Can Music Help Close the Achievement Gap?

New research shows how music lessons can help kids develop early literacy skills.

We’re firm believers in adding the A (arts) to STEM (science, engineering, technology, and math). The Sprout Fund, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, and local philanthropies have provided $3.9 million in STEAM grants since 2009 to 61 regional school districts.

Arts programming gives kids so much more than time to create. The arts—both learning about artists and art forms, as well as doing art—expand minds, spur imaginations, and teach kids how to think about problems in different ways. And now, it’s coming to light that the arts might help close the education gap between low-income students and their better-off peers.

The achievement gap is not an idle concern. As Stanford’s Sean Reardon found, low-income children born in 2001 are approximately four to seven years behind their high-income peers in learning, and the gap keeps growing.

The split starts early, at home. As much research has shown, being surrounded by talk, conversation, and new words early in life is critical to a child’s later ability to read, which in turn is a strong foundation for success in school. Yet the “word gap”—the number of words kids hear at home—between low-income children and their better off peers is stark. In those critical early developmental years, low-income children hear approximately 30 million fewer words than higher-income kids before age 3. A study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley found, for example, that families with higher incomes spoke and exchanged 2,153 words per hour with their children whereas low-income families spoke 1,251 words. Further, families receiving welfare—often the most fragile families—spoke only 616 words per hour with their children.

So how can art and music help close this gap? In two words: brain development. Researchers are accumulating some very convincing evidence of music’s effect on literacy development among kids in poverty.

Growing up in poverty affects children’s brain development. The chronic stress, environmental risks, and other factors of daily life, scientists are discovering, leave a biological imprint. A recent Northwestern University study found, for example, that low-income children were less efficient at processing sound because the area of their brains responsible for doing so was more susceptible to distracting noise.

Those findings made Nina Kraus and her team at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab wonder whether music might be the key to rectifying that problem. They knew that musicians are keen listeners and are better at hearing tidbits of conversation in a noisy room or distinguishing similar sounds like the difference between a g and a b, because their training has shaped their brains to pick out sound. So, the researchers wondered, could immersing low-income kids in music classes help them filter out the static and better identify sounds that are critical to learning to read?

Kraus and her team turned to a community music program in a low-income neighborhood in Los Angeles to test their hypothesis. They assigned one group of kids from neighborhoods with a lot of gang activity (a proxy for high-poverty, underserved neighborhoods) to take music lessons in the community program. The second group delayed their music careers by two years, and it became a control group for the study.

It turns out that after two years of music training (one year was not enough), kids’ brains had changed such that they were less affected by noise and stimulus and better able to pick out distinct sounds. Their nervous systems were more efficient, which in turn helped their language and reading skills.

Unfortunately, at the height of the recession, schools slashed music and art programs to balance their shrinking budgets. Those budgets haven’t fully recovered. As Yohuru Williams wrote in the Huffington Post, music is too often “seen as non-essential by the non-educators making these decisions.” As such, “music and arts programs are quickly disappearing from the educational landscape.”

That may be short sighted.

Like the community music program in Los Angeles, afterschool groups are working to pick up the slack. In Pittsburgh, the Labs @ CLP at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library has a music studio where teens can mix their own music.  And the IonSound Project’s “From Note to Finish” is supporting music students from North Allegheny and Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) high schools in collaborative composition and performance of their own music both in their schools and in the community. Students will be mentored by Pittsburgh-based professional composers and educators.

Whether this form of musicianship will have the same effect on the brain is still open for debate. But as we’ve written, a 2010 study found that video games like Rock Band and others can build musical abilities. “Stepping into the shoes of the onscreen musicians motivates youths to learn the real skills that will enable them to play independently,” Indiana University researcher Kylie Peppler wrote.

Published January 07, 2015