Photograph by Joep de Graaff

Title: Final Evaluation Report: Turnaround Arts Initiative

Authors: Sara Ray Stoelinga, Yael Silk, and Prateek Reddy/Nadiv Rahman, Booz Allen Hamilton

Publisher: The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities

Publication date: January 2015

URL: http://pcah.gov/sites/default/files/Turnaround%20Arts_Full%20Report_Single%20Page%20Spread_Low%20Resolution.pdf

Topics:  arts education, school reform, educational and organizational benefits of arts participation

Methods: Mixed, with quasi-experimental design using achievement tests supported by surveys and administrative data

What it says: Turnaround Arts is an intensive pilot initiative aimed at reforming the lowest-performing schools through aggressive integration of the arts into classroom instruction and student life. Overseen by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, an arm of the federal government, the initiative initially was implemented in eight schools around the country beginning in 2012. The schools were selected through a competitive process, but all had received School Improvement Grants from the Department of Education, which means that they were in the bottom 5% of performance in their state. Turnaround Arts implementation involves at least 45 minutes a week of dedicated arts instruction but encompasses much more; the program’s eight “strategic pillars” include development of a “strategic arts plan,” leadership from the principal and support from the school district and parents, integrating arts-based learning techniques into non-arts subjects, and collaboration with local arts assets.

Much of the evaluation is devoted to discussing the strategy and outputs of the Turnaround Arts initiative, but a section at the end shares some quantitative outcome data and teacher perceptions. The participating schools achieved positive outcomes during the two years the program was under study, with aggregate increases in reading and math proficiency both in absolute terms and in comparison to other schools in the district and other schools in the state that received School Improvement Grants. The schools also reported modest increases in attendance and more robust decreases in disciplinary incidents during the evaluation period, though no comparison was offered to other schools. For the most part, the schools that implemented the Turnaround Arts model more faithfully achieved better outcomes than those that didn’t. The report’s authors note the small sample size but conclude that there are preliminary “hopeful signs” and “potential” that the program can add significant value to efforts to improve outcomes in underperforming schools.

What I think about it: The evaluation is fairly well designed, with the comparison to similarly situated schools offering the most convincing evidence of Turnaround Arts’s promise. Math and reading proficiency each improved by more than six percentage points on top of the improvement seen in comparable schools between 2011 and 2014. When we take into account that only four of the eight schools came close to fully realizing the Turnaround Arts model and that three of those achieved the best outcomes, the program looks even better. The strategic pillar framework may be useful in articulating a theory of action for school improvement through arts education that could inform less intensive (and less expensive) programs.

That said, some caveats prevent any grand conclusions. The biggest limitation is small sample size – with only eight schools, and incomplete data for three of them, it’s possible that luck could account for the results seen here. Another issue is that the Turnaround Arts schools were selected through a competitive process, meaning that better organized and more committed schools may have been more likely to win the opportunity – and would have been more likely to see better results than peer schools regardless. Finally, even if the results are accurate, it’s unclear whether the arts approach specifically deserves the credit – it’s possible that the attention and focus of a large-scale program, combined with the novelty of the project and involvement of celebrity figures like Yo-Yo Ma, were more consequential for motivating change.

What it all means: The evaluation provides a strong case for the expansion of Turnaround Arts and further study of its effects with the benefit of a longer time frame and larger sample. It is premature to say anything definitive about the role the arts can play in turning around struggling schools, but combined with other evidence that suggests that disadvantaged children benefit disproportionately from arts enrichment activities, a consistent narrative about the benefits of arts education for such schools is starting to emerge.