In 2013, the Kansas Alliance for Arts Education (KAAE) began investigating programs that could benefit Kansas schools in a way that would improve climate, academics, and the students’ overall experience through infusing the arts across the curriculum. Based on their research, they settled on Oklahoma A+ (okaplus.org), which has a network established to help other states pilot and implement their research-based transformational model. Currently, three other states are implementing this initiative within their respective schools.
The model is based on the Eight EssentialsTM. These essentials are: the arts, curriculum, experiential learning, multiple intelligences, enriched assessment, collaboration, infrastructure, and climate. The training allows for schools to commit to these eight essentials and nurture creativity through each during the school year. The ultimate goal is for teachers to reveal new ways of knowing and creative strategies establishing novel connections within a given curriculum. Throughout the selection process, schools engage in creative activities and meetings about the program and take their experiences back to their respective faculties to share what they have learned. Successful admission to the pilot required an 85% buy-in from the faculty and full administrative support. The team tasked with implementing the program would then commit to facilitating the summer institutes and two professional development sessions (1 fall/1 spring) each year for the three-year pilot. Over the past three years, two Kansas schools (one elementary, one high school) submitted successful applications and completed a pilot of the Kansas A+ model focusing on whole-school transformation through the integration of the arts.
Given that research is one of the primary tenets of Kansas A+, KAAE composed on the following questions as the primary focus of the pilot:
- Over the past 3 years, was a change in achievement (academic and test scores) observable?
- Was there an observable difference in dropout rate at the high school level?
- Was there any impact on the disciplinary actions of either school?
- Were there any observable changes in the teachers’ behaviors, perceptions, or teaching practices?
- Was there any impact of the students regarding engagement or attendance?
What was revealed?
Based on the way scores are reported to KSDE, only percentages of students meeting expectations for various levels was available. These data remained consistent throughout the pilot with both buildings reporting at or above state averages in Levels 2, 3, and 4 throughout the three-year pilot. Causation is nearly impossible to prove; however, implementing the arts and focusing on this model does not hinder or negatively impact student performance in any of the currently tested disciplines.
Teachers reported significant changes in their perception and implementation of curriculum mapping, collaboration, and experimentation over the course of the pilot program. Teachers also indicated a significant increase in effective uses of curriculum mapping for instructional planning in integrated settings. Such an observed change leads also to the knowledge of curriculum mapping and how it impacts design and implementation of instruction. This concept is difficult even for experienced teachers and the significant increase in this perception is notable.
The significant change in the perception of experimentation within the classroom emerged as a fascinating and intriguing result. Experimentation is defined as the context of observing various experimentation with a content area and various approaches within the school setting. This finding is critical as the difference indicated that the teachers reported a decrease in experimentation throughout the duration of the pilot. One reason for this could be that the teachers’ comfort levels with trying creative strategies became the norm rather than the exception. One of the arts specialists characterized her observations as, “I’m now seeing the teachers being more innovative [with their] projects that [they] come up [with] on their own”. This quote illustrates a specific movement toward more creative applications of instruction, which would support the notion that differences once considered experimentation with integration are now just seen as effective teaching.
Collaboration, one of the A+ Essentials TM, was found to have a significant observable change in faculty perception. There was significant growth in both the identification of and allowance for collaboration within the building for the purpose of impacting student learning and engagement. Teachers widely reported that their opportunities to collaborate were increased and this allowed for more interactions and collaborations with colleagues whom otherwise they would have no contact. With collaboration being one of the Essentials TM, there seems to be a sincere connection to the program and how it is implemented across the board.
As with any initiative and its accompanying assessment, there will be growing pains. During the final year, the faculty felt as though they were not always able to see tangible results in student achievement because of their efforts to implement Kansas A+. The absence of visible results as it pertained to arts integration served as a source of frustration for some of the arts specialists. They were also frustrated by roles within the program and how it fit their initial perceptions. One teacher commented, “People just think it’s just the art teacher thing and it’s not just the teacher’s thing”. This is often to be expected as the growth is often glacial, and these role transitions differ from our status quo.
Impact on Students
Student engagement saw significant growth across the board in the areas of interest, challenge, choice, and exploration. Students reported they were more interested in school, the topics they were covering, and their ability to engage in interesting activities in class. In each area they reported significant growth from year 1 to year 3. These findings, combined with the increased collaboration and realization of curriculum mapping, begin to focus a picture of students becoming more engaged through the school culture and climate.
Students were also clear that they found their classes and activities more challenging and engaging. They reported an increase in critical thinking skills and an increase in demand from their teachers, which they welcomed. One student responded, “You have to work hard to put a lot of effort and a lot of time into the project in order for you to be successful”. When disaggregated by building, the high schoolers valued challenge and perceived the challenge questions more so than their elementary counterparts. Regardless, students welcomed the challenging nature of class, but enjoyed the creative ways in which they were challenged.
Another emerging theme was the element of choice. Students reported having more ownership over their own learning with significant growth in choice of projects, group membership, options to work alone, or finding ways to contribute that met their strengths. In describing their classroom, one student said, “I would say my favorite classroom is… relaxed and, like, you get a say in what you’re getting to do”. This illustrates the students’ identification of self as well as an awareness of how they learn best and the ability to choose activities and assessments that best reflect the learning that has taken place. The impact of this finding should be noted because of the foundation of this pilot which is focused on enriched assessments, multiple intelligences, curriculum, and experiential learning. The students’ value of choice would not be possible without the infrastructure provided from integrating these essentials throughout the building.
One of the most compelling findings was the significant growth revealed in the area of exploration. Exploration was defined by overall engagement in their participation in school, including: looking forward to class, having fun in class, perceiving learning as fun, enjoying working within the class setting, and liking the projects they are engaged in during class. In all areas, students reported a significant growth from year 1 to year 3. This was evident in their descriptions of their schools and how they interacted with their own environments. Engagement was found with students saying, “I find school fun when we do different activities and songs… I don’t like doing a worksheet because I don’t remember it as well” or “I like to learn by making our content like an activity, because it’s more fun that way”.
Students engaged in these pilot schools reported significant growth in the areas of interest, challenge, choice, and exploration. They were significantly more engaged in their schooling and developed well defined opinions of their learning. They developed a clear ownership of their own learning by defining how they best learn and new how to differentiate options for how they would best engage with material and contribute to the class climate in the most effective ways. These observations were fascinating given the perceptions of some teachers who felt that engagement was not as high on the teachers’ end. While not as many significant differences were found, this could be consistent with the consensus of the faculties that “we did this before implementing A+, we just have a label for it now”. However, the significant growth in both curriculum mapping and collaboration seems to have had a positive impact on student engagement. Impact on academic success and perceived academic success within the classroom would be a fascinating follow-up for this arts integration initiative.
The Kansas A+ Pilot revealed many successful outcomes for both students and faculty. The Kansas A+ Pilot Schools’ commitment to continuing the program beyond the pilot is underway at these two sites. While the continuation might look different, the student engagement and positive impact will surely maintain at a high level. We found increased engagement of the students and a true passion for learning, which was dependent upon the commitment of the teachers to a unified approach to integrating the arts throughout a curriculum and a supportive administration. Combining the growth in both teaching and student engagement, there is something happening in these pilot schools. It is clear that the focus on implementing the Eight EssentialsTM, arts integration, and the focus on student learning is having a positive impact on the students of Kansas at these two sites.