Schools exist not only to provide economically useful skills in numeracy and literacy, but also to produce civilized young men and women who would appreciate the arts and culture.
More-advantaged families may take their children to these cultural institutions outside of school hours, but less-advantaged students are less likely to have these experiences if schools do not provide them. With field trips, public schools viewed themselves as the great equalizer in terms of access to our cultural heritage.
Today, culturally enriching field trips are in decline. A survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that more than half of schools eliminated planned field trips in 2010–11.
The decision to reduce culturally enriching field trips reflects a variety of factors. Financial pressures force schools to make difficult decisions about how to allocate scarce resources, and field trips are increasingly seen as an unnecessary frill. Greater focus on raising student performance on math and reading standardized tests may also lead schools to cut field trips.
When schools do organize field trips, they are increasingly choosing to take students on trips to reward them for working hard to improve their test scores rather than to provide cultural enrichment.
Schools take students to amusement parks, sporting events, and movie theaters instead of to museums and historical sites. This shift from “enrichment” to “reward” field trips is reflected in a generational change among teachers about the purposes of these outings. In a 2012‒13 survey we conducted of nearly 500 Arkansas teachers, those who had been teaching for at least 15 years were significantly more likely to believe that the primary purpose of a field trip is to provide a learning opportunity, while more junior teachers were more likely to see the primary purpose as “enjoyment.”
- Our research suggests that students actually retain a great deal of factual information from their tours. Students who received a tour of the museum were able to recall details about the paintings they had seen at very high rates.
- Beyond recalling the details of their tour, did a visit to an art museum have a significant effect on students? Our study demonstrates that it did. For example, students randomly assigned to receive a school tour of Crystal Bridges later displayed demonstrably stronger ability to think critically about art than the control group.
- We express the impact of a school tour of Crystal Bridges on critical-thinking skills in terms of standard-deviation effect sizes. Overall, we find that students assigned by lottery to a tour of the museum improve their ability to think critically about art by 9 percent of a standard deviation relative to the control group. The benefit for disadvantaged groups is considerably larger (see Figure 1). Rural students, who live in towns with fewer than 10,000 people, experience an increase in critical-thinking skills of nearly one-third of a standard deviation. Students from high-poverty schools (those where more than 50 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches) experience an 18 percent effect-size improvement in critical thinking about art, as do minority students.
- Historical empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate what life was like for people who lived in a different time and place. This is a central purpose of teaching history, as it provides students with a clearer perspective about their own time and place. Students who went on a tour of Crystal Bridges experience a 6 percent of a standard deviation increase in historical empathy. Among rural students, the benefit is much larger, a 15 percent of a standard deviation gain.
- Perhaps the most important outcome of a school tour is whether it cultivates an interest among students in returning to cultural institutions in the future. If visiting a museum helps improve critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and other outcomes not measured in this study, then those benefits would compound for students if they were more likely to frequent similar cultural institutions throughout their life. The direct effects of a single visit are necessarily modest and may not persist, but if school tours help students become regular museum visitors, they may enjoy a lifetime of enhanced critical thinking, tolerance, and historical empathy.
- One consistent pattern in our results is that the benefits of a school tour are generally much larger for students from less-advantaged backgrounds. Students from rural areas and high-poverty schools, as well as minority students, typically show gains that are two to three times larger than those of the total sample. Disadvantaged students assigned by lottery to receive a school tour of an art museum make exceptionally large gains in critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and becoming art consumers.
- In addition, we administered a different version of our survey to students in kindergarten through 2nd grade. Very young students are less likely to have had previous exposure to culturally enriching experiences. Very young students make exceptionally large improvements in the observed outcomes, just like disadvantaged students and first-time visitors.
Again, is public education about training workers or educating citizens?
I also note that one commenter at Education Next lamented that there were not enough resources for field trips while another said, in effect, that it's what districts value in how they spend their money.
Would I rather make sure that a child has something to eat over going on a field trip? Yes. Would I rather my district use dollars for art experiences over a new data coach or project manager? Yes.