Can Arts Education Unlock School Reform. Photograph by Joop de Graaff

Photograph by Joop de Graaff

What would happen if you enlisted some of the most prominent artists in the country to bring the arts into the classrooms of eight struggling schools? Got the White House, foundations, and leading arts advocates involved? Could you use this intensive injection of the arts to transform these schools into healthy learning communities? The Turnaround Arts initiative was created to road-test that proposition, and the results are encouraging enough to take the idea for another, longer spin.

Turnaround Arts is a whole-school initiative aimed at reforming the lowest-performing schools through intensive integration of arts and culture into classroom instruction and school life. Administered by Americans for the Arts and overseen by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH), an arm of the federal government, the initiative was implemented in eight schools around the country beginning in 2012 following a PCAH review of opportunities and challenges in the arts education field. The schools were competitively chosen on the strength of school leadership and commitment and staffing for arts education. However, all had received School Improvement Grants (SIGs) from the U.S. Department of Education, meaning that they were in the bottom 5% of performance in their state and were following strict reinvention plans.

The Turnaround Arts program is built on eight strategic pillars, which include development of a “strategic arts plan,” leadership from the principal and support from the school district and parents, at least forty-five minutes a week of dedicated arts instruction, integrating arts-based learning techniques into non-arts subjects, and collaboration with local arts groups. The design also features intensive and sustained involvement in the schools by high-profile artists, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and leading regional arts organizations like the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Some of the program’s tactics are specific to arts education – such as the use of teaching artists and community arts organizations – while others add arts elements to more traditional school reform approaches. Turnaround Arts asks schools to consider the role of the arts in engaging parents, improving school infrastructure, and boosting the effectiveness of the administration’s leadership – and it trains non-arts classroom teachers to integrate arts throughout the curriculum, even in those darlings of reformers, literacy and math classes. Schools have considerable latitude in how exactly they implement the model, but the overall theory is that the arts shouldn’t be a bow pasted on education improvement or an occasional intervention in cordoned-off spaces; they should lie at the heart of how we help the schools and kids who struggle most.

So does it actually work? An evaluation published earlier this year suggests that it can. The evaluation team, comprising the University of Chicago’s Sara Ray Stoelinga, independent consultant Yael Silk, and two Booz Allen Hamilton consultants, uncovered early positive indications in the Turnaround Arts pilot, although the report speaks of “hopeful signs” and “potential” rather than an unqualified success.

Much of the report concentrates on describing the ways in which the eight pilot schools put the Turnaround Arts principles into practice. For example, the principal at Orchard Gardens school near Boston, MA, shook up the previous focus on “the 3 R’s” by alternating arts topics and traditional topics like reading and math during the school day. At Roosevelt Elementary in Connecticut, arts education coaches and arts teachers pulled non-arts teachers into professional development, which helped forge a cohesive faculty team at this struggling school. Findley Elementary in Iowa used interactive arts nights hosted by the school, with student performances, group dancing, and dinner in the classrooms, to increase parent and community involvement. Even at one of the most challenging pilot program sites, Lame Deer School on a Northern Cheyenne reservation, an exchange of performances at the school by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and Northern Cheyenne musicians reportedly thawed the frosty relationship between the tribal community and the State of Montana-run school.

All of these small victories seemed to help the pilot schools make progress towards fixing deep-seated problems such as disinterested students and mistrust of school officials. In perhaps the evaluation’s most notable result, test results show Turnaround Arts schools improving math and reading scores at higher rates than similar low-performing schools in the same regions. On average, from 2011 to 2014, the eight Turnaround Arts schools improved math and reading test scores by greater than six percentage points more than comparable schools that had also received School Improvement Grants. Teachers and administrators saw behavioral changes, too: in a 2014 survey, over three quarters reported reduced disruptions and more focused students. The Turnaround schools also reported modest increases in attendance and more robust decreases in disciplinary incidents, although the evaluation didn’t pull data from comparable schools. While there wasn’t a perfect relationship between school improvement scores and how faithful a given school was to the Turnaround Arts principles, the evaluation did find that the three of the four schools that came the closest to implementing Turnaround Arts – Orchard Gardens, Roosevelt, and Findley schools – demonstrated the best achievements.

Given those serious improvements, why isn’t every school Turningaround? For one thing, eight schools is obviously a small sample size. But two other issues beg caution. First, positive results may have been partly “built in” – that is, the Turnaround Arts process may have selected schools that were primed to succeed. After all, strong school leadership and a committed school district were criteria for selection into the program, and those conditions might have made the schools ripe for improvement even without the involvement of the arts. It is also possible that the excitement and attention of a big new idea for school reform, combined with the novelty of the project and involvement of celebrity figures like Yo-Yo Ma, was more responsible for motivating the schools and students to engage than the specifics of the Turnaround Arts recipe.

Even so, the promising results from two years of work make a strong case for expanding Turnaround Arts – and that’s exactly what’s happening: in May 2014, the program escalated from eight to 35 schools and is now active in 49. The larger version will reach more than 20,000 students, including preschoolers. As that expansion takes place, however, it’s vital that we don’t close the book on the program’s evaluation just yet, for at least two reasons. First, we need confidence that the outcomes in the initial report weren’t statistical flukes made possible by the small scale of the pilot. And second, we need to understand how the effectiveness of the Turnaround Arts method compares to other holistic school improvement strategies, such as Linked Learning.

What happens if you bring the arts into the classrooms of struggling schools? It turns out that it just might help some of our society’s most vulnerable kids learn to love learning and give them a better shot at leading healthy, happy, and fulfilled lives. If the early evidence holds up, that will be a story worth telling.