study says...

Extra arts education boosts students’ writing scores — and their compassion, big new study finds

Third-grader Justin Willis, 7, center, dances with his classmates during an educational outreach program. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS via Getty Images)

When you’re the big fish, it’s not OK to pick on the little fish just because you can.

That’s an important lesson for everyone. But some Houston first-graders got a particularly vivid demonstration in the form of a musical puppet show, which featured fish puppets and an underlying message about why it’s wrong to bully others.

The show left an impression on the students at Codwell Elementary, according to their teacher Shelea Bennett. “You felt like you were in that story,” she said. “By the end of the story they were able to answer why [bullying] wasn’t good, and why you shouldn’t act this way.”

The puppeteer’s show was part of an effort to expand arts education in Houston elementary and middle schools. Now, a new study shows that the initiative helped students in a few ways: boosting students’ compassion for their classmates, lowering discipline rates, and improving students’ scores on writing tests.

It’s just the latest study to find that giving students more access to the arts offers measurable benefits. And adding time for dance, theater, or visual arts isn’t at odds with traditional measures of academic success, according to the research — which amounts to one of the largest gold-standard studies on arts education ever conducted.

“Arts learning experiences benefit students in terms of social, emotional, and academic outcomes,” write researchers Dan Bowen of Texas A&M and Brian Kisida of the University of Missouri.

The study, released Tuesday through the Houston Education Research Consortium, looked at elementary and middle schools — which predominantly served low-income students of color — that expressed interest in participating in Houston’s Arts Access Initiative. There appeared to be significant need: nearly a third of elementary and middle schools in the district reported lacking a full-time arts teacher.

Too many schools were interested, which was bad news for some schools but good news for researchers. They worked with the district to randomly assign some schools to participate, with about 5,000 students in each group. The schools in the program offered students nearly eight “school-community arts partnerships,” compared to just three at comparison schools.

What that looked like ran the gamut. Schools were encouraged to provide some exposure to theater, dance, music, and visual arts, and that took the form of on-campus performances, field trips, artists in residence, and other programs outside of school hours.

When the researchers compared the two groups of schools, they looked at academics but also responses to surveys that asked students whether they agreed with statements like, “I want to help people who get treated badly,” “School work is interesting,” and “I plan to go to college.”

The positive effects on writing test scores, discipline, and compassion were small to moderate. Students’ disciplinary infraction rates, for instance, fell by 3.6 percentage points. But these results are particularly encouraging because the cost to schools was fairly small — about $15 per student. (This did not include costs borne by the program as whole or by the cultural institutions that donated time.)

On other measures, the initiative didn’t make a clear difference. That includes reading and math scores as well as survey questions about school engagement and college aspirations. Still, the survey results were mostly positive, though largely not statistically significant.

“It could have come out negative. It could have been, look, they did this extra stuff where they learned more in these other domains but their math scores went down, so here’s the tradeoff,” said Kisida, one of the researchers. “We don’t see evidence of a tradeoff.”

That’s especially notable because some have feared that pressure to raise test scores has squeezed arts out of the curriculum in many schools (though there’s limited empirical evidence on whether that’s actually happened).

Other recent studies on field trips to the theater and museums have also found encouraging results, boosting students’ political tolerance, interest in the arts, critical examination of art, and, in one case, math and reading test scores. And since low-income children are less likely than their wealthier peers to access things like plays and art galleries over the summer, schools are critical providers of those cultural experiences and the accompanying benefits.

The latest study came to a mix of conclusions about which group of students benefited the most from the extra arts education.

Tiffany Thompson, another first-grade teacher at Codwell Elementary, said she’s seen the extra arts make a difference for struggling students.

“Some students who don’t excel academically, they’re more engaged, because it gives them a different way to learn,” she said.

One caveat to the study is that principals volunteered for the program. It might not be as successful in schools where there is less enthusiasm for the idea to start.

Still, the results of the study hold national import as districts consider how much to prioritize arts education and as cities assess or expand their similar initiatives.

“I really feel like people should know how much the [kids] do benefit from it,” Bennett said. “Normally they wouldn’t have this exposure.”

Correction: A previous version of the story mis-stated the number of partnerships in schools that participated in the arts initiative. The correct number is eight, compared to three in schools that did not participate.

upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”