Cunnington, Marisol, Andrea Kantrowitz, Susanne Harnett, and Aline Hill-Ries. “Cultivating Common Ground: Integrating Standards-Based Visual Arts, Math and Literacy in High-Poverty Urban Classrooms.” Journal for Learning through the Arts: A Research Journal on Arts Integration in Schools and Communities 10, no. 1 (2014).


The mixed-method study assessed the effects of staff professional development and standards based, arts integrated instruction in three urban, high poverty elementary schools. Results indicate that rigorous interdisciplinary instruction that links visual arts, literacy and math skills, and supports cognitive skill development, can increase students’ literacy and math learning while nurturing their art making skills and enhancing their ability to meaningfully reflect on their own work and that of their peers. Qualitative findings suggest that interdisciplinary educator collaborations were critical to project success and highlight the project’s successful engagement of lower-performing students and students with disabilities. Survey and focus group results suggest that training can build the capacities of teachers, arts specialists and administrators to implement an interdisciplinary curriculum, providing educators with additional tools to teach engaging, Common Core aligned lessons that address academic and cognitive competencies.

Key Findings:

The treatment group achieved higher mean scale scores than the control group during each year of the project in both English language arts (EL) and mathematics. In ELA, the performance gap between the groups increased slightly from 2010 to 2011 and decreased from 2011 to 2012. In math, the performance gap between the two groups increased by almost 100% from 2010 to 2011 and then decreased slightly from 2011 to 2012 Over the same time period, the average score across New York City public schools declined as a result of a revision of the assessment score procedure.

The quantitative data did not reveal significant differences in student growth on Studio Habits of Mind. The qualitative data suggest that treatment students made gains in the habits of observation, reflection and persistence skills. The students reported that they developed their observation skills and gained experience reflecting on their artwork. In addition to an increase in studio habits, students’ skills in visual arts improved over the course of the project, with 62% of students demonstrating advanced or proficient skills.

Based on pretests and posttests, nearly half of the teachers demonstrated greater knowledge of the visual arts curriculum as a result of working with teaching artists. School leaders reported that the project lead to greater knowledge of arts integration, which increased their ability to support staff integrating arts in their school.

Significance of the Findings:

The study demonstrates the impact of arts integrated instruction on visual arts, math and ELA skills. The report includes a substantial program description and a comprehensive implementation study, demonstrating that the program was effectively administered. The report also shares the effects on insight on program delivery, professional development and educator collaboration. Therefore, the study may be applicable to administrators, funders and educators who are interested in designing and implementing an arts integrated program. Advocates and school districts will be interested in the positive program effects. Researchers will find that the design provides a potential model for continued study. The study supports the work of schools and programs focused on learning through the arts, including schools with comprehensive arts integration programs.


The study was conducted in six public elementary schools in New York City, all of which had been designated as Schools in Need of Improvement (SINI) and identified as Title I schools. The schools serve a high percentage of English learners and special education student populations. Each school had a full-time visual arts specialist on staff who was responsible for teaching visual arts lessons aligned to the blueprint. Prior to project implementation, the six schools were randomly assigned to either the treatment or control conditions. In the three treatment schools, the project was first implemented with a cohort of third-grade students during the 2009-10 school year and continued through the subsequent two school years. A total of 545 treatment and 456 control students participated in one or more of the three project years.

The treatment students received all components of the intervention. Control group students and staff did not participate in any intervention activities. School staff and students in target grades in both the treatment and control schools participated in evaluation activities. To measure project impact on student academic achievement in literacy and math, three years of student New York State English language arts and math test scores were collected. After each project implementation year, researchers obtained individual standardized test scores for participating students in both the treatment and the control groups.

To assess the impact of the project activities on educators’ skills, collaborations and job satisfaction, evaluators and studio staff collaborated through an iterative process involving multiple reviews and revisions to develop surveys for classroom teachers, visual arts specialists, school administrators and studio artist/instructors. Survey items on job satisfaction were drawn from the Maslach Burnout Inventory-Educator Survey and the Professional Quality of Life Scale. To measure change over time, surveys were administered to staff in the treatment and control schools at the beginning and end of each project year.

Qualitative data from staff surveys, interviews and focus groups were summarized and content-analyzed to elucidate participant experiences and program impacts, which were then triangulated with quantitative survey data and project documentation. Descriptive analyses were conducted on all quantitative data, including data from achievement tests, the Benchmark Arts Assessment, the Studio Habits of Mind rubric and the visual arts rubric. Group analyses were conducted for all measures.

Limitations of the Research:

The author acknowledges the challenges of differentiating instruction, including the challenge of developing school infrastructures that allow adequate time for core teachers and arts teachers to plan and work together. In addition, the author acknowledges the challenges of differentiating instruction. These were challenges in the study and can be daily real-life challenges for those in schools attempting to execute meaningful arts integration.

The program was implemented by Studio in a School, which has extensive experience partnering with public schools.  The conclusions might be different with a less experienced partner or where instruction is delivered by other educators. Many districts may find it difficult to find highly qualified teaching artists to provide arts integration and may have to provide training for the arts and classroom teachers in their schools to develop and deliver sustainable, effective and meaningful arts integration.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Further research could seek to determine if the study’s effects can be replicated on a larger scale and in different settings, where there may be a lack of qualified teaching artists. Differing models of arts integration, with varying degrees of support, delivery of arts and academic instruction and collaboration among arts providers could be explored.