Arts Education plays a central role in almost every arts organization’s mission. That is certainly true at the Alliance Theatre, where Chris Moses serves as the Dan Reardon Director of Education / Associate Artistic Director for the theatre.
We asked Chris to update us on some of the most recent developments in arts education at both the local and national levels in the Q & A that follows.
Q: What trends are you seeing in arts organizations around Georgia and the U.S. as they work to deliver more of an impact for arts education?
A: Nationally, there’s definitely a focus on expanding access to the arts, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to experience world-class, life-changing art. Every colleague I talk to, both locally and nationally, is struggling to figure out a model that allows for wide participation, a model that constantly invites more and more of the community into the process. We’re all asking, how do you break down barriers to allow more people to participate in the work that we do?
Second, and this is particularly true here at the Alliance Theatre, many arts organizations are contemplating how their work can best impact the students & teachers in their local public school districts. So in addition to, say, the field trip experience, we’re trying to develop ways for the arts to be a tool to advance student engagement, to advance teacher practice, to ultimately create more civic-minded young people.
Q: The Alliance has done research in the past with public schools that has demonstrated the impact of the arts in the education arena, hasn’t it?
A: Yes. We had the good fortune to do an experimental study funded by two consecutive Department of Education grants. We tested the impact on the teachers & students we worked with—the first study focused on high- poverty kindergarten classrooms and the second, on English Language Learners. What we learned from studying this for six years is that theater can absolutely be a key to unlocking language acquisition. The researchers discovered that the classrooms with which we worked were acquiring language at a far greater rate than the control groups. Then, once they had access to the language, of course they started making gains in terms of literacy and other subject areas.
Q: You’re engaged in a new study with Atlanta Public Schools to assess the impact of the arts right now aren’t you?
A: Yes, we’re currently involved in a really interesting study that could prove incredibly influential for the entire field. We’re testing the idea that multiple visits to different arts organizations – so, for instance, a child who has a chance to visit the High Museum of Art, experience an Alliance Theatre performance and an Atlanta Symphony concert all in the course of the same school year – would lead to a marked improvement in that student’s ability to demonstrate tolerance, empathy and perseverance. We’re looking for hard data that can answer the question, ‘How does this broader exposure to the arts nurture the development of a human being?’
Q: Why did Atlanta Public Schools have an interest in taking part?
A: We’re fortunate that the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, Dr. Meria Carstarphen, is a strong believer in the arts as a tool for student motivation and achievement. So, we had that going for us. And I think that being on the ground floor of this unprecedented research really appealed to the leadership of APS, and from the beginning, they’ve proved to be fantastic partners.
The University of Arkansas, which is conducting the research, has also been an ideal partner. Jay Greene, the lead researcher from the University, is so enthusiastic about the study and is planning to follow these students for 10 years down the road. He’s going to follow both the control and experimental groups, now in the fourth and fifth grades, to determine whether the culturally rich experiences will yield long lasting results. Is the control group more likely to graduate, are they more likely to vote, more likely to enroll in post secondary schools, are they more likely to graduate from college? Do these skills like perseverance and fortitude that we’re testing, do they hold over time as well?
Q: How are you expanding these learnings to other arts organizations around the country?
A: We’ve disseminated the results of the Department of Education study to arts organizations all around the country and are training other early childhood educators on how to use these techniques. Now that we have the data, it’s also allowed us inroads into far more school districts. For instance, this year we’re in every single Atlanta Public School pre-k class, providing professional learning for all of those educators.
Q: What’s your hope for the next 10 years in arts education?
A: I would hope that there wouldn’t be the need to continually research the efficacy of the arts, that we’d no longer be trying to prove the point that this work matters. I’d hope that there would be a shared understanding that the arts play a vital and powerful role in the development of compassionate, intelligent and generous human beings.