Can after-school music-based mentoring programs improve academic outcomes for low-income students?

Holbrook, H. M., Martin, M., Glik, D., Hudziak, J. J., Copeland, W. E., Lund, C., & Fender, J. G. (2022). Music-based mentoring and academic improvement in high-poverty elementary schools. Journal of Youth Development, 17(1), 33–53.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • The achievement gap between low-socioeconomic status (low-SES) students and their higher SES counterparts contributes to systemic disparities that affect various aspects of a youth’s life.
  • Research has shown that SES can affect youths’ language-related brain functions.
  • Music-based mentoring has the potential to help low-SES youth become more resilient and confident.
  • This study assesses whether an after-school music-based mentoring program, called the Harmony Project (HP), can improve literacy and language-related brain functions in low-SES youth and whether this, in turn, can improve their academic outcomes in high-poverty elementary schools.
  • Students who participated in HP received higher scores in English language arts and math than non-participants after a year.
  • HP participants still had moderately higher math & reading scores than non-HP participants after two years.
  • These findings significantly applied to HP students who had the lowest scores before the intervention.
  • Conducting interventions in high-poverty schools can help bridge the achievement disparities between low and high-SES youth by providing low-SES youth with the tools to improve their language-related brain functions and their ability to learn.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Recent research links disparities in children’s language-related brain function to poverty and its correlates. Such disparities are hypothesized to underlie achievement gaps between students from low-income families and more advantaged peers. Interventions that improve language-related brain function in low-income students exist, but evaluations of their implementation within high-poverty elementary schools do not. This comparison-group study evaluates whether implementation within high-poverty elementary schools of Harmony Project music-based mentoring, previously shown in randomized controlled research to improve language-related brain function and literacy in low-income students, might be associated with academic improvement for participants compared with non-participating peers. Standardized academic achievement scores were evaluated retrospectively for 2nd graders who opted into or out of Harmony Project (HP) at baseline (nHP = 218; nnon-HP = 862) for weekly music-based mentoring over 2 years. Adjusting for baseline scores, HP participation was associated with higher standardized scores for math (+17 points; ß = .06, p = .02) and English language arts (+26 points; ß = .08, p = .002). Importantly, students with the lowest prior achievement scores showed the greatest gains for both math (+33 points; ß =.13, p =.02) and English language arts (+39 points; ß =.14, p =.02). Implementation within high-poverty elementary schools of a program previously found to improve language-related brain function in low-income students was associated with significant academic improvement for participants, particularly those with the lowest prior levels of achievement. Findings support the hypothesis that disparities in children’s language-related brain function linked to poverty and its correlates may underlie achievement gaps.

Implications (Reprinted from the Results & Discussion)

In this retrospective comparison-group implementation study of Harmony Project music-based mentoring within high-poverty LBUSD elementary schools, using baseline educational records to account for levels of academic achievement prior to enrollment in HP, it was shown that after 1 year of HP engagement, participants displayed higher levels of math, reading, and writing achievement scores than non-HP students. After 2 years, participants displayed modestly higher levels of standardized test scores in reading and math, even when accounting for pre-HP achievement scores. Importantly, these associations were strongest for standardized test scores in reading and math of HP students who had the lowest achievement scores prior to program enrollment; such gains were not seen in low-achieving non-HP students.

After 1 year, HP students were somewhat more likely to achieve top scores in speaking than non-HP students (25.3% vs. 19.9%). After 2 years the percentage of students achieving top scores in speaking climbed for HP students but fell for non-HP students (36.8% vs. 15.3% p=.01). This observation is meaningful, as speaking ability is critical to student agency, resilience, and success (Deci & Ryan, 2012). HP students practiced expressing themselves after school (through music) at least 4 hours per week, which may have contributed to improvement seen in speaking for HP students versus the decline in speaking observed for non-HP students.

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