Improving Arts Learning Opportunities for Pittsburgh Public Schools Students

With funding from The Heinz Endowments and The Grable Foundation, RAND jointly conducted this nine-month study with the Arts Education Collaborative (AEC) to identify the context for and current state of arts education (i.e., instruction in the visual arts, music, dance, and theatre) in grades K-12 throughout the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) district. Focused on in-school programming, the researchers analyzed district data on enrollment and personnel, survey data from PPS principals and certified arts specialists (CAS), and data from interviews with key district personnel, Pittsburgh arts community organizations, and arts coordinators in eight comparative school districts nationwide.

There are several strengths of the district’s arts education program, including dedicated arts champions found throughout the school system and in the arts community; centralized district funding for arts personnel, instruments, and materials; a sizable cadre of committed arts teachers; and a few select arts-infused programs and schools. In addition, there are sophisticated community-based arts organizations dedicated to improving arts education offerings in the districts. Despite these strengths, access to arts education is uneven throughout the district due to site-based decisionmaking. Principals primarily determine arts education provision in PPS, and they report competition for time and space from NCLB-mandated programming. Comparative districts report similar challenges and provision patterns; however, this idiosyncratic provision level in PPS stands in contrast to state standards on arts education. The other main challenge facing the district is the frustration expressed by community-based arts organizations regarding their ability to develop strong partnerships with the district. The findings suggest that a lack of a comprehensive district-wide arts education policy may underlie idiosyncratic provision and undermine the ability to develop quality community partnerships.

The study provides recommendations on developing centralized policies on arts education to improve access for all students to such programming. It also addresses the need to improve relationships with community arts organizations and develop a process for establishing and assessing community partnerships as a way to share effective practices that expand arts learning opportunities in Pittsburgh and beyond. RAND continues to work with the PPS district to identify ways in which the arts can contribute to total school improvement.