Volume 30, Number 2
Using the Arts to Turn Schools Around
Evidence builds in favor of integrating arts for positive outcomes
In Boston, students studied Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” as part of a unit on African American history.
Ask students and parents how the arts are seen in their schools, and many will say that they are treated as add-on enrichment programs. But a new national initiative is betting that a full embrace of the arts can be an effective core turnaround strategy for schools with low achievement.
At the center of the initiative, called Turnaround Arts, is the premise that arts can change school culture and climate, student engagement, and parent involvement in the service of improving achievement. Eight elementary and middle schools around the country are participating in the effort to build arts capacity at some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools led by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH). Selected through a competition open to schools receiving federal School Improvement Grants (SIG), the schools receive two years of nonfinancial support, including professional development, networking opportunities, strategic planning, and collaborations with accomplished teaching artists like cellist Yo-Yo Ma, actress Alfre Woodard, and visual artist Chuck Close.
The approach underlying Turnaround Arts is known as arts integration—incorporating arts into the curriculum to teach or reinforce core subjects like math, science, and language arts. In arts-integrated schools, content teachers typically collaborate with part- or full-time arts specialists and outside teaching artists to create lessons that utilize drama, music, dance, and other arts. Turnaround Arts builds on past arts-integration efforts implemented over the past few decades, most of which have had a local or statewide scope. It is raising the profile of arts integration, partly through its national scope, recognizable teaching artists, and promising results drawn from an evaluation that is among the more rigorous in the arts field.
Combining Arts and Core Subjects
In arts-integrated approaches, dance, music, and visual art are seen as core instructional strategies. For example, at Orchard Gardens K–8 Pilot School in Boston, a Turnaround Arts school, students in Megan Struckel’s fifth-grade math class learn how to do multiplication through salsa dancing. Standing on large multiplication tables on the floor, they learn that the right foot represents the ones place and the left foot represents the tens place. “You go straight up to multiply the ones and over to multiply the tens,” Struckel explains. “They remember it when they go back to their desks and hear me say, ‘Make your pencils dance!’ It absolutely helps them learn the algorithm,” she says.
Findley Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, another Turnaround Arts school, integrates drama into all of its class-rooms using a tool called the Actor’s Toolbox, which teaches students how actors concentrate and collaborate in order to perform their scenes. “We had never explicitly taught these skills before, and it has made a significant difference” in students’ attention and behavior, says Principal Tara Owen.
Advocates have long touted numerous benefits of arts education. The benefits cluster in two primary catego-ries—engagement in the learning process and mastery of specific skills and knowledge—according to James Catterall, director of the Centers for Research on Creativity. There is “direct but not overwhelming evidence” for a link between the arts and academic achievement, he says. But the rigor and quality of arts education studies have been uneven.
That’s why positive evaluations from arts-integration initiatives like Turnaround Arts are noteworthy. According to the first-year interim progress report, all but one Turnaround Arts school showed improved reading and/or math scores, with several exceeding the growth seen in other SIG schools in their states. At several schools attendance improved and disciplinary actions declined.
Evaluations of other similar programs are also contributing evidence that arts integration is linked to better student out-comes. An evaluation of the Whole Schools Initiative, an arts-integration program in Mississippi, reported that eight partic-ipating public schools had higher percentages of students scoring “proficient” or above on state achievement tests in 2010–2011 than comparison schools in their districts. Results of an arts integration program in Montgomery County, Md. from 2004 to 2007 were also promising: In schools with initially low percentages of students performing at advanced levels on state tests, third- graders’ test scores increased over the course of the year, while they decreased in comparison schools. And a 2003 evaluation of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ program, Arts for Academic Achievement, found that third- through fifth-graders—especially from disadvantaged backgrounds—showed small but significant gains in reading and math scores when their teachers integrated the arts at a high level of intensity.
Test scores don’t tell the whole story, however, say some advocates. “The deep engagement that arts require on the part of students provides a vehicle for what they’re learning to matter,” says Lauren Stevenson, a former staff member at the Arts Education Partnership and coauthor of a book about arts integration in 10 low-performing schools.
A number of qualitative studies have reported that students who learn through the arts are more interested in their coursework and able to connect it to real life. This kind of engagement is palpable in the Turnaround Arts schools, according to Rachel Goslins, PCAH’s executive director. “There is a sense of energy and vitality in the halls. Students feel pride in themselves and their schools, sometimes for the first time. Parents who have never come into the school before are coming. Principals are energized.”
Replacing Security Guards with Art Teachers
When Andrew Bott arrived as principal in 2010, Orchard Gardens had been labeled a turnaround school because of its con-sistently low performance. Attendance was low and disciplinary incidents were high. Among the changes Bott made—which included replacing 80 percent of the staff and extending the school day—was a decision to eliminate an expensive cadre of security officers and reallocate the money to arts teachers. In February 2012 the school’s arts teachers proposed to Bott that they lead an all-staff professional development session. They introduced teachers to how arts classes reinforced literacy and math concepts and demonstrated ways that content teachers could incorporate many arts disciplines into their classes—for example, using rhyming songs that teach young children about literacy skills like syllables and consonants, according to Kelly DiGrazia, arts leader and music teacher (see “Integrating the Arts at Orchard Gardens Sidebar”).
Over the last three years, the arts have become a focal point at Orchard Gardens, and many staff credit that focus with changing the culture. “There is more of a sense of community now,” says DiGrazia, who has seen both parent and student engagement increase. “It has given us a way to work toward a common goal,” adds Struckel, the fifth-grade math teacher who now sees students getting excited to come to school. Although the arts were not the only factor, attendance and achievement have risen markedly, and Orchard Gardens exited turnaround status in 2013.
Teachers at Orchard Gardens are not required to use arts in their classrooms, but “the majority of staff are doing it in some shape or form,” according to DiGrazia. Among the support that she and two other staff members are providing is a pilot protocol for language arts teachers that guides students in learning how to make inferences using evidence (a Common Core standard) by analyzing a work of visual art.
The key is making the teaching of academic subjects truly interdisciplinary and authentic so that students process it deeply, advises Steve Seidel, director of the Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Arts-infused activities should be “a way for students to represent their understandings of concepts and attain deeper insights than they would otherwise,” he recommends.
Although this kind of planning is recommended by many experts, it isn’t universally accepted. Some arts advocates fear that a focus on academic goals diminishes the intrinsic value, focus on personal expression, and enjoyment typically associated with the arts and could even threaten the jobs of arts specialists. Stevenson disagrees, pointing out how her study found that specialists actually became more valued in their schools as a result of integration.
Time, Not Money
“Arts integration was completely new for us, and our staff had very limited knowledge about it,” recounts Owen, who was in her first year as Findley’s principal when an assistant superintendent suggested she apply for Turnaround Arts. “At the beginning, there was a lot of fear among teachers,” who felt enormous pressure to improve the school’s low test scores, she remembers.
Because integrating drama into all classrooms is mandatory, professional development has been essential. In the first year, Findley partnered with outside trainers who focused on one strategy, the tableau technique. It teaches students to create “frozen pictures” with their bodies and facial expressions—like a human diorama—in order to analyze material such as vocabulary words or scientific concepts like weather patterns. Now that the school is in the second year of arts integration, professional development is being conducted in-house, led by Findley’s arts-integration specialist and teacher leaders. Owen is seeing teachers assume more ownership and even try new techniques.
The Turnaround Arts interim report found that the need for more professional development and time were among the biggest challenges for schools. Interestingly, additional funding was not on the list of challenges. “A lot of people wonder if you can do this without grants, and the answer is, yes,” says Owen. As one strategy, Title I schools can utilize some of their federal funding for arts integration, as long as the activities have been shown to improve math or language arts outcomes, according to a report Stevenson authored for the California Alliance for Arts Education. The Alliance has developed a “policy pathway” to guide such work and is developing an online tool that will catalog proven practices. In the meantime, schools can identify evidence-based arts strategies through the Arts Education Partnership website.
“Teachers are clear that this is more work but that it’s absolutely worth it, because they are succeeding in helping students become active learners,” Stevenson says.
Suzanne Bouffard is a developmental psychologist, freelance writer, and member of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.