How the Arts Unlock the Door to Learning


Student achievement was down. Teachers were demoralized. Until a bold strategy — integrating the arts into curricula — helped students embrace their learning and retain their knowledge. Today the faculty, staff, and students of Maryland’s Bates Middle School are crafting a whole new vision of school transformation.

What do Mars and modern dance have to do with each other? How do you connect fractions with Andy Warhol? At Wiley H. Bates Middle School, in Annapolis, Maryland, the answer is arts integration. Every teacher there is committed to weaving the arts and standard curricula together to create a richer and more lasting learning experience for their students.

Arts integration goes beyond including art projects in class; it is a teaching strategy that seamlessly merges arts standards with core curricula to build connections and provide engaging context. For example, in a science classroom you might see students choreographing a dance using locomotor and nonlocomotor movements to demonstrate their understanding of rotation versus revolution of the planets (PDF). In a math class, you might see students learning fractions by examining composition in Warhol’s Campbell’s soup paintings.

(See more arts-integrated lesson plans from Bates.)

What we also saw in these classrooms were students who were enthusiastically participating in the learning process, and having fun. It’s not revelatory to say that the arts can engage kids. But that that engagement can also be leveraged to boost academic growth and improve discipline seems like a secret that really needs to be revealed. When you see how the kids embrace these lessons, hear them tell how art helps them remember concepts better, and learn about the improvements teachers have noted in student understanding and retention, it makes you wonder why more schools aren’t integrating the arts in every class.

A Whole-School Reform

Bates decided to become a fully arts-integrated school in 2007 as the primary initiative in a whole-school reform effort. Other initiatives in their school improvement plan (PDF) included Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an operational framework for implementing practices and interventions to improve academic and behavioral outcomes, and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a college readiness system with research-based methods for elementary through postsecondary students. Their principal at the time, Diane Bragdon, had brought the school back from the brink of failure and now was ready to aim its trajectory squarely toward greater success. Bragdon got the support of Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, long a proponent of schools of choice, who knew well the impact arts integration had had in other Maryland schools. The district applied for a four-year grant called Supporting Arts Integrated Learning for Student Success (SAILSS) from the U.S. Department of Education and was one of 15 districts and schools to receive it.

Arts integration goes beyond including art projects in class; it is a teaching strategy that seamlessly merges arts standards with core curricula to build connections and provide engaging context.

Since they started implementing arts integration schoolwide in 2009, Bates has seen a 23 percent drop in the average number of referrals and suspensions per student. The school’s percentage of students proficient or advanced in math has grown four times more than the state’s over the same period, and five times more in reading. Not all lessons are taught with arts integration, but Bates takes pains to diligently track those that have been in a regular log (PDF), and they report substantial improvements in student comprehension and retention.

Why Does Arts Integration Work?

Why does it work? Arts integration uses teaching practices that have been shown in brain-based research to improve comprehension and long-term retention. For example, when students create stories, pictures, or other nonverbal expressions of the content they are learning — a process researchers call elaboration — they are also helping to better embed the information. In one eighth-grade math class, students prepared for a test on linear equations by creating photo stories of the steps involved. This required that teacher Laura Casciato spend nearly a full class period teaching about basic principles of design (PDF). She explained the trade-off: “It was an easy decision to spend time on the art because we know that they retain that information better. They’re going to look at that test and say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that information from my photo.’”

As with any new initiative, there are a number of factors that must be in place for it to succeed. With arts integration, high-quality professional development is essential. Teachers don’t need to be “artistic” to be able to use arts integration; they just need to learn some of the fundamentals so they will be better able to think of ways to merge art concepts with other content. For example, knowing the basic elements of design, such as emphasis, balance, contrast, and repetition, enabled Casciato to teach her students how to create more informative photo compositions to illustrate each step in solving a linear equation (PDF).

(Read tips for administrators and teachers for getting started with arts integration.)

Bates used the bulk of their grant money for professional development, which they started in the 2007-08 school year. They have PD Thursdays every other week, and at least one per month is on arts integration. Last year (2011-12) was the final year of their grant funding. Teachers report they are now well versed in arts standards and know how to create arts-integrated lessons. Many now train their colleagues and new teachers entering the school.

Beyond engagement and retention, adults and students at Bates cite numerous other benefits of arts integration: It encourages healthy risk taking, helps kids recognize new skills in themselves and others, provides a way to differentiate instruction, builds collaboration among both students and teachers, bridges differences, and draws in parents and the community. Plus it’s just plain fun.

Lastly, there’s equity. If we agree that the arts can provide all kinds of benefits for kids, from intellectual to creative to social-emotional, then shouldn’t all kids have the opportunity to learn about and experience them? But far too few schools have either the funding or the bureaucratic support to make this a priority, a lack often born out of fear of sacrificing academic achievement. What Bates and many other arts-integrated schools across the country are showing is that by creating a richer, more memorable learning experience through the arts, they unleash not only a rising tide of academic achievement but they lay the foundation for what it means to be a truly creative community.

Dec 2015



Why Identity and Emotion are Central To Motivating the Teen Brain


For years, common experience and studies have prescribed that humans learn best in their earliest years of life – when the brain is developing at its fastest. Recently, though, research has suggested that the period of optimal learning extends well into adolescence.

The flurry of new findings may force a total rethinking of how educators and parents nurture this vulnerable age group, turning moments of frustration into previously unseen opportunities for learning and academic excitement.

New evidence shows that the window for formative brain development continues into the onset of puberty, between ages 9 and 13, and likely through the teenage years, according to Ronald Dahl, professor of community health and human development at the University of California, Berkeley. Dahl spoke at a recent Education Writers Association seminar on motivation and engagement.

Adolescence is a tornado of change: Not only is it the period of fastest physical change in life – aside from infancy – but also newfound drives, motivations, and feelings of sexuality are amplified. There are profound shifts to metabolisms and sleeping cycles, as well as social roles – especially in the context of schools. During these years, motivation is propelled not by a tangible goal to work toward, but by a feeling of wanting and thirst. Within the tumult of pre-teens or teens is an opportunity to enhance their desire and interest to learn.

In the past decade, neuroscientists have been able to identify what makes the adolescent brain so geared for the kind of inquiry that can pay dividends in the classroom. As children enter adolescence, some developing neural systems have already stabilized, Dahl said. But puberty creates a whole new set of elastic neural systems that, when interacting with the already stabilized systems, offers unique windows of opportunity for engagement and experiencing the world around them in multiple ways.

“Adolescence is a perfect storm of opportunities to align these changes in positive ways,” Dahl said. “Learning, exploration, acquiring skills and habits, intrinsic motivations, attitudes, setting goals and priorities: There’s compelling need for transdisciplinary research to understand unique opportunities for social and emotional learning. But few people do it in fear of these challenges.”

These new scientific insights have large implications for how schools teach adolescents, which have traditionally viewed this age group astroublesome.

The feelings of acceptance, rejection, admiration, among others, are all the story of adolescence. Children in this age group also seek physical sensations and thrills. There’s heightened awareness of social status, especially as they realize that acts of courage can earn them higher social status among peers. Their wildly swinging neurological systems also mean that adolescents can readjust quickly – making those years critical for educators to engage students in “the right ways,” when the brain is learning to calibrate complex social and emotional value systems that use feelings as fast signals, Dahl said.

Contrary to common belief, children in this age range don’t actually have “broken brains.” Rather, these children are undergoing a profound update to how they process the world around them. Adolescents are often considered bad decision-makers who are thrill-seekers. These myths, however, stem from young people’s desire to display courage, which is valued across cultures — and adolescents constantly seek the emotional satisfaction of being admired. In fact, Dahl said that adolescents take risks to overcome their fears, not seek them out.

“[Adolescents] are learning about the complex social world they must navigate, including the hierarchies, social rules for gaining acceptance and status, and the mystifying discovery of a sexual self,” Dahl said. “This is a flexible period for goal engagement, and the main part of what’s underneath what we think about setting goals in conscious ways – the bottom-up-based pull to feel motivated toward things.”

Adding to the confusion over how best to respond to adolescents is a wave of research showing children around the world are entering puberty at younger ages. One report found that in the 1860s, puberty for girls began at age 16. In the 1950s, it occurred at 13. Today it’s closer to eight years old. The transition for boys is similar, according to the report. The earlier onset of these pronounced biological changes puts pressure on educators and parents to update their expectations for what it means to be young, and how youth plays into adulthood.

“This is an interesting potential opportunity, with the longer time to learn activated motivational systems, longer time to increase skills and develop patterns of developing knowledge,” Dahl said. “If kids grow up in opportune settings, they can take advantage of the scaffolding and freedom to go on to take adult roles. But the risks are probably more amplified than opportunities for kids in disadvantaged settings.”

It’s still unclear how the earlier development happening in children might create other sets of challenges, Dahl noted, but it’s evident that it’s a key development window of motivational learning, a time when the brain more intensely senses motivational feelings, strengthening the patterns of connections to heartfelt goals, and creates potential for deep, sustained learning.

This period of learning is exemplified by even the forbidden love of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The young couple is brought together by a single brief encounter, after which all mental processes of planning, goals, motivations, longing, and desire are transformed. They begin to obsess over reuniting, and would sacrifice anything – including comfort, safety, family, and friends – to be together again.

Without the context that adolescents’ motives can explode entirely by the spark of a single passion, Romeo and Juliet’s story would be one of utter insanity, Dahl said. But adolescents’ abilities to rapidly reshape motivations and goals both supports their emotional volatility as well as presents a key period to find love – not necessarily romantically for others, but for academic activities and goals.

“With the feelings that pull you to persevere, maybe [adolescence is] a particularly opportune time to fall in love with learning itself, to love that feeling of exploring,” Dahl said. “There’s a new window to create that ‘Yes!’ feeling.”

This story was written for the Education Writers Association and originally appeared there.

Dec 2015



Christmas Trees

Christmas Trees







Dec 2015



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What the Future of Learning Might Look Like


via MindShift

Education and learning could look radically different in the next few years. The education foundation KnowledgeWorks has released a forecast on the future of learning, focusing on ways that technology and new teaching strategies are shaking up traditional models. Check out this snapshot of an infographic the organization created to depict a learning ecosystem that includes whole communities in education. Make sure to check out the full infographic.

Classrooms for the next generation?

Star Trek

This article was originally posted (

FASCINATING: A Durham University study found that Star Trek-style touchscreens can have benefits for students’ maths skills.

 Scientists designing and testing what they hope might become the classroom of the future have found that Star Trek-style multi-touch, multi-user desks can boost children’s maths skills.

A three-year project with 400 eight to 10-year olds found that using interactive “smart” desks can have benefits over doing maths on paper, and that pupils are able to improve their fluency and flexibility in maths by working together.

“Our aim was to encourage far higher levels of active student engagement, where knowledge is obtained by sharing, problem-solving and creating, rather than by passive listening,” said Liz Burd of Britain’s Durham University, who led the study.

The research team, whose findings were published in the journal Learning and Instruction, designed software and desks that recognise multiple touches on a desktop using infrared light vision systems.

The desks are built into furniture of the classroom to help encourage more collaboration, and are networked and linked to a main smartboard. A live feed of the desks goes directly to the teacher who can intervene quickly to help a pupil while allowing group work to continue.

Burd’s team found that 45 percent of pupils who used a maths programme on the smart desk system increased the number of unique mathematical expressions they created, compared with 16 percent of those doing it on paper.

Using the new desks helped children work together and solve problems using inventive solutions, the researchers said.

“We found our tables encouraged students to collaborate more effectively,” said Burd. “Such collaboration just did not happen when students used paper-based approaches.”

You never get a second chance at a first impression…..

You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” Don’t make the mistakes that many have made before you.

In today’s world, the first impression idea still holds true. However, digital consumers and social media allow us to connect in ways that we could never have in the past. And the impression that you leave on your Facebook page, Twitter stream, or website could have some people making judgments and drawing conclusions before they actually get to know you, your company, or your products.

What is your goal? What is the impression you are trying to create for yourself? What kind of customers are you attracting by delivering the impression you project?  It’s important to make sure that you always have the best foot forward in whatever business you are in to build an impressive social networking presence with the right impression.

This post originally appeared in The Marketing Tech Blog (

Learning to “Learn” from Failure….

Yesterday’s post on Education Unbound  focused on how teachers can better support student learning by embracing, encouraging and supporting failure in the classroom. This might seem shocking to students who don’t want their instructors to be rooting for them to fail, but we are not talking about catastrophic, epic failure, but rather the kinds of small setbacks that encourage learning. What does that mean and how can you, as a student “fail” and still be successful in your educational goals?

Learning from Your Mistakes
We all make mistakes. I once decided that I would be better served by writing on an exam that the professor’s questions about the history of Native American cultures were irrelevant and proceeded to write a long treatise on the current state of indigenous affairs in the U.S. The “D” I received on that exam is a fair indication that I made a rather significant mistake. But did I learn from my mistake? Absolutely. I learned to play the education game a little better, and I learned that I have a passion for Native American affairs that I hadn’t previously realized. I later turned much of the content of that essay into a portion of a course on “Toxic Literacies” that I taught to incoming freshman.

That was, however, a hard-on-the-GPA lesson to learn. I am not advocating radical/stupid failure just to make a point, but rather acknowledging that you will make mistakes and that you should consciously learn from them. When you find yourself on the wrong side of success in the classroom, what should you do to remedy the situation and turn it to your advantage? Here are some strategies for ensuring  that your failures make you a success.

Embrace Metacognition
Metacognition is the process of thinking about your thinking. That may sound convoluted, but it makes sense if you take a step back and think about it for a moment. Rather than just accept that you got something wrong, think about why you got it wrong. Take an academic failure for example and ask yourself these questions:

  • Was this a mistake you make repeatedly? If so, is that due to some knowledge or information deficiency you have, that you might be able to remedy?
  • Did you get it wrong because it is the first time you have ever seen a problem like this? Would practice with similar problems or tasks help build the skills you need?
  • Did you not make a serious effort to solve the problem, complete the assignment, or study the material? If not, why not? Be honest with yourself. That is the only way to really uncover why the failure happened.
  • Was there a problem with the test, task, or problem that confused you or made the process of succeeding unnecessarily difficult? If so, do you understand the underlying concepts or skills and can you demonstrate them on other tasks?

Thinking clearly and honestly about why you failed at something is the first step in learning from it. If you are unwilling to take a good hard look at your own actions and culpability in your failure, you are unlikely to learn from it. Avoid the temptation to blame others for your shortcomings, you can’t control them, but you can do things to make yourself better.  Once you have examined why you think you failed, you are ready to take the next step in learning from the experience – ask the professor for help.

Ask for Help
Contrary to what some students believe, faculty members are there to help you learn. Not just in the lecture hall or lab, but in their offices, the academic quad, or campus coffee shops. More importantly, they want to help you learn. Most of them sit in their office hours and rarely see any students except the ones who are already doing well in their classes. The ones they want to see, however, are the ones who need their help the most.

Once you have a handle on why you are having problems in a class, and if those problems can be overcome by gaining additional clarification from the instructor, or through some focused tutoring on the topic. Contact the professor to schedule an appointment to talk about yourdeficiencies and how he or she can help you overcome them. It is important to realize that, regardless of any perceived lack of clarity on the part of the faculty member, it is your job to learn the material and succeed. Do not blame them for your failure, regardless of what you think the cause may be.

Ask well-targeted questions that help you address the specific issues that you addressed when you thought through your reasons for failing. Talk about studying strategies, alternative sources for the course information, tutoring, or ask for help filling in gaps in your knowledge. Remember, the professor is there to help you, and you should be thankful for their time and consideration. By doing this you are not only getting help with the immediate problem, but also learning how to become and independent learner who seeks help and interacts with those who can assist them. This is also an excellent way to establish a relationship with faculty members who you may consider asking for professional references in the future.

Explore Alternative Paths to Success
This is the one unconventional piece of advice in this post. If you realize that you are having problems because of a failure to make a concerted effort, or because you are having problems understanding core concepts, and asking the instructor for assistance has not helped or isn’t working, consider going outside the normal channels for assistance.
One realistic possibility is that you might have a specific problem learning some types of information. You might consider visiting your student support services office if you are encountering problems with a specific type of learning. They can help diagnose your particular disability and suggest ways of being successful with it.

If you feel that the presentation of the information simply is not a good match for the way you learn best, consider other sources of learning. There is a wealth of information available online and you can find an alternative presentation of almost any course content in online texts, videos, or even interactive tutorials. You just have to look.

The truly radical option here is to step way outside of the box and craft an alternative way to demonstrate your understanding to the faculty member. If you are constantly failing at writing papers for a class but love to make movies, ask the instructor if you can create a short film in place of the final paper. Perhaps a computer animation of the motion of molecules in a particular atom might be an acceptable outcome in a science class? You will never know if some alternative assessment might be possible if you don’t ask. Worst case is they will say “no” and you are back where you started. Best case is that they say “yes,” you wow the professor with what you show them and they see you as a motivated, creative individual whom they are happy to support in future endeavors.

Failing to Learn is the Only Real Failure
All of these suggestions are predicated on one thing – you need to accept failure as a positive experience that helps you grow. If you can examine your shortcomings with some objectivity, you will begin to position yourself to not only overcome them, but to develop lifelong habits of addressing your failings that will make you much more successful in the long run. As Dale Carnegie once said, “Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”


A+ Schools Infuse Arts and Other ‘Essentials’ (Edweek repost)

A+ Schools Infuse Arts and Other ‘Essentials’

This is a great article that speaks to the fact that we all need to explore our creative side.

As a group of Oklahoma principals toured Millwood Arts Academy on a recent morning, they snapped photos of student work displayed in hallways, stepped briefly into classrooms, queried the school’s leader, and compared notes.

They were gathered here to observe firsthand a public magnet school that’s seen as a leading example of the educational approach espoused by the Oklahoma A+ Schools network, which has grown from 14 schools a decade ago to nearly 70 today.

A key ingredient, and perhaps the best-known feature, is the network’s strong emphasis on the arts, both in their own right and infused across the curriculum.

“I took a million pictures today and emailed them to all my teachers,” said Principal Leah J. Anderson of Gatewood Elementary School, also in Oklahoma City.

Ms. Anderson said she was struck by the diverse ways students demonstrate their learning, such as a visual representation of the food chain displayed in one hallway.

“It’s not just a page out of the textbook,” she said. “They created it themselves.”

The Oklahoma network has drawn national attention, including praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and mention in a 2011 arts education report from the President’s Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The A+ approach was not born in Oklahoma, however. It was imported from North Carolina, which launched the first A+ network in 1995 and currently has 40 active member schools. It has since expanded not only to Oklahoma but also to Arkansas, which now counts about a dozen A+ schools. Advocates are gearing up to start a Louisiana network.

What’s Essential?

Schools participating in the A+ network in Oklahoma and other states commit to a set of eight A+ essentials.

Taught daily. Inclusive of drama, dance, music, visual arts, and writing. Integrated across curriculum. Valued as “essential to learning.”

Curriculum mapping reflects alignment. Development of “essential questions.” Create and use interdisciplinary thematic units. Cross-curricular integration.

Experiential Learning
Grounded in arts-based instruction. A creative process. Includes differentiated instruction. Provides multifaceted assessment opportunities.

Multiple Intelligences
Multiple-learning pathways used within planning and assessment. Understood by students and parents. Used to create “balanced learning opportunities.”

Enriched Assessment
Ongoing. Designed for learning. Used as documentation. A “reflective” practice. Helps meet school system requirements. Used by teachers and students to self-assess.

Intentional. Occurs within and outside school. Involves all teachers (including arts teachers), as well as students, families, and community. Features “broad-based leadership.”

Supports A+ philosophy by addressing logistics such as schedules that support planning time. Provides appropriate space for arts. Creates a “shared vision.” Provides professional development. Continual “team building.”

Teachers “can manage the arts in their classrooms.” Stress is reduced. Teachers treated as professionals. Morale improves. Excitement about the program grows.

The networks are guided by eight core principles, or “essentials,” as they’re called, including a heavy dose of the arts, teacher collaboration, experiential learning, and exploration of “multiple intelligences” among students. At the same time, each state has some differences in emphasis.

Oklahoma’s network describes its mission as “nurturing creativity in every learner.”

The nearly 20 educators who toured Millwood Academy this month—part of a larger group attending a leadership retreat for the state network—covered the gamut from those brand new to the A+ approach to others with years of experience.

“The continual plea from people seeking to do things like this is, ‘Show me, demonstrate,’ ” said Jean Hendrickson, the executive director of Oklahoma A+ Schools, which is part of the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.

“[This] is one of the handful of A+ schools we can count on to actively, any day of the week, demonstrate this model in action,” she said at Millwood. “What we want is for the others in our network to have their feet on the ground in a place like this.”

The network faces continual challenges, such as attracting sufficient state aid and coping with the inevitable turnover of school staff, which can strain the degree of fidelity to the A+ essentials.

This fall, 16 member schools in Oklahoma have new principals, more turnover than ever. Some of them lack prior experience with A+, including Consuela M. Franklin, who just took the reins at Owen Elementary School in Tulsa.

“I inherited an A+ school, and so my quest today is to actually learn more, the overall philosophy,” she said. “What it looks like. What it sounds like. How do you know it when you see it?”

Desire to Change

The Oklahoma A+ network has a diverse mix of schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Some serve predominantly low-income families. Most are public, though a few are private. And they include traditional public schools, as well as magnets and charters.

The network is supported by both public and private dollars, with all professional development and other supports free to participating schools. But state funding was cut back sharply during the recent economic downturn. An annual line item in the state budget for the network that at its height provided $670,000 was zeroed out in 2011. In the latest budget, it was restored, but only at $125,000.

Schools are drawn to A+ for diverse reasons, said Ms. Hendrickson, who was a principal for 17 years before becoming the network’s leader. But it all boils down to one thing: a desire to change.

“What they want to change ranges broadly,” she said. “It can be they want better test scores. It could be richer activity-based, project-based-learning ideas. It could be taking their success to the next level. It could be more arts.”

As part of the application process, a school must gain the support of 85 percent or more of its faculty members before a review by A+ staff and outside experts. The review is focused mainly on gauging the school’s commitment and capacity to effectively implement the A+ essentials.

The level of fidelity to the approach varies across schools, Ms. Hendrickson said, adding that even within the same school, it may shift over time. “Schools are not static places,” she said.

“Over time, [A+ schools] tend toward one end or the other of our engagement spectrum, whether the informational end, ‘Thank you, we got what we wanted,’ or the transformational end, where, ‘It drives what we do,’ ” she said. “So we have different levels of engagement and different categories of affiliation.”

One teacher at the A+ retreat confided that with a recent leadership switch at her school, the commitment level has declined.

“It’s not the same if you don’t have a leader who is completely active and passionate about it,” she said. “So it has changed, but we’re hanging in there.”

Gary Long, 8, leads his fellow 3rd graders in spoken word poetry, quotes and chants as principals from other area schools record video on their iPads during a tour of the Millwood Arts Academy in Oklahoma City, Okla. State education leaders recently toured to get a first-hand view of the school’s program that infuses arts across the curriculum.
—Shane Bevel for Education Week

The tightest alignment comes with “demonstration schools.” Those schools, including Millwood Arts Academy, have “made a really strong commitment to the eight A+ essentials, and they are our best partners to help others see what it looks like,” said Ms. Hendrickson.

Millwood is a grades 3-8 magnet that primarily serves African-American students from low-income families. Unlike most Oklahoma A+ schools, it has selective admissions criteria. Admission decisions primarily are reflective of strong student interest in the arts and parents’ embrace of the school’s philosophy, said Christine Harrison, the principal of both that school and Millwood Freshman Academy, which is in the same building and is also an A+ school.

Speaking to her visitors this month, who saw classes for both academies, she sang the praises of the network: “A+ is our driving force.”

Ms. Harrison, who describes her schools as “dripping in the arts,” also emphasized the power of the other A+ essentials, including the intentional collaboration.

“We have teachers collaborating without me having to say ‘collaborate,’ ” she said. “You cannot be isolated in an A+ school.”

‘Shared Experience’

Following the trip to Millwood, the visiting educators spent time sharing ideas and exploring best practices. At one point, the principals sat down in small groups for an intensive, problem-solving exercise. Each leader identified a particular challenge and worked on strategies to cope.

“We provide ongoing professional development and networking opportunities, with a strong research eye on the methods we’re using, the outcomes we’re getting,” said Ms. Hendrickson.

Sandra L. Kent, the principal of Jane Phillips Elementary in Bartlesville, Okla., gives high marks to the professional development, especially the five-day workshop for schools first joining.

“We had a really powerful shared experience,” she said. “That’s one thing, as an A+ school, when you all go and live together for a week.”

Dance instructor Beth Eppler teaches her students how to solve math equations by counting their dance steps in a class at the Millwood Freshman Academy in Oklahoma City, Okla.
—Shane Bevel for Education Week

Ms. Kent said A+ is often misunderstood as being an “arts program.” The arts dimension gets significant attention “because not a lot of other people talk about it as being so important.” But other elements are also important, she said, such as the call for collaboration and the pursuit of multiple learning pathways that attend to students’ “multiple intelligences.”

Another ingredient is enriched assessment strategies that aim to better capture what students know and are able to do.

One aspect that has helped get A+ schools noticed is the research base.

“They have a very strong evaluation component,” said Sandra S. Ruppert, the executive director of the Washington-based Arts Education Partnership. “They have made the investments, documented their strategies. They can look at the correlation with test scores, but also a whole host of other outcomes. … It is what gives that work greater credibility.”

Both the North Carolina and Oklahoma networks have been the subject of extensive study.

In 2010, Oklahoma A+ Schools issued a five-volume report on data collected by researchers from 2002 to 2007. It found that participating schools, on average, “consistently outperform their counterparts within their district and state on the [Oklahoma] Academic Performance Index,” a measure that relies heavily on student-achievement data.

The study also found other benefits, including better student attendance, decreased disciplinary problems, and more parent and community engagement. But it found the level of fidelity to the A+ essentials uneven, with those schools that adhered most closely seeing the strongest outcomes.

Meanwhile, a separate, more limited study in Oklahoma City compared achievement among students in A+ schools with a matched cohort of students. It found that, on average, students across the seven A+ schools “significantly outperformed” a comparable group of district peers in reading and math, based on 2005 test data. However, not all individual schools outperformed the average, and the study did not measure growth in student achievement over time.

Tapping Into Creativity

Amid growing interest in A+, neighboring Arkansas is ramping up its network, after stalling for a few years. Just recently, several charter schools in the high-profile KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) network signed on.

“People think KIPP: structure, discipline, rigor. Arts infusion? What the heck do they have in common?” said Scott A. Shirey, the executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools, which runs schools in Helena and Blytheville, Ark. “But I think it was what we needed to bring our schools to the next level, … to tap into the creativity of teachers and students.”

Mr. Shirey said he values the ongoing support in the A+ network.

“It’s not, ‘We’ll train you for one week, and you’re done,’ ” he said.

Back in Oklahoma, Ms. Kent, the elementary principal, welcomed the fall leadership retreat as a way to get “refreshed and renewed and refocused.”

She said it can be tough to maintain support for an arts-infused approach as schools face the pressure for improved test scores and other demands. In Oklahoma, recent changes include a new teacher-evaluation system, new letter grades for schools, the advent of the Common Core State Standards, and a new 3rd grade retention policy for struggling readers.

“Yes, it’s very difficult with the policy changes to get other people to trust you and trust the [A+] process,” said Ms. Kent, who previously led another A+ school. Her current school is in its second year of transitioning to the A+ essentials.
“Until you really produce the results, people have a hard time going there,” she said.

But Ms. Kent said she’s convinced her school’s journey as part of the network will serve students well.

Schools can’t escape the push for strong test scores, said Ms. Harrison from Millwood Arts Academy. “Let’s face it, that’s a big part of how we’re graded,” she told the visiting educators. “But the A+ Schools way helps you look good on that paper.”

The tour of Millwood was eye-opening for Ms. Franklin, the new principal at Owen Elementary, who came away impressed by this example of A+ in action. She said “evidence was everywhere” of student engagement and learning.

“It was colorful, it was lively, it was audible,” she said. “I am motivated to take it back to my school.”