many domains! Where does creativity start or end? I suppose it depends on your definition of creativity. Common ones contain the words “new” and “useful”. Both can be understood really broadly; useful may well include uplifting the spirits, like a beautiful painting can do!

I entered the Educational Psychology program at Mississippi State University to get better at teaching, and because MSU does not offer a PhD in design. I stumbled onto Cognitive Science because of a class that was required as a part of my program. I loved it, so I took more Cognitive Science classes – it ended up being my minor.

Design thinking IS complex cognition. Whenever we generate and evaluate alternatives, pick one to develop further, and keep with it – we are using our brains. Some people place a high emphasis on intuition, and processes that they feel they can’t explain – or prefer not to, as they believe explaining them deprives them of artistic mystical high. I believe that intuition IS thinking. From the day we are born, we process the world. We figure out how to make sense of the 3D objects that are “taken in” by our 2D curved retinas. We notice patterns, and learn shortcuts, like the Gestalt grouping principles. We process nature, with all of its magic, like Fibonacci’s sequence in sunflowers and pine cones, relationships between colors, textures. . .  And, perhaps, great design is what our brilliant, intuitive brain recognizes as known and familiar. Most people are unaware of these relationships unless they are told about them, at least on the conscious level. What if our brains, in their need for speed, actually “know” how often these relationships appear around them, and deem them “important” because of the frequency?

One of the views of creativity is that it is divided into Big-C and little-c. Big-C is a game changer, like the printing press, or personal computer.  Little-c is making our everyday life better. Figuring out the best way to chop a tomato; figuring out how to lead a productive staff meeting.  Unfortunately, in Western culture, little-c is not valued as much; we worship the lone genius. I like a simple view of creativity: anything I make that is New and Useful – TO ME. So my photography is creative, no matter what others may think. My name is Kasia Gallo, and I am a photographer.

Teaching, if you give a damn about it, is immensely creative – little-c. You have to figure out what the students need to know in terms of skills to master the material, like learning strategies and metacognitive skills to know which strategy to use when, and in terms of the material itself. Then you have to figure out how to help them to construct this knowledge for themselves.  What to scaffold and how. How to get and keep their attention; how to facilitate transfer of what they may already know to this new problem. How to keep them motivated to learn. So, everyone in the classroom is potentially creating, all the time.

To me, creativity is about an active experience. About doing something, trying something, looking for beauty. Whether in pictures, or words, or cooking ingredients. Creativity is about the “whole being different than the sum of its parts.” Never “more than the sum of its parts” – that quote got bastardized early on, and Koffka* took great offense to that. So it is about getting to that beautiful whole.


* Kurt Koffka (1886-1942). German psychologist and co-founder of Gestalt theory.