Dr. James Catterall, professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, says that his academic career has taken him down three main paths over the last few decades. The first was the examination of the economics of education, a pursuit that extended naturally from his undergraduate background in economics and from his graduate work at Stanford University with renowned educational economist, Dr. Hank Levins. In this, Catterall says he was interested in, among other things, the public support of private education-an issue that is once again in the spotlight. “I had,” he says, “a lot of equity concerns with policies then being proposed-things like tuition tax credits and vouchers.”

This work led him into the next phase of his career, which involved doing research on the educational opportunities available to at-risk students. “Over the course of seven years of work in this area,” he says, “I went from beginning work with school dropouts to becoming one of the national authorities on the nature of their experience.”

Around ten years ago, the work with at-risk students sent Catterall, almost inadvertently, into the largely uncharted waters of arts education research, where he has spent most of his time since. In the course of the last decade, he has emerged as one of the leading figures in this field. He has been involved in a multitude of arts-related projects and intervention studies, like the Galef Institute’s “Different Ways of Knowing Program” and the “Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education.” These programs bring artists and teachers together to plan and deliver instruction that integrates the arts with academic subjects.

That Catteral has found himself studying the effects of the arts on learning seems fitting, as he has been a musician nearly his entire life. After playing the baritone horn in the school band in Summit, New Jersey, where he grew up, he later taught himself to play both guitar and bass guitar, so he could play in rock bands. During his college years at Princeton, he and his friends had a band called Tyger Dynasty that, he says, had great success playing venues along the eastern seaboard.

Before beginning his doctoral studies at Stanford in the mid-1970s, Catterall held varied posts mostly having some tie to education, including an internship with the Chancellor of Higher Education in New Jersey, an education finance advisor position for the Minnesota State Legislature, and, for four years, a high school math teaching position.

He is in his 20th year at UCLA.

BrainConnection: How did you come to study arts education?

Dr. James Catterall: Some program evaluations I had written on the subject of at-risk kids caught the attention of a group trying to secure a grant to do a program that might matter for these kids. The Galef Institute arose from that. This was an organization that focused on finding ways for elementary teachers to do across-the-curriculum kinds of things, including utilizing the arts. I did a three-year longitudinal study of that. Sometime later, I decided that if I was going to get involved with arts education, I needed to see what was out there. So along with a colleague [Dr. Jaye Darby], I did what was considered the definitive review of the literature. It was published in the Teachers College Record under the title “The Fourth R: The Arts and Learning.”

BC: Your research suggests that you are on a mission to make the education system a better, more equitable place. Do you see the use of the arts in education as fitting in with this?

Catterall: Yes, I do. I am most interested in at-risk communities and making schools more effective for them.

BC: What about your involvement with the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education, CAPE?

Catterall: For CAPE, I headed a systematic program evaluation in 1999. In each of the past two years, we have pursued research opportunities with this program. An example is studying why some partnerships continue beyond their initial funding.

BC: What are the factors that keep art partnerships going?

Catterall: When it comes down to it, it has an awful lot to do with sustained leadership by somebody, either a parent, a teacher, or a principal. Some principals in Chicago were eager and liked the idea from the start. Some were won over by the way the program had captured their teachers. Ultimately you need to have the principal’s support for it to last.

You also need a program that has visibility and becomes part of the school’s “conversation” about children, teaching and learning.

It boils down to leadership. But also, of course, sustaining a program depends on what that leadership leads. In this program, many teachers felt they were experiencing real personal change and growth, which they liked. There was enough attention given to the program and elevation in status in the communities that parents began to recognize the schools involved as being different and they began demanding that their schools do similar things.

BC: What are some of the other things you’re working on now where arts education is concerned?

Catterall: I’m presently involved in the production of a definitive review of research on the arts and learning for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Arts Education Partnership.

BC: One of the biggest recent developments in the study of the brain has been new imaging techniques. Can you talk some about brain-mapping and its potential role in arts education research?

Catterall: I think this sort of work should come first.

I became aware of things going on this area, in part, because UCLA developed one of the first brain mapping centers. I got to know about that as an outsider; a friend of mine knew the head of the Brain Mapping Institute, John Mazziotta, and he and I got together and had conversations about where things might go in this area.

At about this same time, I started conversing with Edith London-who was new at UCLA-and she and I tracked our interests and talked about ways we might work together to look at learning in the arts, both psychometrically and in terms of changes in brain function. We were interested in finding evidence that the arts really did something.

At the moment, we have a put a set of ideas together that make up a presentation of the kinds of things we would anticipate doing in a study, including explanations of some of the processes involved-fMRI and CAT scanning-and designs for a one-year trial. The strongest effects in terms of the arts and learning have thus far been noted in music and spatial reasoning. So we thought, if we can’t find significant changes in neuro-function with kids whose spatial reasoning is growing faster than others, then we’re probably not ready to seek other changes in thinking.

So our design is to replicate a strong study where we will get the psychometric results and then line them up with changes in brain function. We want to gather a group of the very best people, both on the cognitive neuroscience side and on the thinking and problem-solving side, to go over our plan. We don’t want to go through a research program and have people saying, you forgot this or you forgot that-anticipating your most influential critics and getting them involved in the design in the first place. I think this sort of work should come first.

BC: On the topic of how and to what degree the arts affect cognition, I wonder what your ideas are about the data from REAP (Reviewing Education and the Arts Project) recently published in The Journal of Aesthetic Education? Their results tend to downplay the connections between the arts and learning.

Catterall: REAP’s results are all positive, ranging from large and significant in music learning and spatial-temporal reasoning, to small and non-significant in areas like dance and non-verbal communication. In general I found the analysis was good, but the interpretation was highly biased toward the preferences of the authors-particularly in their not wanting to defend the arts for their ability to produce learning in other areas. My work supports extrinsic benefits, as do many other studies, including some of the studies reviewed by REAP. You know, one way REAP came out was as a back cover piece in Education Week, and a group I’m involved in has crafted a reply to that-a critique-which will come out later in January, also as a back cover piece.

BC: You mentioned earlier that music and drama are the arts showing the strongest ties to learning, and REAP’s results, in fact, seem to corroborate this. Do you think the reason we’re not seeing gains in areas besides music and drama is that these are the areas that have been studied the most?

Catterall: We do see smaller gains in under-studied areas. What more studies would bring is anyone’s guess. Ultimately, though, the lesson of REAP is that where things are studied a lot, you see results. One of the ways the authors play down results is to say that the fairly well documented effects on spatial reasoning may not matter for academic achievement. That’s a pretty off-putting statement for anyone who has done any research in spatial reasoning. In 3,000 studies we’ve found spatial reasoning is important in planning, spoken language, organizing thoughts, understanding relationships. All sorts of things.

BC: What is most important for the public to understand about arts education?

Catterall: That arts education should be a part of every child’s education and that access to arts experiences should be fairly distributed. Our society needs its artists and it needs to support artistic endeavors. I think the most important thing about arts education is that it is part of being a whole person. Arts education should be in the curriculum along with other things people learn-things that have more obvious connections to the workplace-because the arts are simply enjoyable and potentially very productive. They should be part of the basic tool kit in our society. The public should understand, secondly, that there is spillover: it is clear that involvement in drama and theater is a lab for verbal skills and probably interpersonal understanding-reading and writing, and so forth. It seems clear that certain kinds of music training help grow and organize the brain in certain ways. We don’t know much yet about the visual arts and dance. We’re seeing some evidence of nonverbal development through drama, for instance. Another thing is there’s an effect the arts have-we think it’s an effect-in which the kids who get involved with the arts are doing less negative things with their lives. They’re not watching as much television. They’re using time constructively. It’s not that the arts should be ground into everyone, but they ought to be among the things people can choose. And among the things teachers could use in their curriculum. There’s a lot of room for choice and preference Not every teacher should integrate the arts. Some would be interested, some would not. Some would get interested if they were exposed to it; and we’re seeing this happen in some programs. There’s no one shoe that fits everyone. The problem is that this shoe isn’t on the rack.

BC: If you could grant one wish to the U.S. educational system, what would it be?

Catterall: To allocate resources, particularly at the elementary level, that could make these choices possible for kids.