The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education

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The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education

Quality:1. An inherent feature; a characteristic.
2. A judgment of excellence; a feature of value.

FOR THOSE WHO CARE deeply about excellence in education, the pursuit of quality is as enigmatic as it is essential. At their best, educational programs are complex: They involve dynamic relationships among people, among communities, and among bodies of knowledge. Quality is often a moving target - what counts as high quality in one context or at a particular moment in time may seem quite inadequate at another time or place - and identifying the signs of quality can be challenging, especially in an enterprise as complex and context-specific as teaching and learning. At what - and where - should we look? Do test scores reflect the quality of an education? An arts education? Is the measure of quality in arts education in the works of art produced by students? In the processes by which those works were produced? In an amalgam of process and product? Conceptualizing excellence in arts education, let alone achieving and sustaining it, is full of profound challenges. Yet the very nature of the arts - in particular, the way that striving for quality is at the core of artistry - may actually suggest that arts education is a fertile place to explore the meaning of quality in education more generally.

The title of this study is "The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education." As the title suggests, the word "quality" has a double meaning. On the one hand, a quality is a characteristic or feature of something. On the other, quality suggests excellence. This double meaning provides the contours of the research described in this report: Through interviews, case studies, and literature reviews, the Project Zero research team tried to discern how many U.S. arts educators in 2006-2007 were thinking about and trying to achieve the characteristics of excellence - the "qualities of quality" - in arts teaching and learning. The following chart identifies our major research questions and summarizes what we did to pursue them. A detailed description of our research activities is provided in Appendix A.

The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education

3 Broad Research 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 art learning and teaching as they unfold in the classroom?
  3. How does a program's foundational decisions, as well as its ongoing day-to-day decisions, affect the pursuit and achievement of quality?

Scope of Research

Ages: Grades K-12.

Locations: In school and out of school; urban, suburban, and rural sites.

Art Forms: Dance, music, theater, visual arts, and some emerging forms, such as spoken word.

Three Research Strands

Literature review.

Interviews with 16 recognized theorists and practitioners in the field.

Site visits to 12 notable programs yielding interviews with over 250 people.

Nomination Process for Each Research Strand

Nominations solicited by email from several hundred arts education professionals in a wide range of roles across the United States.

Why study quality in arts education now?

Access and excellence

The infrastructure for in-school arts learning opportunities in the U.S. has been seriously weakened over the past century. This trend toward devaluing the arts as a core element in the curriculum appeared to reverse with the Goals 2000: Educate America Act (One Hundred Third Congress of the United States, 1994). Goals 2000 forged a beachhead for the arts by establishing arts as required subjects. As a result, the National Standards for Arts Education (Consortium of National Arts Education Associations, 1994) were developed, laying out what every student should know in the visual arts, music, theater, and dance. Largely because of this achievement, the arts were included as a core subject in the ensuing No Child Left Behind Act (US Department of Education, 2001). However, despite inclusion of arts in this law as part of the core curriculum, the No Child Left Behind Act has not strengthened arts education. With its focus on the "basics" of literacy and numeracy and the pressure for students to demonstrate competency through standardized tests in mathematics and English, many districts have continued the trend toward reduction or even elimination of arts offerings.

For children in economically affluent communities, opportunities to study the arts throughout their K-12 years generally remain available both in- and out-of-school and are often of high quality. These students see art in museums, theaters, and concert halls and often have the chance to study with serious and accomplished art teachers and artists. But for students living in or near poverty, access to formal arts learning experiences is nearly absent.

Our research has revealed that the field of arts education has great vitality. Many arts educators and their collaborators care deeply about the lives of our young citizens, with special concern for those most often denied access to excellent arts education. They work with intense commitment to provide access to quality arts learning for all. A close look at the field reveals exciting activity, some of it familiar and some quite innovative. As resources for in-school arts education diminish, enterprising arts educators have sought alternative ways of providing arts learning opportunities. Increasingly, this activity occurs outside of school walls and beyond the limits of the school day.

Of course, both in and out of schools, most arts educators and their collaborators struggle for funding to survive, let alone thrive. Nevertheless, a close look at the field reveals that important ideas about what constitutes excellence in arts education are embedded in efforts to secure existence and provide access. In this study, we sought to uncover these tacit views.

25 Years of Work on the Challenge of Quality

The challenges of access and excellence in arts education are hardly new; neither is the field's awareness of them. Significant efforts have been made for decades through research, theoretical debates, and, most importantly, through innovations in practice (see, for example, Performing Arts Workshop, 2006). Since the crippling legacy of Sputnik on arts education became clear in the 1960s, there have been waves of innovation, including the artist-in-residence movement, arts integrated curricula, and the creation of countless organizations outside the schools devoted to providing arts learning experiences to young people.

Throughout the many other developments of the past fifty years, efforts to address the challenges of achieving both access and quality in arts education have been on-going. The past 25 years, coinciding with the era of broad school reform efforts initiated by the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, have been especially rich in wide-reaching efforts to address the question of how to achieve and sustain quality arts education, even as creating access has become seriously challenging.

The school reform movement heralded unprecedented efforts to address the issue of quality across all academic areas. National, state, and local initiatives to establish high standards in the core academic areas, as well as curriculum frameworks that clarify what should be taught at each grade level, were significant efforts to insure that all children receive serious instruction across the curriculum and at every level. While the arts were only sometimes included in these initiatives, arts educators have lobbied for the arts as core curriculum and have established standards and frameworks for arts education.

At the same time, during these past 25 years, arts educators have been active in initiating reforms and innovations in the assessment of student learning, program evaluation, and professional development. Each of these areas was seen as a locus for leverage on the issue of quality. Assessment of student learning has remained quite authentic in relation to long-standing practices in the arts, with the use of portfolios, critiques, and performance assessments (Council of Arts Accrediting Organizations, 2007). Similarly, there have been extensive efforts to reconsider the terms and mechanisms through which to judge the quality and effectiveness of a particular arts education program. As with the assessment of student learning, program evaluation poses profound questions about how and when the results or outcomes of a particular learning experience can be perceived, let alone measured. Few in the field have not grappled with this challenge in the last 25 years; virtually every program has struggled to find appropriate, authentic, and responsive ways of capturing what is actually happening with their students and the effects of these learning experiences in their lives.

The past quarter-century has also been a rich period in the literature on arts education. Considerable writing has been published reporting on research studies, but there have also been lively debates over critical, even foundational, questions related to what constitutes quality in arts education - what we aspire to offer our students. As is so often the nature of the literature in many fields, writing on arts education has been framed in terms of arguments and debates. Many of these debates have been carried out, as well, in the efforts to create standards, frameworks, and assessments. Four critical questions thread through the arts education literature of the past 25 years:

  • Who should teach the arts?
  • Where should the arts be taught?
  • What should be taught and how?
  • How should the arts be assessed?

Foundational questions such as these always provoke strong opinions in education, broadly construed, and these questions continue to generate debate in the literature on arts education. We discuss some of this literature throughout the forthcoming chapters, and focus specifically on these foundational questions in Chapter 4. As we reveal, the conceptual, even philosophical, nature of these questions points to both the variety of answers offered and the passion with which they have been debated. And they will almost certainly continue to be debated. These questions confront not only scholars and researchers, but are actively engaged by policy makers and practitioners at every level, and across a wide variety of settings and contexts.

Yet the Challenge of Quality Persists

What actually takes place in arts programs - in or out of school - despite the presence of countless excellent teachers and programs, is all too often uninspired. Woefully inadequate materials, inauthentic tasks (coloring book-style worksheets; cut-out pumpkins, and other "seasonal" activities for the windows of the classroom or the halls of the school), and inadequate time (now not only squeezed, but often entirely replaced, by test preparation sessions) still characterize arts education in many of our schools (Efland, 1976, 1983).

And yet, as we have hinted, there are many ways in which arts education is vital and thriving. New ideas and practices, new art forms and practitioners, innovative programs, and creative partnerships are emerging in response to the threats to arts education in our public schools. Serious thinking is ongoing - though we feel it is too little noted or documented - on the issue of what constitutes quality in arts learning and teaching and how it can be achieved and sustained. Our effort in this study has been to examine these efforts and report on what we learned.

How this report is organized

The report is divided into three sections. Here we provide a brief preview of each of the chapters that follows this introduction.

Part 1: Envisioning and Experiencing Quality

Chapter 1: Visions of Quality. For most arts educators, ideas about what constitutes quality in arts education are deeply tied to fundamental issues of identity and meaning, and embodied in their values as artists, educators, and citizens in the world. Chapter 1 examines the role of these influences on educators' visions of quality and how they provide a compass for navigating the many decisions they make.

Chapter 2: The Multiple Purposes of Arts Education. The question of what constitutes high quality arts education is inextricably linked to the question of why the arts are taught. So it is no surprise 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. Though many purposes were mentioned by our informants, the great majority of them cluster into seven broad categories. Chapter 2 characterizes the central ideas we heard in each of the seven categories and offers them as a backdrop for readers' own reflections about the purposes of arts education.

Chapter 3: The Elements of Quality Arts Learning As Seen Through Four Lenses. Visions and purposes come to life in the actual moments of teaching and learning. 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'd expect to observe if you opened the door onto a classroom, studio, or rehearsal hall, and looked for markers of quality. One way to bring these markers into focus is to examine the arts-learning experience through four different but overlapping lenses: Student learning, pedagogy, community dynamics, and environment. Chapter 3 discusses the various elements of quality that come into view through each of these lenses.

Part II: Achieving and Sustaining Quality

Chapter 4: Foundational Questions. Arts education programs make foundational, program-defining decisions that give a program its identity and provide the parameters within which quality is pursued. Four critical questions programs must confront are: Who teaches the arts? Where are the arts taught? What is taught and how? and How is arts learning assessed? Scholars have written extensively about these questions, and the literature often takes the form of debate, with arguments made for one side or another. Chapter 4 examines the major debates concerning each of these questions and reveals how foundational programmatic decisions that influence quality tend to be nuanced and contextualized, often embodying high principles and pragmatic concerns at the same time.

Chapter 5: Decision Makers, Decisions, and Decision Making. Beyond programs' foundational decisions there are myriad decisions made in the life of a program, and people at all levels make decisions that have critical influence on the quality of arts learning experiences. These include people quite far away 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). Chapter 5 examines the kinds of decisions made at each of these levels, and discusses the twin issues of alignment among decisions, and communication among decision makers.

Part III: Quality in Practice

Chapter 6: Tools for Achieving and Sustaining Quality in Arts Education. Chapter 6 provides tools to analyze ideas about what constitutes quality in arts education. These thought and dialogue tools encourage decision makers to consider the main themes of each of the chapters of this report within their own settings. The tools are designed for individuals or groups in schools and arts education organizations and programs.

Chapter 7: Implications of This Study. In our final chapter, we consider what the field of arts education may gain from this study, and what its implications are for various audiences. We consider how thinking about quality can have implications for practice that affect students, teachers, teaching artists, and classroom teachers. This chapter also considers implications for people "outside the room," including administrators, funders, and board members. We conclude by considering next steps for investigating the issue of quality in arts education.

Who We Are and What We Hope for

A word about the Project Zero perspective. The research reported here was conducted by a team of researchers at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Project Zero has a 40-year history of conducting research into the nature of learning in the arts (Gardner, 1982; Gardner & Perkins, 1989; Goodman, 1976; Grotzer, Howick, Tishman, & Wise, 2002; Hetland, Winner, Veenema, & Sheridan, 2007; Perkins, 1994; Project MUSE, 1995; Project Zero and Reggio Children, 2001; Seidel, Eppel, & Mariniello, 2001; Tishman & Palmer, 2007; Winner, 1993; Winner & Hetland, 2000). At Project Zero, we believe that an education without the arts is an incomplete education that fails to develop the full potential of individuals, communities, and societies. We also believe that the arts have a powerful cognitive dimension and are an important way of understanding the world, different from, but just as valuable as, the sciences. While the research team conducting this study agrees on these major points, our own perspectives also sometimes differ. Our goal in this report is to represent the views we discovered in the field rather than our own views. At the same time, we recognize that our deep beliefs and assumptions influence how we have understood and interpreted what we saw and heard. We hope the differences in perspective represented on the team, including both seasoned and new researchers, and the range of sources captured by the three strands of the study have provided adequate checks on the bias we brought to our process.

Our hopes for this report. Not unexpectedly, over the course of this research we raised more questions than we answered, and we offer this report with the acknowledgment that it marks the beginning of an inquiry rather than its conclusion. If there is one overarching theme to our findings, it is that continuous reflection and discussion about what constitutes quality and how to achieve it is both a catalyst for and 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 and achievement of excellence in arts education. Our fondest hope for this report is that it sparks discussion. We most definitely do not offer here a recipe for arts education. Rather, we hope that this report will energize and inform a national conversation and encourage policy makers and practitioners to engage in open and critical dialogue about what counts as quality in arts education and about how they can make decisions at all levels of policy, administration, and teaching to support such quality.

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