Music, art, and drama may not be “extras” after all. A growing body of research suggests that schools that have cut back on these classes in their quest for high performance on standardized tests may do better to reinstate them. Quality arts education bolsters rather than detracts from student performance in core academic subjects like mathematics and science, with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds making the biggest gains, according to numerous studies.
EDC’s SmART Schools is proving the point. The program brings an art-centered, comprehensive improvement model to struggling schools—and gets results. Currently operating in 16 schools in New England, SmART Schools has begun working with four elementary schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, part of a four year school improvement project funded by the United States Department of Education.
In SmART Schools, arts education is a part of every classroom, every day, incorporating theater, music, dance, and the visual arts. The overall goal of the program is to help every student meet high national, state, and local standards of performance in all academic subjects and achieve social success.
“We use art as an entry point to real content,” says Eileen Mackin, Director of SmART Schools. For instance, a math-music curriculum engages students in the application of the line graph—a mathematical concept—to melodic contour and instrument classification. Students develop math competence in such areas as charting, sorting, and classifying while also practicing musical skills such as composing, instrument family recognition, and performing. In other realms, students use puppetry to animate the study of literature; they make films to express historical content in social studies; they learn to draw maps and reconfigure them to reflect social and economic changes over time; or they work with a landscape designer to develop a landscape plan for their school, learning about the local ecology as well as measuring, math, and drafting.
The SmART model infuses arts instruction across the curriculum so all members of the school community are engaged in a cross-disciplinary, collaborative improvement effort. “A lot of arts programs do some of the things we do but they stop at the curriculum level,” explains Mackin. “We are unique in having an arts program as part of a comprehensive school change model. Teachers are not just learning to design, deliver, and assess an arts-integrated curriculum. They are learning collaborative methods of teaching that improve their practice in many ways.”
A cadre of master teacher-artists leads the effort, working as facilitators, co-teachers, coaches, and curriculum specialists. “These people are not just artists in their own right, they are also highly experienced in working in classrooms, either as teachers or artists-in-residence,” says Mackin.
In the first six months of the program, school staff identifies a Collaborative Leadership team of twelve members, typically including the principal, curriculum specialists, classroom teachers, and arts educators. The team spearheads the school-wide reform effort, working with SmART Schools staff to create a mission, vision, and action plan for an arts-centered learning community.
After six months of program implementation, SmART Schools conducts annual five-day seminars for school-based coaches at every grade level, using a train-the-trainer approach. Back in their schools, coaches train schoolwide interdisciplinary teams to work together toward improved student learning. These groups meet monthly to articulate learning goals for students. They reflect on their teaching practices, develop arts-embedded curriculum, and examine student work. Teachers engage in classroom peer observations and offer supportive feedback to one another.
“This approach—the creation of a true professional learning community—gets to the core of what creates a healthy school culture and forever changes the hearts and minds of teachers,” says Mackin.
After eight years, the program has a strong record of turning low-performing schools around. Oakland Beach Elementary in Warwick, Rhode Island, for instance, was among the 14 lowest performing schools in the state when administrators decided to adopt the SmART Schools model. In just three years the school went from “low performing” to “high performing” based on state-wide, standards-based testing. Now in its fourth year with SmART Schools, Oakland Beach continues to thrive. “SmART Schools came along at the same time as our need to do intensive professional development to improve student learning,” says visual arts teacher Cathy Davis-Hayes. “Other improvement efforts have come and gone but SmART Schools has been sustained. It has transformed our teaching for the better.”
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education named Forest Park Elementary School in North Kingston, Rhode Island, a Blue Ribbon School, one of only 295 schools nationwide to receive this federal recognition for academic excellence. Forest Park Principal Robert Vincze has credited the school’s early adoption of the SmART Schools model with the success. As he explained recently, “It levels the organization; no one teacher is the end-all or be-all,” he said. “Music is weighed as much as English. Art is weighed as much as social studies. Teachers have their curriculum, but do deep integrated tasks where students are learning math skills in music and the art teacher is teaching writing.”
The four schools in Santa Monica are designated Title I, where the students represent very diverse cultural and economic backgrounds and more than half of them qualify for free or reduced lunch. On average, only 46 percent of the students in these schools are proficient in language arts and less than half score at the proficient level in mathematics.
Mackin is not daunted by the challenges these numbers represent and expects to continue the pattern of improvement as the program expands nationally. “We’ve had great success at the regional level and we’re ready to become a national model,” she says.
Originally published on December 1, 2006