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The Power of Teaching Artists Highlighted in New Report

Amid recent calls to enhance the role of arts education, a new study takes a detailed look at the role professional artists play in schools, arguing that such teaching artists are an "underutilized" resource with the potential to improve arts instruction and make schools more creative places to learn.

The Teaching Artists Research Project, billed as the most comprehensive study to date of the "work and world" of teaching artists, involved three years of research in a dozen communities, from big cities such as Boston, Chicago, and Seattle to Bakersfield and Humboldt County in California. The project is an undertaking of NORC at the University of Chicago. (NORC was founded in 1941 as the National Opinion Research Center.)

The researchers surveyed more than 3,000 artists and program managers, and conducted in-depth interviews with more than 200 artists, principals, district leaders, and others.

"What we heard from TAs [teaching artists], program managers, teachers, principals, and other key informants confirmed our suspicions," the report says. "TAs are bringing innovative pedagogy and curriculum to schools."

The study, which includes a helpful taxonomy of teaching artists, suggests that they may enjoy some freedoms that allow them to innovate in schools.

"As quasi-outsiders with relative freedom from the constraints and norms of schools, TAs can introduce innovation and change that has been slow to come from the inside alone," the report says. "They are often partners and catalysts for change with teachers and other school leaders. TAs and program managers spoke about elements of their pedagogy that are exemplars of the qualities of good teaching."

The report comes several months after a presidential advisory panel issued a report calling for expanding access to arts education in schools, arguing that the arts hold great potential to bolster student engagement and academic achievement. And one of its five specific recommendations to improve arts education was (drumroll please) expanding in-school opportunities for teaching artists, calling them "an uptapped and important resource for enriching our schools with the arts."

The University of Chicago researchers found that many teaching artists worry about the kinds of standardized assessments dominant in schools today, and in at least a few cases are working with schools to help them complement such assessments with other types central to artistic practice—"formative, qualitative, authentic, and ongoing"—which the authors suggest are "badly needed in schools."

The new study also comes as an initiative was launched in June by a coalition of states and national organizations to develop a new set of voluntary national standards in arts education, expected out in 2012. The Chicago researchers may have something for that coalition to consider. They found that many teaching artists are often critical of state standards for arts education.

"Many consider them both too aspirational—because they cover far too much material indiscriminately—and, paradoxically, insufficiently aspirational—because they do not cover higher order cognitive skills like creativity or problem solving, social skills like collaboration, skip lightly over meaning, and pay scant attention to connecting ideas and concepts across subject areas to make them more coherent," the study says.

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