Why Is This City Enjoying a Public School Arts Education Renaissance?

Earlier this year we looked at a report comparing Boston's support for the arts with other major U.S. cities. We pulled this quote from The Artery, the city's NPR station that initially covered the report:

This city has long prided itself as the Athens of America, but when it comes to spending on the arts, a study released Thursday by the Boston Foundation suggests that we might want to refrain from patting ourselves on the back.

We happen to think that assessment is a bit too harsh. Go ahead and pat yourselves on the back, Bostonians. Multiple times. You have our permission.

Why? Because thanks to the good work of Boston Public Schools Art Expansion (BPS-AE), Boston is emerging as one of the country's leading lights in boosting arts education for public school kids.  

We call your attention to the BPS-AE's new publication, Dancing to the Top: How Collective Action Revitalized Arts Education in Boston, which summarizes their work. "Read the whole thing," as we say in the industry. In the meantime, we'll do our best to synthesize some of the key takeaways.

First and foremost, the publication's authors have done a great job of breaking apart their efforts into discrete elements that can be replicated by cities elsewhere. The case study is more of a cheat sheet, replete with valuable "real, repeatable solutions" and best practices.

To that end, BPS-AE lists six key components of their overall framework: Multi-Layered Leadership; Shared Ownership Among Diverse Parties; Strategic Philanthropy; Data-Driven Agenda, Goals, and Outcomes; Multiple Strategies; and Community Engagement.

Take the third component, Strategic Philanthropy. Key inputs here include:

  • Local Donors—Support local arts programs and organizations through a special collaborative fund managed by the intermediary, EdVestors.
  • National Donors—Support system and infrastructure strengthening/evaluation.
  • Boston Public School System—Support school leaders and arts teachers through robust visual and performing arts department.

We know what you're thinking. "Those components are nice, but what about the results?" Glad you asked. The BPS-AE provided two metrics that any administrator or arts organization would happily sign up for: 

  • 17,000 additional students gaining access to in-school arts learning opportunities every year, a nearly 50 percent growth since 2009.
  • Strategic philanthropic investment leveraging a 5 to 1 increase in public funding for in-school arts education.

Not bad.

Now if we can take our mind reading a bit further, you're probably asking, "OK, so they have these core components that contributed to these impressive success metrics. But how did they get from Point A to Point C?"

BPS-AE has an answer for that too. Multiple answers, in fact.

In this document, titled What Makes BPS-AE Successful?, the authors point to distinct ingredients across the workflow that yielded those results. These include "Clear and measureable goals," "Incentive-based grantmaking," and "Rigorous data collection to assess the 'state of arts education' before developing strategies."

Last but not least, as previously noted, BPS-AE is eager to share their wisdom so other communities can emulate their approach. So do check out their "We Want to Do This" document, which lists key questions to ask across the various stages of the planning process from goal-setting to implementation. 

Ultimately, BPS-AE's work suggests that while it's nice to demand more arts education in public schools—after all, who'd argue with that?—a community's chances for success increase exponentially when fortified by a pragmatic and collaborative roadmap. 

And as for our friends in Boston, don't let that Atery diss get you down. You guys are always so hard on yourselves. In fact, it seems as if New Englanders are particularly hard on themselves. You don't see that kind of self-flagellation out West.

We blame centuries of deeply engrained Puritanical masochism.