Study: Field Trips Have Value, Especially for Disadvantaged Kids

Field trips used to be a rite of passage for many school children, but their golden age might be well behind us thanks to shrinking budgets and less willingness on the part of the schools to give away even a minute of classroom time. As a result, many popular field trip destinations are reporting declines in student attendance, with some, like Cincinnati arts organizations, seeing the number of students visiting on a yearly basis fall by more than 30%.

At EducationNext, according to Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida and Daniel H. Bowen of the University of Arkansas, there are a host of reasons why field trips are becoming less popular. Budgetary pressures play a role, but even when schools shell out for an excursion, the locations they choose are now markedly different from what they were years ago.

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.”

It’s even harder to argue for culturally enriching field trips because there’s so little research demonstration their value to the students. The study published by Greene, Kisida and Bowen is the first randomized scientific examination on the impact of culturally enriching excursions on students’ academic performance.

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.

To measure tolerance we included four statements on the survey to which students could express their level of agreement or disagreement: 1) People who disagree with my point of view bother me; 2) Artists whose work is critical of America should not be allowed to have their work shown in art museums; 3) I appreciate hearing views different from my own; and 4) I think people can have different opinions about the same thing. We combined these items into a scale measuring the general effect of the tour on tolerance. 

Although all students who enjoyed a cultural outing demonstrated gains in critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance and appreciation of art, the impact was up to three times higher on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The researchers studied the effects by comparing students who were assigned to a group taking such trip based on a lottery.

How much each participant gained from the experience appears to be inversely proportional to how much cultural enrichment each student enjoyed prior to the trip.

When we examine effects for subgroups of advantaged students, we typically find much smaller or null effects. Students from large towns and low-poverty schools experience few significant gains from their school tour of an art museum. If schools do not provide culturally enriching experiences for these students, their families are likely to have the inclination and ability to provide those experiences on their own. But the families of disadvantaged students are less likely to substitute their own efforts when schools do not offer culturally enriching experiences. Disadvantaged students need their schools to take them on enriching field trips if they are likely to have these experiences at all.

At a time when cultural enrichment trips are falling victim to budget cuts, this kind of research into their impact on student outcomes could provide useful evidence to decision-makers as they consider whether these kinds of outside activities are worth the investment.