The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education

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The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education

MANY CHILDREN IN THE UNITED STATES have little or no opportunity for formal arts instruction, and access to arts learning experiences remains a critical national challenge. In addition, the quality of arts learning opportunities that are available to young people is a serious concern. Understanding this second challenge - the challenge of creating and sustaining high quality formal arts learning experiences for K-12 youth, inside and outside of school - is the focus of our recent research initiative, The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education, commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and conducted by Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The study focuses on the character of excellence itself and asks three core questions:

  1. How do arts educators in the United States - including leading practitioners, theorists, and administrators - conceive of and define high quality arts learning and teaching?
  2. What markers of excellence do educators and administrators look for in the actual activities of arts learning and teaching as they unfold in the classroom?
  3. How do a program's foundational decisions, as well as its ongoing day-to-day decisions, affect the pursuit and achievement of quality?

These questions were investigated through three strands of research: Interviews with leading arts practitioners, theorists and administrators; site visits to exemplary arts programs across a range of settings; and a review of published literature. Sources in each of these areas were selected through an extensive nomination process in which several hundred arts educators and administrators across the country, working in a wide variety of contexts and art forms, nominated candidates in each area. This report presents our findings and offers a set of tools to help arts educators and their associates reflect on and discuss the character of high quality arts learning and teaching in their own settings.

Some of the major themes and findings of the study include the following:

The drive for quality is personal, passionate, and persistent. For most of the people surveyed in this study, ideas about what constitutes quality in arts education are inextricably tied to their values and to fundamental issues of identity and meaning. Though people differ in their specific visions and concerns, a commonality among almost all with whom we spoke is that the drive for quality is persistent and far-reaching. This drive is ever-present in all aspects of their educational work and shapes their goals for young people. For example, most educators we interviewed wanted young people to have experience with quality - with excellent materials, outstanding works of art, passionate and accomplished artist-teachers modeling their artistic processes - and experiences of quality - powerful group interactions and ensemble work, performances that make them feel proud, rewarding practice sessions, technical excellence, and successful expressivity.

Quality arts education serves multiple purposes simultaneously. The question of what constitutes high quality arts education is deeply linked to the question of why we should be teaching the arts. It is not surprising that when arts educators talk about excellence they also express ideas about the fundamental purposes of arts education - ideas about what students ought to learn through the arts and why these outcomes are important. Our informants mentioned many purposes, and most of them cluster into a handful of broad areas. For example, many arts educators believe that one of the important purposes of arts education is to foster broad dispositions and habits of mind, especially the capacity to think creatively , and the capacity to make connections. Many also believe that arts education should help students develop aesthetic awareness and visual observation skills and provide venues for self-expression and self-exploration. It is notable that most of the people with whom we spoke believe that good arts programs tend to serve several purposes simultaneously. Though arts programs differ widely in their contexts, goals, art forms, and constituencies, a hallmark sign of high quality arts learning in any program is that the learning experiences are rich and complex for all learners, engaging them on many levels and helping them learn and grow in a variety of ways.

Quality reveals itself "in the room" through four different lenses. When you ask arts educators what they take to be the signs of high quality arts education, they are as likely to point to features of the experience in the setting itself as they are to broad purposes and outcomes. These experiential elements are what you would expect to observe or infer if you opened the door onto a classroom, studio, or rehearsal hall and looked for markers of quality.

There are multiple kinds of markers, and one way to look for them is to examine the experience through four different but overlapping lenses: learning, pedagogy, community dynamics, and environment. These lenses all focus on the same experience, but each one brings a different dimension into view. The learning lens focuses on what students are actually doing in the classroom - the kinds of projects and tasks in which they are involved and the character of their engagement. The pedagogy lens focuses on how teachers conceive of and practice their craft - how they conceptualize the teacher-student relationship, and how they design and implement instruction. The community dynamics lens reveals the nature of the social relationships in the classroom, including relationships among the students themselves, between students and teachers, and among the teachers and other adults who are present. The environment lens focuses on concrete elements such as the physical space of the classroom, the materials and physical resources available, and the kind of time students are given - hours as well as years - to engage in arts learning.

Foundational decisions matter. Foundational, program-defining decisions that give a program its identity and provide the parameters within which quality is pursued. These decisions include (1) Who teaches the arts? (2) Where are the arts taught? (3) What is taught and how? and (4) How is arts learning assessed? Scholars have written extensively about these decisions, and they often take sharply opposing positions. In practice, however, the ways in which high quality programs answer these questions tend to be nuanced and contextualized, often embodying high principles and pragmatic concerns at the same time.

Decisions and decision makers at all levels affect quality. Many decision makers play a critical role in the quality of arts learning experiences. These include people quite distant from the classroom (e.g., administrators, funders, policy makers), those just outside the room - notably program staff and parents, and those who are "in the room" (students, teachers, artists). Decisions made by those "in the room" have tremendous power to support as well as undermine the quality of the learning experience. This is especially true of students, and it is important for students to be as aware as possible of the potential impact of their choices on their own and others' learning experiences. This may seem obvious, but the role of student choice is often overlooked in discussions of quality, and it invites greater attention.

Reflection and dialogue is important at all levels. An overarching theme across many of the findings of this study is that continuous reflection and discussion about what constitutes quality and how to achieve it is not only a catalyst for quality but also a sign of quality. In other words, thinking deeply about quality - talking about it, worrying about it, continually revisiting ideas about its characteristics and its indicators - is essential both to the pursuit of excellence in arts education and to its achievement. Another overarching theme is that a misalignment of ideas among decision-makers about what constitutes quality often complicates a program's pursuit of quality. Alignment is easy to ignore, and achieving alignment among decision-makers at all levels often requires far more basic investigation, dialogue, and negotiation than is given.

In what follows, we offer several tools to help decision makers address the twin challenges of reflection and alignment. The tools are designed to be used by individuals or by groups in workshops or other collegial settings. Their purpose is to help arts educators and their associates build and clarify their visions of high quality arts education, identify elements of quality in their own programs, reflect on the relationship between quality and a program's foundational decisions, seek alignment between a program's beliefs about quality and its practices, and seek alignment across decision makers at all levels who help to shape a program's pursuit of quality.


We thank The Wallace Foundation for commissioning this study and for their recognition of the importance of the issue of quality in arts education.

This has been a complex study and many people have provided insight, support, critique, expertise, and perspective. Hundreds of people were interviewed and observed in the course of this study. We are tremendously grateful to all of them. Their honesty, integrity, wisdom, and generosity were inspiring. A list of all of the sites we visited and the people we interviewed in our interview strand appears in the appendix of the report. We are unable to list the names of everyone we interviewed at the sites - students, parents, teachers, administrators, and many more - but we are indebted to all who took the time to sit and talk with us about quality in arts education.

In addition, many people responded to our call for nominations of programs, experts, and literature, and over 120 sites applied to be part of the study. We thank all those who took our call for nominations and applications so seriously.

Amy Baione and Jen Ryan were invaluable research assistants on the project and dedicated members of the core research team. Our team also included wonderful students in or associated with the Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: Megan Brown, Edward Clapp, Marit Dewhurst, Regan Doody, Martina Hinojosa, Shira Katz, Dorothea Lasky, Marguerite Nicoll, Barbara Palley, Ashley Rybowiak, Rachel Schiller, and Anna Tirovalas.

Kimberly Sheridan, assistant Professor in Educational Psychology and Art Education at George Mason University, was an invaluable member of the literature review research team. We thank Dr. Dan Serig and Rachel Nelson, from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who also contributed to the literature review. In addition, Paddy Bowman, Tina Curran, and Mark Borchelt, were generous advisors. We thank Luna Kids Dance in Oakland, CA for opening their resource library to us.

All of our colleagues at Project Zero inspire us. For their help on this project, we thank Veronica BoixMansilla, Howard Gardner, Stephanie Kacoyanis, David Perkins, Cindy Quense, Damari Rosado, Denise Simon, Tom Trapnell, Terri Turner, and Daniel Wilson.

We thank Bob Fogel, Jack Jennings, and Helen Page at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for their wise counsel at key moments in this process.

Along with many of the people listed above, Barbara Andrews and Elisa Callow provided extensive feedback on drafts of this report and we are grateful for their insights. Fernando Hernandez and Myran Parker-Brass provided generous counsel early in the development of the project. Sarah Cunningham and Jane Polin provided important support along the way. Cyrus Driver of The Ford Foundation was also especially helpful at key points in this work.

We have had the opportunity to present reports on this work at a number of conferences and symposia. We thank the organizers of all of those events and the many people who spoke with us during and after those sessions, sharing their perspectives on the design and progress of our study and directly on the question of quality in arts education.

We thank Andrea Tishman for her design of this report.

We are deeply grateful to Dick Deasy and Sandra Ruppert of the Arts Education Partnership for their faith, counsel, and support for this work.

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