Theater Counts: How Theater Education Transforms Students’ Lives

Theatre education can help young people develop a strong sense of self and identity, build empathy and learning among peers, and broaden the ways they make meaning of the world around them. Yet the last comprehensive arts education study, examining the state of art education during the 2008-09 school year, found that only 4% of all public elementary schools offered theatre instruction, and less than 50% of public secondary schools offered theatre instruction during the school day. Additional data from a 2012 Americans for the Arts report suggest that fewer schools offered theatre courses during the school day (79% sampled) than offer extracurricular theatre (95% sampled).  In addition, wealthier students are more likely to receive theatre education during the school day (41-56%) than students in schools with higher concentrations of poverty (28%). These numbers highlight a general lack of access to theatre education, and underline the need for continued research and data collection.

Limiting theater opportunities to after-school participation can create barriers to access for students from lower-income families, who are more likely to have limited access to transportation and competing demands of employment and/or child-care responsibilities. The lack of curricular resources can also limit access in high-poverty schools. 

For this Special Report, the Arts Education Partnership reviewed research studies identified within ArtsEdSearch (the national clearinghouse of arts education research), the International Journal of Education, and the Arts and the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders to explore the importance of theatre in student learning and academic and personal growth. While most of the research shared in this report focuses on performative theatre, AEP recognizes the importance of technical theatre, which offers similar developmental benefits and important pathways for careers but has not been researched as extensively. The featured studies show theatre’s positive impact on student success and bolster findings that theatre education:

  • Promotes identity development and growth.
  • Builds empathy and relationships among peers.
  • Empowers participants to transform their understanding of their place in the world.

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