Placing A+ in a National Context: A Comparison to Promising Practices for Comprehensive School Reform. (Report #1 in a series of seven Policy Reports Summarizing the Four-Year Pilot of A+ Schools in North Carolina)

Adkins, A. & McKinney, M. (2001). Placing A+ in a National context: A comparison to promising practices for comprehensive school reform. (Report #1 in a series of seven Policy Reports Summarizing the Four-Year Pilot of A+ Schools in North Carolina). Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts, Winston-Salem, NC.1

Abstract:

This report on the evaluation of the A+ integrated arts school reform program considers the program in the larger context of education reform, specifically using Shields and Knapp’s national standards and practice, a model judged by the A+ researchers as a promising practice for comprehensive school reform. The study found that A+ places high on Shields and Knapp’s scale of six national dimensions of effective reform practice. By placing the A+ program in this larger context of education reform and by substantiating its place through multifaceted documentation methods, the researchers have moved the program onto the larger playing field of educational change. Because they have taken a wider or broader set of definitions of performance—beyond tests and student grades—to include engagement, expression, and attitudes, they have helped reframe the discussion. To the extent that the report documents that arts contribute to the program’s overall success, the arts are thereby moved into this larger national discussion.

Key Findings:

This report found that the A+ program places high on Shields and Knapp’s scale of six national dimensions of effective reform practice. In fact, the researchers demonstrate that some elements of the A+ program go beyond the national standards set by Shields and Knapp. The latter’s national focus on “school-based” reform, for example, is less complex than the A+ work with statewide networks and cultural resources from local communities. The national standards establish a scale for such items as “Experience” and “Collaborative Engagement.” Other effective school reform projects place in the middle of the range of scores for these features. The A+ program falls close to the extreme high end of the “Experience” scale. Their experience with complexity led the A+ staff not to abandon their wider scope but to find ways of “grounding it” in their focus on instruction. On the “Collaborative Engagement” scale, A+ falls in the middle, since not all A+ communities have rich external resources with whom to partner. In many of the A+ schools, collaboration was between school personnel and others in the education community.

Significance of the Findings:

This report illustrates an approach to evaluating school reform that goes beyond the assessment of student outcomes. By placing the A+ project on a multidimensional scale of characteristics associated with successful school reform efforts, the evaluators are able to identify the A+ model as a comprehensive mode of reform.

Methodology:

This report considered findings from the evaluation of the A+ program in the larger context of education reform, specifically using Shields and Knapp’s national standards and practice and by substantiating its place through multifaceted documentation methods. The policy paper reports that A+ places high on Shields and Knapp’s scale of six national dimensions of effective reform practice: 1. Balanced scope, 2. Clear focus on teaching and learning, 3. A long-term time frame, 4. A locus of authority that encourages school-level initiative but embraces support from the top, 5. Opportunities and support for collaborative engagement, and 6. Ongoing professional development directed at instructional change.

Limitations of the Research:

The Shields and Knapp model of dimensions and scales was judged by the A+ researchers to be a promising practice for evaluating comprehensive school reform. However, the researchers emphasized that a single national model does not account for all the variables found in day-to-day school activities and that the work must be operationalized to fit the situation.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How do the findings of the A+ evaluation rate in terms of other models or scales of education reform? To what extent and in what ways are the arts an integral component of the successes documented in this study?

1The text of this summary is adapted from the Arts Education Partnership’s 2002 research compendium: Deasy, R. J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.