The Arts and School Reform

The Emerging Research Story

Vincent Marron

In recent months, debate has been renewed over whether learning in the arts causes a "spill-over" effect on children's learning in other fields, directly or by transfer, and whether that "spill-over" is what should be measured. The discussion was heightened by the publication of a special issue of The Journal of Aesthetic Education titled "The Arts and Academic Improvement: What the Evidence Shows," with guest editors Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland.1

Whatever position one takes, the debate initiated by Winner's work is clearly framed in such a way that the only data admitted as evidence is drawn from certain limited outcomes of research about teaching and learning. In particular, the debate has focused on student achievement in an important but narrow set of basic subjects, based on student scores on standardized, often multiple-choice and frequently machine-scored, tests. Little or nothing is advanced concerning the actual process of teaching and learning, still less about the impact of the arts on a school itself or on the learning environment the school offers to its students and teachers.

In their introduction to the special issue of The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Winner and Hetland recognize these broader concerns when they write:

...we urge researchers to move beyond measuring the effects of the arts in terms of scores on paper and pencil tests, to assess how the arts affect learning in areas that are more difficult to measure, but may well be more important. As a first and critical step in determining what these kinds of learnings might be, we call for more rigorous qualitative research examining how the arts may change the culture of schools and, in so doing, affect children's motivation, attention, engagement, and understanding.

What this “call” did not take into account is that large-scale efforts to undertake this kind of investigation have been underway since the early ‘90s. As sometimes happens in the world of research, work that is “in progress” remains concealed from colleagues until it reaches final publication, possibly years after it began.

In the broader investigation of the arts and school reform, this “concealment” has also been the case until quite recently. The Reader has followed some of this work. The summer 2000 issue reported on a “Crossing Boundaries” meeting that brought arts grantmakers and their education colleagues into a shared conversation around such questions as “What do the arts contribute to education?” The fall 2000 issue continued with a report of the June meeting of the Arts Education Partnership in Durham, North Carolina at which five large-scale arts-based school reform programs and the researchers evaluating them presented their work to the members of the Partnership, a group that includes a growing number of interested foundation and corporate grantmakers.

In the last twelve months, the quarterly meetings of the Arts Education Partnership (AEP, a nonprofit organization based in Washington DC) have continued to refer to and report on the work in progress. They have also provided an occasion for continuing discussion among some of the researchers heading the evaluations of the large-scale projects. In addition, as follow-up to the June meeting in North Carolina, plans were laid for a more structured and shared set of exchanges among these projects. With support from the Getty Trust, the Kenan Institute for the Arts, and the MacArthur Foundation, an unusual meeting was held in September 2000 in Chicago facilitated by the AEP. For the first time, the directors, funders, and researchers of the six most extensive arts-in-education projects met for two days to begin to articulate to each other what they are doing and what they are finding. In almost every project the research was still very much “in progress” and hence not yet finished and available for general review.

The six projects represent work that has been underway in some cases for a decade. They all have evaluation components extending over several years. The six programs are South Carolina's Arts in the Basic Curriculum Project (ABC), the Center for Arts Education (New York City Annenberg Challenge in Arts Education), Kenan's North Carolina A+ Schools Program, the Chicago Arts Partnership for Education (CAPE), Arts for Academic Achievement (the Minnesota Annenberg Challenge for Arts Education), and Annenberg/Getty's Transforming Education through the Arts Challenge (TETAC).

In addition to similarities, differences emerged in the discussions. This was in part because the programs took different approaches, in part because the scale and maturity of the programs are substantially different, and in part because their evaluations were at different stages of completion. CAPE, A+ Schools, and the ABC Project have completed varying levels of data collection and have already or will in the near future publish their final reports. TETAC is now nearing completion of its final year of data collection, while the two Annenberg projects — New York and Minneapolis — have additional time to go.

During part of the September 2000 meeting the researchers worked together as a group to discuss specific research questions, while the directors and funders met separately. There were also sessions where all twenty-one participants met together. For the researchers, the variations in maturity, scope, and methodology of the projects were interesting, but in the end what emerged was a growing realization that the questions about the role of the arts in school reform suggest that a new field in educational research was being developed. In turn, this discovery led the participating educational researchers, most of whom had little or no previous experience in the arts in education, to continue the exchange within and between their projects.

Unlike a year or two ago, there is now a group of educational researchers who are working to understand the complex effects that the arts have on the fields of study in which they already have expertise, such as school reform, high-stakes testing, school culture, and the role of professional development. As the different projects complete their evaluations and publish their reports, there will be a ready audience within the educational research community who can critique their findings, communicate them to their fellow researchers, and continue to articulate more developed hypotheses. For example, they might explore why, whether, and how the arts can play a central role in forming and expressing the identity of a school and in sustaining that identity over time by helping to change the very culture of a school, and, “in so doing, affect children's motivation, attention, engagement, and understanding.” Investigating the role of the arts in school reform through the broader and more systemic lens offered by this aggregate research promises to lead to a deeper understanding of the arts in education than is possible through a lens shaped by limited data.

Vincent Marron is associate director of the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the executive director of the North Carolina A+ Schools Program.

1 Key published references include:
• Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, guest editors, special issue: “The Arts and Academic Achievement: What the Evidence Shows,” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Volume 34, numbers 3/4, Fall/Winter 2000.
• Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, “Does Studying the Arts Enhance Academic Achievement?” Education Week, November 1, 2000.
• Richard J. Deasy and Harriet Mayor Fulbright, “The Arts' Impact on Learning,” Education Week, January 24, 2001.