Do the benefits for students of culturally enriching field trips endure over a long period of time? Can trips to other types of cultural institutions produce the positive outcomes observed from tours of the Crystal Bridges art museum? (See “The Educational Value of Field Trips,” research, Winter 2014.) To address these questions, we evaluated a second experiment focused on the long-term impact of school field trips to see theater, dance, and musical performances at the Walton Arts Center (WAC) in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
We surveyed more than 2,000 7th graders in two nearby school districts, asking them about their current participation in cultural activities and their values, such as tolerance and empathy. We also generated measures of cultural exposure for these students based on the number of performances they had seen with their schools at the Walton Arts Center.
Because schools in these districts varied in how much they went on field trips to the Walton Arts Center, some students had seen as many as seven performances with their schools by 7th grade, and some had not seen any. But we did not simply compare outcomes for students who saw more performances to those who saw fewer, since the proclivity of a school to take certain field trips may be influenced by the types of students and families it serves.
Instead, we took advantage of a natural experiment that effectively randomly assigned some students to schools that took more field trips to the Walton Arts Center and some to schools that took fewer or none. As it turns out, both of the school districts in this study had experienced rapid enrollment growth and built several new elementary and middle schools, forcing attendance zone boundaries to be re-drawn. Of the 2,000 students we surveyed, 1,389 had been attending an elementary school when its attendance boundaries were re-drawn. Whether students starting in the same school ended up on one side or another of a redrawn attendance zone boundary is largely random. So, we compared outcomes for students who started in the same schools but who varied in the number of field trips they took to the Walton Arts Center because of the re-zoning.
To generate our measures of cultural exposure, we used two different methods of counting the number of field trips students experienced. We used student reports of which shows they had seen over the years on field trips as well as WAC records of which performances they should have seen given the school they attended in each grade and year. Unfortunately, neither method of calculating exposure to these culturally enriching field trips is perfect. Student reports may be distorted by their imperfect memory of what field trips they had taken, and WAC records may be mistaken if not all classes in the grade had been on the same field trips or if students had been absent those days. We report results using both methods.
For each field trip students reported taking to WAC, we observe an increase of 14 percent of a standard deviation in their desire to attend cultural events at the Walton Arts Center, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, or other institutions. When we use WAC records as our measure of cultural exposure, the overall effect is not statistically significant. We do, however, see for each additional field trip an increase in the desire among minority students to attend cultural events of 7 percent of a standard deviation.
Field trips to WAC increase student desire to participate in cultural activities, not just attend them. We asked students if they had been in plays, concerts, or other performances, and we asked about their interest in taking choir or drama in high school. For each field trip students reported, there is an increase in cultural participation of 10 percent of a standard deviation. Using WAC records, we again only find a significant benefit for minority students, an increase in cultural participation of 8 percent of a standard deviation.
We asked students to agree or disagree with the statement, “I am concerned when other people have problems,” as a measure of their empathy. Two additional field trips to see performances at the WAC increased by 4 percent the rate at which students agreed with this statement. We observed this empathy benefit of field trips to WAC whether we relied on student reports or WAC records as our measure of cultural exposure.
We also asked students to agree or disagree with the statement, “I appreciate hearing views different from my own,” as a measure of tolerance. Two additional field trips to see performances at the WAC increased by 7 percent the rate at which students agreed with this statement. This tolerance benefit was observed using student reports as a measure of cultural exposure, but when using WAC records the effect falls short of statistical significance.
Of course, the natural experiment of changing attendance zone boundaries randomly assigned students to schools and not to the field trips those schools took. It is possible that other aspects of those schools caused the effects we observe. At a minimum, we can say that the type of school that chooses to take more field trips to a performing arts center produces benefits for students by increasing their cultural interest and participation as well as changing their values to be more empathetic and tolerant. And given the results of the Crystal Bridges experiment, we have good reason to believe that the field trips themselves played an important role in producing these benefits. Taken together, these two experiments support a consistent and important finding: culturally enriching field trips have significant short-term benefits for students, and those benefits appear to endure over time as the cumulative effect of those experiences.