Common Core and Arts Integration in Philadelphia

Adapting teaching methods to learning standards is not always an easy task. Teachers and school administrators working with new or updated standards, like the Common Core State Standards, are faced with developing and recalibrating methods to ensure alignment. So imagine the challenge of redesigning a $1.1 million federal program right in the middle of a four-year grant cycle. That was the daunting task that faced the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership (PAEP) as it worked alongside the School District of Philadelphia to integrate the arts into the curriculum in four Philadelphia schools.

PAEP was awarded a four-year grant through the Department of Education’s Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination Program (AEMDD) in 2010. Entitled Arts Link: Building Mathematics and Science Competencies through an Arts Integration Model, the grant aims to integrate the arts into the math and science curriculum in grades two through five. The end goal is to increase student achievement in these subjects by presenting the material through lessons and in ways not done previously.

PAEP had prior experience with a 2006 ED grant that evidenced the effectiveness of arts integration. Entitled Arts Bridges: Building Literacy Through an Integrated Arts Collaborative Model, the project focused on grades four through six and on building literacy while promoting social behaviors. Over the four years of the AEMDD grant, PAEP honed a successful, skills-alignment professional development model that combined teacher-identified literacy goals with matched sets of arts and literacy skills. The resulting integrated-learning objectives were reinforced by both classroom teachers and arts specialists, as well as by literacy and visual artists who visited the schools and classrooms. A report on the project’s final year indicated that the approach successfully improved the literacy skills of the participating students.

Getting teachers on board

Despite this prior success, there was not always buy-in from teachers and principals. It’s often said that the arts are nice to have but cannot always be a priority given budget realities and assessment needs in a district. In fact, even teachers working in schools involved in this grant needed some convincing, but these teachers soon experienced the benefit of including the arts in core subjects to enhance the comprehension of standards.

At Stephen Decatur Elementary School, for instance, art teacher Marissa Grosso initially did not like the idea of arts integration. She discussed her concern about implementing the program in the school with Principal Genevieve Endy-O’Kane. But after numerous conversations, Ms. Grosso decided to stay on the project and soon came to realize the multitude of benefits to the students. In fact, she became so invested that she decided to explore how arts integration could be used with other core subjects beyond mathematics. Moreover, she went on to use her master’s degree courses to further explore using the arts to teach other subjects, and she continues to work with fellow teachers to develop lesson plans.

To see just how successful PAEP has been in getting teachers on board, one only has to ask them. In the PAEP first-year annual report, one Arts Link teacher is quoted as saying, “The most valuable aspect of professional development for me was experiencing the model lesson the teacher and teaching artist presented. That allowed me to see the co-teaching model in action. It made me want to co-teach with my artist.”

The core of the program

The current project is headed up by the art teacher at each of the participating schools, and is composed of teams of two classroom teachers per grade, assisted by a master teaching artist. Each of these teams received thorough professional development in addressing core curriculum standards, creating arts integrated lessons, and developing co-teaching plans. An ongoing evaluation will assess the efficacy of these teaching models, which will influence future professional development activities and model replication. The project intends to demonstrate its effectiveness by employing a quasi-experimental evaluation approach to ascertain the impact of the arts on mathematics and science learning. While four schools experience the arts-integration approach, or the treatment in the evaluation design, a comparable group of seven schools serves as the control.

At a recent visit to McCall Elementary, one of the treatment schools, ED staff observed teacher Meg Merlini and teaching artist Ben DeMeo using the arts to teach math concepts to 4th-grade students. The lesson, entitled “Fractal Sculpture,” fused geometry and three-dimensional shapes to classify triangles and tasked students to define the types of geometric shapes they were developing. By handling the three dimensional shapes, students were able to identify equivalent numbers and how they translated into shapes. In addition, the students combined shapes, designing interesting three-dimensional structures that both expressed their creativity and demonstrated their understanding of geometric principles. As they measured each of the sides of the shapes they were working with, the geometric concepts of the lesson were reinforced in the students’ minds.

Morton Elementary School students identified and learned the properties of common geometric shapes through the construction of dodecahedron sculptures. They decorated their sculptures with geometric-shaped stickers to indicate a pattern of number arrays as a review of the concept of multiplication. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Arts Education Partnership)

Morton Elementary School students identified and learned the properties of common geometric shapes through the construction of dodecahedron sculptures. They decorated their sculptures with geometric-shaped stickers to indicate a pattern of number arrays as a review of the concept of multiplication. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Arts Education Partnership)

Cue the Common Core

During the third year of PAEP’s grant, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania instituted new Common Core standards, the Pennsylvania Standards Aligned System (PSAS). As a consequence, PAEP has modified its professional development to reflect a change in the standards. The PSAS encompasses English/language arts, history, science, technical subjects, and mathematics.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia, aim to develop a set of shared national standards to ensure that students in every state are held to the same level of expectations as students in the highest performing countries. The goal is for students to gain knowledge and skills to prepare them for success in postsecondary education and in the world at-large — thus they are often referred to as college- and career-ready standards. Among the various subjects, there are two overarching sets of Common Core State Standards: English language arts and mathematics.

So how do creativity and the arts work with such specific sets of non-arts standards? To start with, PAEP’s model focuses very specifically on core content learning in mathematics and science, and promotes reading, research, and writing across these content areas.

More specifically, it identifies relevant standards (for Pennsylvania, the CCSS) and requires each grade-level collaborative team to develop units of study based on “big ideas” and “essential questions” taken directly from the School District of Philadelphia’s required curricula. Each team of two classroom teachers, the art teacher, and a master teaching artist works together over the course of eight months.

How PAEP arts integration works

Fourth-grade students at Comly Elementary School learned to calculate the surface area and volume of a cube. Using the principles and elements of art, they designed a grid that they then used as a template to stitch geometric forms with colored yarn representing perimeter, area, and volume of their cubes. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Arts Education Partnership)

Fourth-grade students at Comly Elementary School learned to calculate the surface area and volume of a cube. Using the principles and elements of art, they designed a grid that they then used as a template to stitch geometric forms with colored yarn representing perimeter, area, and volume of their cubes. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Arts Education Partnership)

The arts integration model that is employed aligns concepts and skills in core content academic areas with concepts and skills in the arts. This is to reinforce learning from multiple perspectives. The model also has a focus on in-depth, experiential engagement with the core curriculum. In other words, it has students truly interacting with the subject matter — whether that is through making three-dimensional shapes, acting out a concept, or dancing to reinforce mathematical concepts.

Many of the core standards in mathematics lend themselves beautifully to arts integration. For instance, modeling with mathematics, in which students ”apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace,” is naturally complemented by arts learning objectives calling for students to use geometric concepts, properties, and relationships in art making.

At Stephen Decatur Elementary, Mayan architecture was the focus of a cross-grades math unit during the first year of the Arts Link project. Students created a Mayan city, deciding on what shapes to use and modeling the operations of addition and subtraction as they translated those shapes into three-dimensional cities. The complementary nature of the math and arts learning objectives, across the elementary grade levels, can be seen on page 10 of the Arts Link Year One Catalog. As the fifth graders learned to identify various geometric shapes (a math objective), they also learned to sketch two-dimensional shapes observed from three-dimensional forms and to manipulate paper in various ways to create the geometric, three-dimensional shapes of the Mayan cities they worked in groups to create.

Using arts integration with Common Core Standards means teaching students how to analyze, explain, and apply knowledge, rather than just memorize taught material. It also emphasizes non-cognitive skills, such as perseverance and grit, in order to orient students to achieve results. In fact, one of the Common Core Standards in math is “to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” Secretary Arne

Duncan, in a recent speech before the National Head Start Association, said, “We know from the research cited in Paul Tough’s fantastic book, How Children Succeed, that specific non-cognitive skills, like grit and self-regulation and executive function, can help children flourish and overcome significant challenges throughout their lifetimes.” Using the arts to create an end product often requires quite a bit of trial and error for the student to achieve the desired end result. It engages the student’s problem-solving skills and allows them to truly “test out” the material, often in a physical way.

Benefits for both teachers and students

So how does Arts Link meet the new Common Core math requirements? To start with, the project is firmly grounded in the Common Core State Standards and the Pennsylvania Standards Aligned System. The teachers and teaching artists meet regularly to reinforce concepts stated within the Common Core Standards. Formally, they meet 30 times over eight months in professional development sessions, reading, writing, and translating the standards into lessons that use visual art content and strategies, such as using paper models to explain geometric shapes.

Informally, the artists and teachers across four schools have a shared Facebook page where they can exchange ideas and share challenges. One of the keys to implementing a Common Core/arts-integrated lesson plan lies in the planning process, where the teachers and teaching artists determine the learning needs of the students as they relate to the standards. With that, learning outcomes are established and connected to experiential and project-based learning exercises.

Arts Links also connects to the Common Core by focusing in on the shared idea that arts are part of the core content. Without that shared agreement among principals, teachers, and teaching artists, the arts are indeed just an add-on.

Teachers reflect on the classroom activities, so as to assess what worked in communicating the integrated content to students and what did not work, and they evaluate student progress based on concept retention. This process has the potential for students to more fully integrate the material because of the multiple methods of teaching. The reinforcement of content in both the arts and in mathematics or science by the cadre of classroom teachers, content specialists, and teaching artists enables students to successfully integrate and retain the content of the multiple subjects.

In addition, students participating in PAEP’s program take away a definitive experience — such as building a Mayan city — that they will have an easier time recalling and that will provide them with a more positive association with the mathematics and science principles being taught. It is much easier to recall abstract concepts when they are learned in the context of a creative, hands-on activity.

And assuming there’s something to be said for learning being enjoyable, Mary Dupree, special programs manager for PAEP, says arts integration makes learning more enjoyable for the students. She and others, however, also report that the enjoyment is accompanied by enhanced learning and retention of knowledge. One second-grader reported to her, “I was learning math and science and didn’t even know it!”

The potential impact in Philadelphia and beyond

Once completed, the evaluation of the Arts Link project may not only benefit schools in Philadelphia but elsewhere. ArtsEdSearch, a national clearinghouse of rigorously vetted research studies on the effects of arts teaching and learning, contains a growing number of findings that point to positive outcomes for student academic achievement when arts-integration content and instruction are used. For instance, Arts IMPACT, a Columbus, Ohio, program that used arts integration to reinforce learning both in the arts and in other academic subjects, including math and science, in fourth-grade classrooms, found that students in the arts-integration schools outperformed their counterparts in a set of non-arts-integration control schools. The project’s researchers also concluded that “students from the Arts IMPACT low-income school that used arts integration had significantly higher scores on Ohio Fourth-Grade Proficiency Test subtests of math [and] science … than the students from the control group low-income school.”

Similarly, potentially positive evaluation results and findings from the Arts Link project, when disseminated via ArtsEdSearch, can inform school leaders beyond Philadelphia about the value-added nature of arts integration. As the project enters its fourth and final year, the valiant efforts of the PAEP leaders and project participants to change-up and meet the challenge presented by adoption of the Common Core could deliver unexpected dividends both locally and nationally.

Claire Geddes is a management and program analyst in the Office of Innovation and Improvement. She was assisted by Shavonney White, OII’s program officer for PAEP’s AEMDD grant.

This is the second in a series of three feature articles about arts integration projects supported by the Office of Innovation and Improvement. The final article will appear in September.

This article relies on Information gathered by OII as part of its oversight and monitoring of grant projects funded by the Department of Education. The information is provided to offer insights on the activities of our grantees and to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and improvement. In addition, the article does not provide, or intend to provide, information on grantee compliance with Department regulatory or statutory requirements or final project outcomes. Finally, this article does not provide an endorsement of any educational product, service, curriculum, or pedagogy.