An Unfinished Canvas: District Capacity and the Use of New Funds for Arts Education in California


Woodworth, K. R., Campbell, A. Z., Bland, J. A., and Mayes, N. L. (2009). An unfinished canvas. District capacity and the use of new funds for arts education in California. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.


Questions about district leadership and capacity—particularly in light of the new funding—served as the impetus for this study. Through a survey of leaders in 385 districts, we assessed districts’ capacity with respect to arts education, explored early spending choices, and examined the relationship between the two.

California has ambitious goals for the level of arts instruction that districts provide students, mandating that a course of study be offered to all students in Grades 1 through 12 in the visual and performing arts—dance, music, theatre, and visual arts. In 2006, with questions about student access to arts education and concern about a gap between state goals for arts education and the reality in schools and districts, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation commissioned SRI International to conduct a study documenting the status of arts education in California. The resulting report, An Unfinished Canvas. Arts Education in California: Taking Stock of Policies and Practices, revealed that the vast majority of California schools do not meet state goals for arts education—that is, they do not offer a standards-aligned course of study in dance, music, theatre, and visual arts. School principals cited a number of barriers to the provision of arts education, with the most frequently cited barrier being a lack of funding for arts education, followed by a focus on improving test scores and insufficient instructional time; at the elementary level, the lack of expertise among regular classroom teachers also was identified as a barrier with the same frequency. At the same time, school principals identified few sources of support for arts education.

Upon completion of An Unfinished Canvas in early 2007, The Hewlett Foundation sought to further explore policy mechanisms or other means of increasing student access to arts education. To this end, The Hewlett Foundation commissioned a series of follow-up studies, including this study of district leadership and capacity in the arts. Findings from our initial study suggested that district leadership is key to developing and implementing arts programs, yet our research also indicated that districts varied in the extent to which they were providing such support for schools. For example, approximately one-fourth of principals said that their district provides professional development in support of arts education, and fewer than 4 in 10 principals reported receiving curricular support for the arts from their district. Our research also suggested that districts that were most strategic in their support of arts education had some level of arts capacity; for example, some had a designated district staff person coordinating the arts, others formed a district arts committee to steer the development of expanded arts programs, and many of these districts were developing or had developed a plan for arts education.

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