They are sunshine for the soul, the flowers in life's garden. They add richness, meaning, variety and spice to every day.

There are, in fact, a lot of aesthetic reasons for the arts, but what about academic reasons? When we read the discouraging news that American students rank practically last in the world in history and science, should we take that as a sign that school curricula need to emphasize the basics and eliminate the arts? If money is scarce - as it always seems to be - should more funding be directed toward academics and less toward the arts?Not if you listen to a growing number of educators and experts who have studied the role of arts and believe they are a vital part of learning. Not if you believe the evidence of a growing number of studies and research projects that show that the arts are critical to education.

It is harder to measure the impact of arts, says Carol Ann Goodson, fine arts specialist for the Utah State Office of Education. "We don't have national tests like we do for math and reading. So it's harder to assess the level of achievement." But more and more research is being done on arts and education and how they interact.

Information from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, summarizing some of the recent research on the subject, provides some eloquent evidence on the role of arts in learning. According to the report:

- The arts are serious and rigorous academic subjects. They are an essential aspect of human knowing. "The arts convey knowledge and meaning not learned through the study of other subjects," said Karen A. Hamblen in "Theories and Research That Support Art Instruction for Instrumental Outcomes."

"The arts delight students, but they are also intellectual disciplines of substance. Like language or mathematics, the arts involve the use of complex symbols to communicate."

- The arts have far-reaching potential to help students achieve educational goals. Schools that incorporate music, art, drama, dance and creative writing into the basic curriculum have found that teaching the arts has a significant effect on overall success in school.

For example, "students of the arts continue to outperform their non-arts peers on the Scholastic Assessment Test," according to the College Entrance Examination Board. "In 1995, SAT scores for students who studied the arts more than four years were 59 points higher on the verbal and 44 points higher on the math portion than students with no coursework or experience in the arts."

- Reading, writing and math skills can be enhanced through the arts. For example:

Students who participated in the "Learning to Read Through the Arts" program in New York City improved an average of one to two months in reading for each month they participated in the program.

"Humanitas Program" students in Los Angeles high schools showed more conceptual understanding of history and made more interdisciplinary references than non-Humanitas students. Low-achieving students made gains equivalent to those made by high-achieving students.

The most total gains in total reading, reading vocabulary and reading comprehension were made by elementary students in the "Spectra+" arts program in Ohio compared to the control group. The students also scored better in math comprehension.

Vocabulary and reading comprehension were significantly improved for elementary students in the "Arts Alternatives" program in New Jersey. A strong connection between drama skills and literacy was found in the program, which involved role-playing, improvisational techniques and story-writing activities.

- Creativity is naturally developed through the arts. Total creativity measures were four times higher for elementary students in an arts curriculum than for the control groups in two Ohio school districts, according to Richard L. Luftig's "The Schooled Mind: Do the Arts Make a Difference?" Gains were maintained, and students continued to improve in a second-year evaluation.

- The arts can transform the classroom environment, making learning a lively, invigorating experience. "Classes were more interactive, there were more student-initiated topics and discussions, more time was devoted to literacy activities and problem-solving activities in schools using the arts-based `Different Ways of Knowing' program," according to a report by James S. Catterall.

- High-risk students are helped through the arts. Many students find that the arts help them master academic skills. Drawing helps writing. Song and poetry make facts memorable. Drama makes history more vivid and real. Creative movement makes processes understandable. This is doubly true for the high-risk student, who often excels for the first time in an arts program.

High-risk elementary students with one year in the "Different Ways of Knowing" program gained 8 percentile points on standardized language arts tests, for example. And 75 percent of high-risk high school students who participate in Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in Pittsburgh go on to college.

- Understanding of one's self and others expands with arts education. Belief that success in school is possible is one of the most important factors for students. Positive self-perceptions have been shown repeatedly to aid the development of skills and learning, and the arts have been shown to foster positive self-perceptions.

For example, students participating in the "Arts Alternatives" program in New Jersey reported significantly improved attitudes relating to self-expression, trust, self-acceptance and acceptance of others.

- The arts prepare students for jobs. In the modern business environment, the ability to communicate, adapt, diagnose problems and find creative solutions is more important than ever before. These attributes can be nurtured and honed through studying the arts. The "Educational Quality of the Workforce National Employer Survey" by Lisa Lynch and Robert Zemsky found that "communication skills were ranked as the second most important factor in hiring." Employers look at educational levels and certificates, but what is more important is how the applicant presents himself or herself, in terms of attitude and communication skills.

And also important is the fact that there are jobs in the arts. The $36 billion nonprofit arts industry provides about 1.3 million jobs per year. Add the commercial arts sector and the economic impact jumps to $314 billion a year. "Out of a classroom of 30 students, maybe 10 will be employed in an arts-related occupation someday," said Rexford Brown of the Education Commission of the States.

Goodson's office also has ample evidence of the impact that arts-education programs are having in Utah schools.

"We would die without our arts program," Richard Webster, then principal at North Elementary school in Cedar City, wrote on an annual evaluation form. "Students live to do the fun things we have them do. It's probably the best thing we really do. We work hard on academics, and that causes a lot of stress with our children. The arts projects and activities relax them and help them to be more comfortable. . . . We know our arts activities make our students better students. We believe they do better in school with assessments and evaluations when they are more relaxed and not so tense."

And from LeeAnn Rowser, arts coordinator for the North Summit District: "Every year we feel growth. We also realize that the more we do, the more there is to do. We feel the benefits to our students, however, are worth the effort. Our major successes have been with those students who have felt unsuccessful in other academic areas and have found the arts as a means of positive recognition and growth of personal worth. These avenues of expression have produced positive behavior and minimized negative behavior."

In Cleveland, in Emery County, a Mexican fiesta sponsored by the elementary school brought the whole community together, Goodson says. "It's so wonderful when they all come together like that." She can cite successful programs in schools up and down the state: Eureka Elementary in Sevier District, Foothill Elementary in Brigham City, Jackson Elementary and Wasatch Elementary in Salt Lake City, Valley Elementary in Kane County and many more.

But the programs are not without their problems, either. Funding is chief among them, especially funding for more training. "We expect teachers to teach things they are not trained for. And students are the ones who suffer."

It is a continuous battle to convince people of the need for arts education and for the funds to provide those programs, she says. But it is a battle worth fighting.

Archaeologists study civilizations by using artifacts such as pottery and cave paintings and musical instruments, notes former U.S. Commissioner of Education Ernest Boyer. Can we truly be educating children without involving them in those activities that may define their time and place in history? he asks. The arts are vital, he says in a publication put together by the U.S. Office of Education.

Boyer speaks for many involved in both arts and education when he says, "Here, then, is my conclusion. First, we need the arts to express feelings words cannot convey. Second, we need the arts to expand the child's way of knowing and to bring creativity to the nation's classrooms. Third, we need the arts to help students integrate their learning and discover the connectedness of things. Fourth, we need the arts in education to help children who are emotionally and physically restricted. Above all, the arts can build community not only within the school but beyond it as well: in neighborhoods, in different cultures and across generations. Learning in the arts truly is lifelong. It's a deeply satisfying journey that I am convinced should never end."

April 20: Music in the elementary schools.