Arts integration and the Mississippi Arts Commission's Whole School Initiative

Phillips, J., Harper, J, Lee, K. & Boone, E. (2014). Arts integration and the Mississippi Arts Commission's Whole School Initiative. A Stennis Institute Study for Decision Makers

Abstract:

This study examines the impact of the Whole Schools Initiative (WSI), an arts integration model for comprehensive school reform, on students' academic performance as evidenced primarily by their scores on standardized state exams. The study compared student test scores across the state and examined surveys completed by members of the WSI schools' community. The findings support a positive impact between the frequency with which students are exposed to the arts across the curriculum and students' performance on standardized tests. The study also indicates that high quality professional development for classroom teachers was a critical component of effective implementation of arts integration leading to positive student outcomes. 

Key Findings:

The study found that effective arts education integration as implemented by WSI improves student performance on standardized tests.  Four primary factors including the rate of exposure to the arts, the range of curriculum the arts were integrated with, the variety of arts disciplines that were integrated, and teacher participation in quality professional development experiences informed the findings of this study. Overall, the academic achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students was found to be reduced or eliminated in schools that effectively incorporated the WSI program. 

Significance of the Findings:

These findings are significant in that they provide a blueprint for how schools might achieve the performance levels expected under the Common Core Standards adopted by many states. These findings are also significant in that they contribute to a growing body of research emphasizing the importance of high-quality professional development for teachers as a key component to effective arts integration that impacts student learning outcomes. Lastly, reducing or closing the achievement gap based on race and class is a critical component of recent education reform legislation. It is significant that this study indicates improved student performance outcomes specifically for economically disadvantaged students.

Methodology:

This report incorporates findings from three data sources. First, researchers collected school based data. For this component of the study the standardized test scores from the fourth grade of 15 public schools participating in the WSI program were collected and analyzed. Additionally, the third-grade test scores of each school was disaggregated and analyzed by race and class. All school-based scores were compared to district and statewide scores.

Secondly, members of the WSI schools' community including teachers, principals, art specialists, teaching artists and students completed a survey about the arts integration programs at their schools. Each component of the survey data was analyzed separately and then the researchers correlated specific elements of the survey data with the school data. In this way, they could identify important factors in schools that were (1) high performing in which the school personnel agreed that students had improved significantly as well as (2) low performing in which school personnel did not feel students had improved significantly.

Lastly, standardized test data was collected from three Catholic schools that participated in the WSI program. Researchers compared their tests scores to national averages on the exam. As the Catholic schools use a different standardized test, they were not able to compare their test data with test data from the public schools.

Limitations of the Research:

Schools apply for the chance to participate in the WSI program and must agree to use approved teaching artists and guarantee time for planning and professional development. While all the details of the WSI program components are not shared here, it is clear this is a time-consuming program with high expectations for the faculty and staff who participate. This model may not be replicable in other school districts.

High quality professional development is identified as a key factor for improving student outcomes in this study. However, beyond the amount of participation in various professional development opportunities, no information is given in terms of what constitutes "high-quality" training. The role of the classroom teacher in improving student outcomes is clear in this study however no information about the teachers is collected, analyzed, or shared.

This study analyzes the impact of effective arts integration on students' performance on standardized tests, but fails to capture other possible positive outcomes such as development of critical thinking, problem solving, or creative thinking skills.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Further research should examine teacher characteristics and qualities of collaborations that are effective in improving student academic, cognitive, and personal outcomes.

Could there be other benefits of effective arts integration to student outcomes than improved standardized test scores?

Could outcomes be different for schools with veteran as opposed to novice teachers?

What were characteristics and qualities of effective classroom teachers beyond their participation in professional development?