Beyond the Lamp Post

There’s an old joke about the social scientist who was searching for his keys at night under a lamp post.  His student came along to help and asked him where he last remembered having his keys.  He said he thought he dropped them further down the block.  “Well, why are you looking here?” asked the student.  “Because the light is better under the lamppost,” replied the social scientist.

This joke tells us a lot about education policy research.  Scores of researchers are slicing and dicing math and reading standardized test results in every way imaginable, and their policy recommendations are focused on how these outcomes can be maximized.  While important, those standardized test results don’t capture every outcome we expect from our education system.  We also expect our schools to prepare students to become civilized human beings by making them aware of our cultural heritage, teaching them to think critically, and instilling tolerant and empathetic values.  But because we don’t have readily available measures of these outcomes, education researchers generally don’t examine whether schools are successful in producing them.  We prefer to look only under the lamp post.

In a new study published today in Education Next, my colleagues Brian Kisida, Dan Bowen, and I look down the block from the lamp post.  We experimentally analyze the extent to which culturally enriching field trips to an art museum and a performing arts theater produce benefits for students.  We find that they do.  Students assigned by lottery to receive field trips learn academic content, increase critical thinking, become more tolerant and empathetic, and are more likely to become cultural consumers who seek these enriching experiences on their own in the future. In short, they become a little bit more civilized.

The benefits for disadvantaged students (minority, low-income, or rural) are generally two to three times larger than the average effect.  Schools appear to play a critical role in exposing disadvantaged students to culturally enriching experiences, which they may not get if schools do not take them.

Our main study focuses on a randomized controlled trial involving almost 11,000 students who were awarded field trips by lottery to see the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art or to have their tour deferred.  We also have a brief sidebar summarizing a natural experiment in which attendance zone boundary changes caused about 1,300 students to experience more or fewer field trips to see live performances at the Walton Arts Center.  Both studies produce very consistent results.

The advantage of the Walton Arts Center study is that it shows that the benefits of culturally enriching field trips compound and endure over time.  But the identification of causation in the Crystal Bridges study is more airtight.  Together, they tell a powerful story about important educational outcomes that can be discovered when we look beyond the lamp post.

-Jay P. Greene

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