Study Takes Qualitative Look at Arts Quality

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 28, 2009 1 min read
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A team of researchers commissioned by the Wallace Foundation set out to find out how arts educators define high-quality arts programs for children in grades K-12. In a report on their findings, “The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education,” based on a literature review and on-site interviews with arts educators nationwide, they write the following statement in the executive summary: "...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.”

If you ask me, this statement doesn’t tell us much. The value of this qualitative report on the quality of arts programs both inside and outside of schools in this country is in the details of the 121-page report, not the executive summary.

For example, I got more information about what might constitute a high-quality arts program from a set of goals that arts educators said they were striving to achieve (on page 17 of the report). Among them are to teach artistic skills, develop aesthetic awareness, provide a path for students to express themselves, and to help students develop as individuals.

Also, the report contains a list of considerations that arts educators should make when designing programs, which include staffing, program evaluation, who the students should be, and allocation of resources.

Overall the report provides a guide on what constitutes a high-quality arts program, according to those who have been active in the field. I learned some new concepts, such as the importance of physical space and the quality of materials for arts educators. Here’s an excerpt on this issue from the report’s authors:

Everyone wanted to create at least some of the aspects of an authentic work space for their young artists. This may be accomplished with various means, sometimes comprehensive (fully professional dance studios with mirrors, sprung floors, and ballet barres, for example, or high-tech photo studios with up-to-date software on high-end hardware and professional-level printers) and sometimes more minimalist (authentic and beautiful African drums, for example,) but always with something that linked it closely to professional practice.

The report caused me to reflect on my own arts education, which included private piano lessons with a retired music professor from a local college and a painting class in my public high school. In both cases, I think the high-quality of the artistic skills of my teachers added the most to the quality of my experience.

The researchers for the report are from Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education. “At Project Zero,” the researchers write in the report, “we believe that an education without the arts is an incomplete education that fails to develop the full potential of individuals, communities, and societies.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.