Published: April 11, 2022 By

Much has been written about the importance of the Arts, particularly with respect to how exposure to arts programming can meet social emotional learning needs of students and enhance their well-being (Bowen & Kisida, 2019; Greene et al., 2018; Kisida et al., 2020).  For this reason, education researchers highlight the importance of providing access to these disciplinary areas and decry how the Arts tend to be the first areas to be cut at schools and districts facing budget constraints. Further, schools that cut arts programming are often the same sites serving large populations of historically underserved students (Bassock et al., 2016; Kisida et al., 2020; West, 2007). 

In Bowen and Kisida’s (2019) landmark randomized control study of an arts education program in Houston, the authors contend that the results of their study “provide critical evidence that increasing students’ arts educational opportunities has positive impacts on meaningful outcomes [and that] the narrowing of educational offerings and objectives to align with accountability assessments has had adverse effects on the arts in K-12 education” (p. 17). Bowen and Kisida were only able to study these opportunities with respect to the access students have to arts programming. But access to arts programming is one thing, access to high quality programming is another.

Access vs. Quality?

To illustrate this point, in 2017-18, I began a collaboration with an instructional specialist in the visual arts to collect qualitative observations on teaching practices.  The observations I collected over the course of two years were intended to help map out the features of high quality instruction in this domain. As part of this process, we visited one of the few alternative high schools in the Denver Public Schools (DPS) that offered visual arts courses to students.  Similar to other urban school districts, the vast majority of students served by this—and all of the district’s alternative high schools for that matter—are students of color. 

During these visits we observed a wide variety of classroom interactions, spoke with teachers about their expectations for students, and documented how the teachers designed their courses to meet those expectations.  In year one at the alternative high school, we observed a class where individual students sat at separate tables constructing sculptures using selected shapes.  The stated larger objective of this class was, “students will be able to engage in the creative process by applying mathematical measurements to create sculptures.”  Although students were “on task,” and the school principal had praised this teacher for providing students with interdisciplinary opportunities – in this case, melding the Arts with Math – the activities and lessons we observed during the school year were only aligned to state standards for an elementary level visual arts class.  And when we interviewed the teacher, we learned that she chose to have students work silently and independently on art projects. Not because independent work would foster learning, but because it served to better manage classroom behaviors.  In the class sessions we observed, students were given few opportunities to make meaningful personal connections to the products they created.

Fast forward one year later, a new teacher to the school, but a veteran teacher of the visual arts took over the visual arts program.  The first thing this teacher did was to dismantle the approach taken by the previous teacher. She enacted collaborative group projects, displayed the artwork produced by students throughout the halls, set up tasks and lessons aligned to high school visual arts standards, and encouraged active dialogue by engaging students in discussions about art as they negotiated what needed to be done to complete each group project.  She provided ample opportunities for students to deepen disciplinary understandings and skills in the visual arts while simultaneously allowing creativity and thinking to expand.  For example, in one class we observed, she had a group of students working together on a large oil painting project reflecting the group’s personal interests.  She checked in with the group to discuss the progress made on their artwork and had them consider solutions for accentuating perspective and depth in the painting.  The students debated about the colors and how they wanted to play with the space, and ultimately settled on a solution that implemented the ideas forwarded by two students in the group.  Within this context, students acquired and applied understandings of art elements while cultivating important life skills through group collaborations.

 oil painting in progress

Figure 1.  A collaborative group project: oil painting in progress

Figure 2.  Exhibiting student artwork at an alternative high school

Figure 2.  Exhibiting student artwork at an alternative high school

Compared to the approach taken by the teacher in year one, it wasn’t difficult to conclude that the year two teacher at this alternative high school was offering a higher quality visual arts learning experience to students.  Strong formative assessment practices, coupled with a firm belief that every student in her class had valuable contributions to make to the learning process for other students, made this teacher’s class stand out - not just within the context of this school but also within the context of other visual arts classrooms we observed at five other schools in the district.  

Focusing on Quality Arts Programming

While I wholeheartedly agree with recommendations made by education researchers to invest and restore arts education programs across schools in this country, I’m not convinced that simply expanding access or providing after school arts programs is an adequate policy solution. The National Core Arts Standards highlight that like other core disciplinary areas, Arts courses require careful planning and execution to address important learning targets linked to big ideas.  This also means understanding and appreciating that high quality learning can take on different expressions and forms in the Arts when designing classroom activities and assessments.  For example, forms of extended discourse in a music class can look quite different but accomplish similar aims to extended discourse using verbal communication in core subject areas. In a strings class, students engaging in developing new patterns and sounds can actively communicate with one another through their instruments as they individually and jointly contribute to that group dynamic through evolving tempo, rhythm and the collective sound produced.  The careful listening and contributions that lead to each phrase, followed by the continuous adjustments made by students in subsequent phrases, reflect similar dialogue-based goals accomplished through extended discourse. This can be facilitated when the structures set by teachers in music and composition explorations encourage students to contribute and enrich the learning of one another.  Knowing whether this type of dynamic and rich learning experience driven by student interactions occurs in music classrooms would require stepping into these spaces.  Observing these rich interactions also reflect a student-centered approach that moves away from more typical “authoritative” teacher-centered approaches that dominate even advanced level studio courses in music (Colwell, 2011).  

Our Continued Work in the Arts

In our next phase of work with the DPS Arts and Physical Education department (APED), we look forward to examining the intersection of both access and high-quality arts programming.  CADRE’s long-term partnership with APED continues because we share a strong mutual interest in promoting inclusive classrooms designed to advance and deepen student learning.  An aspirational goal for both APED and CADRE is that students not only have access to the Arts, but that the disciplinary understandings and complexities of Arts instruction are recognized and enacted to enrich the learning experiences for students across all schools in the district.


Bassok, D., Latham, S., Rorem, A. (2016). Is kindergarten the new first grade? AERA Open, 1(4), 1–31.

Bowen, D.H. & Kisida, B. (2019). Investigating causal effects of arts education experiences: experimental evidence from Houston’s Arts Access Initiative. Houston, TX:  Houston Education Research Consortium, Rice University. 

Colwell, R. (2011). Roles of direct instruction, critical thinking, and transfer in the design of curriculum for music learning. In Colwell, R., Webster, P. R. (Eds.), MENC Handbook of Research on Music Learning, 1 (pp. 84–139). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Greene, J. P., Erickson, H. H., Watson, A. R., Beck, M. I. (2018). The play’s the thing: Experimentally examining the social and cognitive effects of school field trips to live theater performances. Educational Researcher, 47(4), 246–254.

Kisida, B., Goodwin, L., & Bowen, D. H. (2020). Teaching History Through Theater: The Effects of Arts Integration on Students’ Knowledge and Attitudes. AERA Open.

West, M. (2007). Testing, learning, and teaching: The effects of test-based accountability on student achievement and instructional time in core academic subjects. In Finn, C. E., Ravitch, D. (Eds.), Beyond the basics: Achieving a liberal education for all children (pp. 45–61). Fordham Institute.