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Music Classes Contribute to Higher Math Scores, but Only in High-Income Schools

A new sociology study explores the link between math and music, finding that the link is only present at schools with higher socioeconomic positions

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Holden Galusha

Holden Galusha is the associate editor for Lab Manager. He was a freelance contributing writer for Lab Manager before being invited to join the team full-time. Previously, he was the...

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A new sociological study from the Portland State University corroborates past research that music classes can have positive impacts on a student’s comprehension in other subjects, especially math, and improves their overall test scores. However, this trend can only be found in schools with higher socioeconomic status (SES) student bodies. This suggests that lower SES schools’ music classes may be of lower quality due to not being able to retain experienced teachers and having limited classroom resources.

The researchers, Daniel Mackin Freeman, a doctoral candidate in sociology, and Dara Shifrer, associate professor of sociology, analyzed data on 20,590 high school students collected in the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 to see if any positive associations exist between taking fine arts courses and scoring higher on math tests, and if so, does a school’s SES affect the association? The answer to both questions was yes; such associations exist, and they are only found in schools with relatively high SES positions.

One potential way that school administrators could act on this data is using it to guide which classes they cut or how they allocate resources. The conventional philosophy is that students will perform better in math by reducing art classes and funneling those resources to math classes. But with the results of this study and others like it, educators may be able to boost math scores by further encouraging musical pursuits. “I think our findings can inform policy in two says,” Freeman says. “First, under-resourced schools can point to our findings to justify spending on subjects that we know are beneficial in other realms but not intuitively or directly focused on boosting math achievement. Second, our results suggest that if states and the federal government are interested in closing achievement gaps between low- and higher-SES schools, they should direct resources to low-SES schools that allow them the educational resources necessary for offering a more holistic, less core-centric, and higher-quality curriculum.”

While past studies have established associations between music education and performance in other academic subjects, this new study is unique in that it examines the phenomenon with a sociological lens. Such an approach highlights inequality between schools, which may encourage educational policymakers to weigh these findings more heavily in decisions.