School Change Through Arts Instruction: Contextual Arts Education in the New York City Partnerships for Arts in Education Program

April 1, 2000

In 1997, the Annenberg Challenge provided substantial seed money to fund the New York City Arts Partnership program, to be administered by a newly formed non-profit agency called the Center for Arts Education (CAE). The Arts Partnership program, as it is known, funds partnerships, between schools and cultural organizations, that are designed to support school change and student learning through the reintroduction of the arts to the core curriculum. The creation of this initiative was a significant milestone in the history of arts education in New York City, which had seen its arts programs all but eradicated two decades earlier.

This report presents the background for the program's inception; the variety of contexts and approaches found in the 81 funded schools; and our research strategies for determining the program's impact on the partnering organizations, teaching practices, and student lives and learning. The report centers on the idea that local context influences both the nature of and the impact of instruction and learning, and that only by closely considering a partnership's context (which includes its goals for the project, how they in fact unfold, and the structural and philosophical "assets" it brings to the project) can we begin to determine its impact on students and schools.

CAE Program Design
The Arts Partnership program's approach to arts instruction is grounded in a "theory of action" that suggests that the arts, their associated skills and aesthetic contexts, and their integration into the complete education of the young will enhance students' mental, emotional, and social growth. A person has not had a complete education if the arts have been lacking. The four-year grants are designed to promote and support school change through the development of partnerships between schools and cultural organizations. In its request for proposals, CAE described its vision of program impact on a school in this way:

Instruction will be different; learning and the ways of knowing that students use will be different; community relations will be different; some forms of school governance will change; time schedules and space usage will be different; curriculum will be altered. Not only will these schools be different, but also they will be improved.

Introducing long-term partnerships to the program changed the formula from what had been the staple of sequential, skills-based arts education by certified teachers. The partnerships were distinctive, unique to individual organizations and sites, and brought new "context" to bear. Key assumptions in the design included: (1) all students are entitled to strong and rich arts instruction; (2) the cultural resources of New York City could strengthen the quality and vibrancy of the arts curriculum; (3) partnerships are difficult, and require extensive planning and communicating; (4) to be effective, projects must address multiple aspects of a school's culture, and not simply overlay a new project on an existing status quo. To that end, project designs and implementation plans were asked to address the following "five guiding principles":

  • Arts instruction as part of the core curriculum should include skills-based arts instruction, study of aesthetics, and arts integration with core curricular areas

  • School change should be supported through reforms such as new instructional practices, new uses of time, new uses of resources

  • Partnership and collaboration should be built through extensive planning time, clear lines of communication, and shared visions and vocabularies

  • Professional development should be provided to both teachers and teaching artists

  • Evaluation should be done for both program and student learning

Research Design
Our work is influenced by studies of distributed and situated cognition and shifts much, though clearly not all, of the focus from the individual student as learner to the students in contexts. This shift is particularly important as we study the ways that the arts and the resources of the cultural partners are related to study in core curriculum areas. Our research is aimed at discovering how instruction and study in these new contexts contributes to student learning and performance, but we begin by laying the groundwork in deeper and more complete documentation of the contexts themselves. Our assumptions are that social, intellectual, structural, emotional, and cultural contexts influence students' learning and that we need to develop a more complete understanding of just what the contexts are as we proceed with our investigation of student learning.

The idea of environment is a necessity to the idea of organism, and with the conception of environment comes the impossibility of considering psychical life as an individual, isolated thing developing in a vacuum.

Key questions addressed by the research team are:

  1. How does the integration of the arts support school change efforts?

  2. In what ways is the nature of arts learning qualitatively different when outside cultural resources partner with schools to design/deliver curriculum?

  3. In what ways is school instruction and structure changed by the introduction of the arts and through the partnerships with cultural organizations?

  4. Do the arts provoke parent and community involvement in a school-and is this linked to school change?

  5. What is the impact (and legacy) of sustained partnership efforts on local cultural organizations?
  6. Up until now, our research design has included detailed surveys administered to every teacher, teaching artist, project coordinator, and cultural organization administrator involved in the project. We are also conducting extended interviews with a sample of principals. We are conducting multi-year classroom observations and interviews at eight selected partnerships, where we are attempting to gain deeper understanding of the issues at play in the projects, to help us better understand the survey data, and to give us portraits to draw upon, as in the four examples cited below. We will also look at some test data, and are tracking changes in resource allocations at the school sites.


Terry Baker
Bronwyn Bevan