ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Over the years, there have been a lot of claims about the benefits of the arts on the mind. Listening to Mozart makes you smarter or playing an instrument makes you better at math. This week, we're going to take a closer look at the intersection of the arts and education. We begin with an effort funded partly by the government to turn around eight low-performing schools using an intensive arts program.
NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The program is spearheaded by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The eight schools are in low-income neighborhoods in Des Moines, Denver, New Orleans, on a reservation in Montana, among others. The committee's director is Rachel Goslins.
RACHEL GOSLINS: They were schools where the kids seemed defeated and resigned. There wasn't a lot of motion or purpose or energy in the halls. They were schools that had failed for a long time.
BLAIR: Third-grader Jionni Anderson remembers what it was like. She's a student at Savoy Elementary in Washington, D.C., one of the schools selected for the program.
JIONNI ANDERSON: In first and second grade, we had white walls and that didn't look right in our school. So that's when our art teacher, Miss Hayes, and the art club, they painted colors, different colors on the walls.
BLAIR: Bold colors - greens, oranges and reds. There had been an art teacher at the school but there wasn't any money for supplies or an art club. That all changed when Savoy became part of the Turnaround Arts Initiative, the official name for the program. Over the course of two years, each of the eight schools gets between 70 to $80,000, either in monetary or in-kind support.
Walk the halls of Savoy and you might wish you'd gone to school here yourself. In one class, kids are learning to play music on new keyboards donated by Yamaha.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One, two, ready, and - stop.
BLAIR: There's a movement class taught by a professional dancer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Clap, circle and clap, right. So then we go down...
BLAIR: Second-graders are playing hand bells.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAND BELLS AND CHILDREN CHATTERING)
BLAIR: Now, Savoy Elementary isn't trying to turn these students into great artists. Ultimately, they're trying to get them to improve their math and reading. But before that can happen, they need to feel good about coming to school, says Savoy principal Patrick Pope.
PATRICK POPE: So there is that internal, individual motivation that has to do with, where do I find success and is school a successful place for me? And I still may not be the best reader in my class, but I can certainly produce a song or be in a musical piece or learn a dance that everyone in my whole grade does equally well.
BLAIR: And now, when they experience success at Savoy, lots of people notice, beginning with a famous actress who's on one of the most talked-about shows on TV, Kerry Washington, who stars in "Scandal." She recently checked up on the students via Skype.
KERRY WASHINGTON: Hi. Can you see me?
CHILDREN: (In unison) No.
WASHINGTON: Let's figure out how to make that happen.
BLAIR: As part of the Turnaround Arts Initiative, big-name artists, like Washington, Forest Whitaker and Yo-Yo Ma, have each adopted one of the eight schools. They visit the students in person, mentor them, give master classes and encouragement.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Our assessment test scores went up.
BLAIR: Well, some of those assessment test scores at Savoy have gone up, but mostly, according to the principal, the good news is that they haven't fallen, as they've done in recent years. Like most of the schools in the Turnaround Arts Initiative, the good news is that school attendance is up and visits to the principal are down.
But if scores do improve at these schools, should the credit go to the arts? Child psychologist Ellen Winner says no.
ELLEN WINNER: We could not find any studies that convinced us that there was a causal link between teaching the arts and performance on test scores. And we thought that this made a lot of sense because the kinds of thinking skills and habits of mind that students learn when they study the arts are a far cry from what's tested on multiple-choice, standardized tests.
BLAIR: Ellen Winner is the chair of psychology at Boston College and the co-author of the book "Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education." She says the Turnaround Arts Initiative still has a chance to succeed.
WINNER: The most plausible hypothesis in my mind would be that the arts lead to engagement and attendance, and interesting teachers and engaged teachers. And it's that which would lead to test scores, not directly going from arts to test scores.
BLAIR: These eight schools are getting intense intervention: more staff, supplies, professional development, partnerships with local museums, dance companies and theaters. Rachel Goslins of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities admits this pilot might be hard to replicate at hundreds of schools. At the same time, she says, a strategy this aggressive might be what it takes to bring a school up from the bottom.
GOSLINS: We're spending a lot of time in these schools. We're really getting to know them and we're watching them blossom.
BLAIR: At the end of this two-and-a-half-year program, these eight schools and the Turnaround Arts Initiative will be judged by the same criteria as almost every other public school - how well they do on test scores. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.