Lacoe, Johanna, Gary D. Painter, and Danielle Williams. “Museums as Classrooms: The Academic and Behavioral Impacts of “School in the Park”.” AERA Open Vol. 6, no. 3 (2020): 1-22, DOI: 2332858420940309.


Access to community cultural institutions, such as museums, zoos and theaters has the potential to improve students’ educational experiences. This study estimates the impact of School in the Park (SITP), a museum-based educational program for students from low-income households that takes place within the cultural institutions and museums of San Diego’s Balboa Park. Researchers identified the impact of participation in the program on short- and long-term academic and behavioral outcomes using longitudinal, student-level data beginning in 1996; natural variation in the timing of program implementation at two elementary schools; and control groups of students from schools that did not receive the program. Findings indicate that participation in the program has positive short-term impacts, but program impacts were insignificant in the long run.

Key Findings:

  • Researchers found short-term results showing that participation in SITP resulted in significant increases in standardized test scores and decreases in suspensions and grade retention in the year of SITP participation. There was no difference in absences between the SITP group and the comparison group.
  • Participation in the program does not appear to hinder the achievement of students struggling in second grade compared to similarly struggling students in comparison schools.
  • Researchers found that an increase in the number of weeks of SITP participation was associated with positive (but different) outcomes at both schools that implemented the program.
  • There were no significant, lasting effects of participation in SITP through the high school years. Students who participated in SITP as elementary school students experienced outcomes in high school comparable to those students who did not participate in SITP.

Significance of the Findings:

  • The researchers note that there is a lack of evidence showing that exposing students to a new learning environment in lieu of traditional class time harms their educational achievement. The researchers observed gains for the students who were facing academic challenges prior to the program compared to similar students who do not receive the program.
  • Researchers found short-term results related to consistent improvement in behavioral outcomes, including a decrease in the probability of suspension. These behavioral changes might translate into improved academic achievement in the longer term.
  • The program utilized existing community resources that many cities and states nationwide may also be able to access. Although the program has associated costs, by leveraging existing physical resources and partnering with museum-based educators to adapt existing curricula to meet the needs of the district, the costs are potentially lower than other experiential education programs.


To answer the question of how participation in the SITP program affects the academic and behavioral outcomes of students, a standard difference-in-differences framework was employed that captures the fact that the program was implemented in the two schools at different times. The research design compares changes in outcomes for students who participate in SITP (before and after participation in the program) to changes in outcomes for students who do not participate. The robust data from the school district allowed for the development of better control groups than past studies and measurement of short-term as well as long-term outcomes, such as graduating from high school. Researchers used student-level academic records from 1996 to 2012 for students in the Hoover High School feeder system (which includes the treatment group) and the schools in the adjacent Crawford High School system (to serve as a control group). All students who stayed within the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) are tracked through high school, regardless of the schools they attend following elementary school. Researchers observed over 4,000 SITP participants and over 21,000 students in non-SITP schools in the study period.

Identification of the effects on student achievement and behavioral outcomes came from three primary sources. First, researchers compared students within Rosa Parks and Alexander Hamilton Elementary schools that did not receive the program with students from those same schools that received the program in later years (within-treatment cohort comparison). Researchers then compared students in Rosa Parks to students in Alexander Hamilton Elementary over the period in which students in Rosa Parks received the program and Alexander Hamilton did not (within-treatment school comparison). Researchers noted that the second comparison was particularly important because both schools may have received some resources from other investments in the community that could also be affecting achievement independent of the SITP program. Lastly, the researchers compared students in these schools to students in comparable schools in SDUSD that do not receive this enrichment program. For example, other schools in the Hoover High School system and the schools in the Crawford High School system (control school comparison). A remaining necessary assumption for the identification of a causal impact of SITP is that parents with students who are already high achieving do not select into Rosa Parks or Alexander Hamilton elementary simply because the program exists at the schools.

Limitations of the Research:

    • Although the analysis captured no lasting effects of the SITP program on academic and behavioral outcomes in high school, it should be noted that given the timing of the program and the years included in the data, most of the long-term outcome findings are based solely on the first four years of the program; SITP participants included in the data were old enough to have completed high school. District educators indicated that the program has been redesigned substantially over time, and it may be that an analysis incorporating subsequent years would produce results more consistent with the short-term findings


Questions to Guide New Research:

    • Future research could extend the study to examine longer-term outcomes of more recent iterations of the program.
    • Programs like SITP do require resources, and cost-benefit analyses or cost-effectiveness analyses could be used to compare new educational inventions that have demonstrated increased achievement.