From the Zones Friday: Improve performance by expanding definitions of achievement

October 8, 2010 •

Editor’s note: Big Thought, Inc. is a non-profit organization that works in Dallas to ‘reimagine’ schooling through creative learning. In this guest post LeAnn Binford, director of operations at Big Thought, argues that exposing under served students to expanded forms of learning improves homework completion, reading comprehension, test scores, and classroom behaviors. Autonomy and financial support are necessary for this type of re-working of assessment to function well.

While it is not an innovative notion to challenge the inequity of resources within our educational system, it is innovative to suggest that if the opportunity gap disappears, the achievement gap will go along with it.

In Dallas we tested this theory almost a decade ago when the City of Dallas, Dallas Independent School District, and dozens of partnering cultural organizations came to the table with their resources to do something extraordinary through the ArtsPartners program. For the first time since the 1970s, over 100,000 kids in 157 Dallas elementary schools gained access to arts & cultural experiences. And wouldn’t you know it, when underserved children experienced enriching curriculum that had previously been denied them, their homework completion, reading comprehension, test scores and classroom behaviors all improved. Some quite dramatically.

In fact, over the span of five years Big Thought heavily invested in rigorous longitudinal studies that demonstrated improved student achievement for two reasons. First, it assured quality programming. Second, it allowed for principals, teachers, and parents to have some proof with their pudding. The most prominent issue in the beginning of ArtsPartners was the nod of approval from teachers and principals—they are the gatekeepers and resource givers through which our children ultimately gain knowledge. As a first step, we conducted a series of community conversations that addressed their concerns. We also began implementing professional development opportunities for 6,000 teachers annually that allowed educators to see real-world benefits of arts learning in their classrooms.

Underlying Big Thought’s acceptance in the schools was a secret weapon: the support of the larger bureaucratic entities that governed education in our city. Collaboration of the mayor and superintendent were both necessary and sufficient to bridge the opportunity gap. With this support, we became an attractive and legitimate organization for local, state, and federal granters who were searching for successful programs to fund. Unfortunately, the thorn to this rose is that funding agencies can sometimes hinder innovation through a narrow focus that limits funds applications, timing and audiences served.

But despite the challenges of beginning and maintaining a citywide partnership, the principles that govern it – acceptance from leaders, commitment to research, understanding of educators and a desire to close the opportunity gap – can hopefully help other cities and districts in their quests to close the achievement gap.

Image: LeAnn Binford, Big Thought