Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Arts Assessment: Let's Stop "Proving" and Start Improving

Research and assessment is rare in the arts, and it tends to focus on "proving" our value. Economic impact studies. Studies of how arts participation affects student test scores. This kind of research has two big problems:
  1. It puts most of our assessment capacity into research for someone else, on someone else's terms. It is rarely at the heart of what we do best or are most passionate about. As Ben Cameron recently said, "I don't know any artist who started a theater company saying, 'let's go out and improve some test scores!'"
  2. It prevents us from focusing on research that could transform our own work. Instead, we use research to try to convince someone else to change their work. And given what I've seen on micro and macro-levels in arts funding and power, I don't think this strategy is working. 
I'd love to see an increase in the arts' commitment to research. But we should stop using it to prove that our work is valuable and start using it to improve the work that we do.

Consider the recent research at the University of Arkansas about the value of school field trips to cultural institutions. Educational reform researchers did a rigorous study of school groups that experienced a single one-hour guided tour of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. They found that students who received the tour--compared against a control group of students who did not visit the museum--retained content, increased their critical thinking skills, increased their "historical empathy" for people who lived in different places and times, increased their tolerance for diverse points of view, and increased their interest in visiting museums. The study was extensive and methodologically robust, and the results are making the rounds of museum and art publications and blogs.

But what is the value of a study that tells us that museum visits make a difference? My sense in reading the reports is that this research was intended partly to "prove" the value of a museum school field trip to policymakers. The "Policy Implications" section of the overview report focuses almost entirely on implications outside the museum, encouraging school administrators to provide resources for tours of cultural institutions and philanthropists to fund them.

In my conversations with administrators about field trips, the educational value of the trips never comes up. That is a given. Everyone would like more field trips. Everyone thinks they are valuable. The conversation is always about resources; money for buses, parents to chaperone, time to get away. When the Crystal Bridges research was published on EducationNext, a teacher wrote in, effusive about the impact of museums on her students. She didn't need data to believe in the value of museums. She needed money. I am very, very skeptical that this research could move the needle on her ability to pay for the bus to get to the museum.

Instead of focusing on policy implications for someone outside our sphere of control, I'd love to see this kind of research used to change policy inside the museum. Reading the Crystal Bridges report, I was struck by several questions:
  • All of these test subjects received a docent tour. How do their outcomes differ from school groups who visit but do not have a facilitated experience? Should museums put more resources into docent programs, or fewer?
  • The outcomes were significantly higher for students from "less-advantaged backgrounds." In fact, the impact for advantaged students (larger towns, wealthier schools) was "smaller or null." Does this mean we should prioritize offering docent tours to school groups from rural and poorer schools? Should we put resources into those offerings at the expense of offerings to school groups from wealthier schools? 
  • If a museum cared about one of these outcomes specifically (i.e. content retention vs. historical empathy vs. tolerance), what could they do to their tour program to "dial up" that outcome?
I'm most interested in measurement that moves an organization forward. There are occasionally instances when measurement can move a funder, or an elected official, or a community. But that movement, especially when it comes to proving the value of the arts, has been slow. I believe that our ability to "prove" our value is most correlated not to our economic impact and test score inflation but to our ability to do what we do best. And to do it most powerfully, we need research that can guide us to better choices and approaches. When we improve our own work, we prove our value. 

At least, that's my hypothesis. I guess we'll have to test it.
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