An Unfinished Canvas: Local Partnerships in Support of Arts Education in California


Woodworth, K. R., Petersen, D. M., Kim, D. H., and Tse, V. (2009). An unfinished canvas. Local partnerships in support of arts education in California. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.


The California Education Code requires public schools to offer all students a course of study in the visual and performing arts, including the subjects of dance, music, theatre, and visual arts (California Education Code sections 51210 and 51220). To support this requirement, in 2001, the State Board of Education adopted The Visual and Performing Arts Content Standards (VPA standards) describing what students should know and be able to do in each arts discipline. In 2006, at the request of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, SRI International conducted a study aimed at assessing the status of arts education in California relative to state goals. The final report, An Unfinished Canvas. Arts Education in California: Taking Stock of Policy and Practice, revealed a substantial gap between policy and practice (see Woodworth, et al., 2007). The study found that elementary schools in particular are failing to meet state goals for arts education. Nearly half of California’s elementary students are not receiving any standards-aligned instruction in music and visual arts, and more than four in five are not receiving any standards-aligned instruction in theatre or dance. The study also found that those elementary schools that do offer arts instruction tend to limit the duration and frequency, and the number of art disciplines that students are exposed to. Overall, the report concluded that arts education in California’s elementary schools is not comprehensive and substantial enough to support high-level achievement at the secondary level.

In light of these findings, The Hewlett Foundation commissioned a series of follow-up studies to identify policy mechanisms or other means of increasing student access to arts education. This study, focusing on the ability of school districts to leverage support for arts education through partnerships with local arts organizations, is one of the follow-up studies. Findings from the initial An Unfinished Canvas study suggested that California schools are increasingly partnering with external organizations as a means of providing arts instruction to their students. Likewise, an earlier national study for the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, found that school districts across the country commonly identify community collaborations as a strategy for overcoming the challenges they face in offering arts education to their students (Longley, 1999). Interest in school-community collaboration as an emerging strategy to support student access to arts learning is also evidenced in a recent study conducted by the RAND Corporation that describes the development of large-scale arts education initiatives in six U.S. cities (Bodilly and Augustine, 2008). The RAND study provided a historical analysis of the evolution of arts education in the U.S. and investigated factors that fostered or impeded citywide coordination efforts to improve access and quality of in- and out-of-school arts education opportunities for students.

Partnerships may allow for the pooling of resources and lend support to schools in a variety of ways including artists-in-residency programs, professional development for teachers, exposing students to the arts through the provision of one-time performances at school sites, and organizing field trips to performances and exhibits. According to the California Visual and Performing Arts Framework for California Public Schools (VPA Framework), partnerships among school districts, schools, and arts organizations are most successful when they are embedded within a comprehensive, articulated program of arts education. To promote partnerships and collaborations, the VPA Framework calls on districts to provide the leadership and support for coordinating arts resources, maintaining regular communication with stakeholders, incorporating joint planning and professional development for artists and teachers, and employing ongoing program evaluation (California Department of Education, 2004). A summary of research on model partnerships reveals that partnerships with the greatest reach focus on students’ needs for high-quality learning experiences, incorporate multiple arts disciplines, attempt to affect systemic reform in arts education, and involve diverse and multiple community sectors (Teitelbaum and Gillis, 2004). Arts organizations may also benefit from partnerships. For arts organizations, partnerships may fulfill a responsibility to serve the community, improve their own capacity to deliver arts education, and develop future audiences and funding bases (California Department of Education, 2004).

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