Defining Quality in Arts Education

Arts Education Demonstration Project of the Marin Community Foundation


In 2009, the Marin Community Foundation launched a 5-year initiative called the Arts Education Demonstration Project, motivated by the ongoing reduction in funding for arts education – and the increasing number of studies pointing to the importance of arts in the education of children. The goal was to raise the stature and quality of arts instruction in partnership with two small K-8 demonstration school districts, Larkspur/Corte Madera and Sausalito/Marin City, and at Willow Creek Academy, a public charter school in Sausalito.

We dared to ask: what would happen if quality arts education was an integral part of every student’s education, and what does quality instruction look like? We engaged the school communities in these big questions, and documented what we were learning. We experimented, continually reflected, utilized best practices and expertise from around the country, and engaged in ongoing professional development. The three main goals were 1) increase access of all students to discrete arts instruction; 2) improve the quality and depth of arts integrated as well as discrete arts teaching; and 3) build leadership and infrastructure that would guarantee sustainability of the arts program.  

This website is a learning community for the Arts Education Demonstration Project. It shares the voices of project participants as they discover powerful new learning mediums.  These schools continue to engage in an ongoing conversation about the qualities of meaningful education in and through the arts. 

Valuable Practices Emerging from the Project

Plan Do Reflect Cycle: The project began with a large group of stakeholders in each district coming together to form a vision for their future arts program and an action plan. Each year evaluation data collected from teacher surveys and focus groups, administrative surveys and interviews, arts integrated lessons plans, and student assessment pilots was reviewed and action plans adjusted according to what the data revealed.


Establishing a Vibrant Learning Community: Participatory group methods were taught and continually utilized by consultants to the project and eventually by teacher leaders and administrators in structuring their interchanges. We built on the established structure of grade level planning teams and Site Arts Teams.


Transformative Professional Development: In today’s world of education it is difficult to find the time necessary for enough professional development time amongst all the initiatives schools are adopting and the pressure of test prep. Meanwhile research shows that more than 40 hours a year of professional development is needed in order to shift teaching practice.  Within this environment we found a way to provide a variety of professional development opportunities including:

1) Annual three-day Summer Arts Institutes held in studios at a local university with time for teachers to enter the artistic process themselves and then grapple with instructional design appropriate to their curriculum, finding deep connections to the arts.  The joy of creation left teachers inspired and eager to seek more support to implement what they had learned.

2) Documenting the work of Teacher Researchers who were early adopters of arts integration and whose work helped other teachers realize what was possible.

3) Bringing professional development close to the classroom with Arts Integration Planners was a key to success. The AIPs had considerable classroom experience as well as being practicing artists who also had age appropriate pedagogical training in the arts.  They could talk the language of education as well as the arts.  As consultants they had the flexibility to meet with grade level groups as well as with individual teachers and knew how to lead an inquiry process. Sometimes modeling lessons in the classroom, the AIP’s helped teachers shape and implement arts integrated units of study.

4) As teachers progressed over the five years they were eager for more intensive professional development, which they found beyond the school day from outside organizations like Luna Dance Institute, Project Zero Harvard,  Alameda County’s Integrated Learning Specialist Program, and state and national level professional organizations such as NAEA.


Inquiry-based instructional design that the districts had adopted was supported through all the professional development and began with Project-based Learning. The Arts Integration Planners were conversant with these frameworks.  We co-created a process guide for arts integration planning and an accompanying planning template as well as an Arts Integration Rubric, which defined what a quality, in depth unit would look like and was used as a self-reflection tool. What we were modeling in arts integration design mirrored what the districts were aiming for across the curriculum.


Building Leadership and Infrastructure guaranteed sustainability.  Over time principals saw the benefit of the arts for their students when engaged in a richer, sequential, discrete arts curriculum.  Teacher leaders emerged who shared their work with their colleagues and led county-wide professional development.  Site Arts Teams planned professional development and staff meetings focused on the arts as well as demonstrations of learning in the community. These teams also made recommendations regarding budgeting for the arts.


Culture Shift through Habits of Mind:

1) Every person in the community learned important lessons about how to collaborate. They were given time to reflect on their practice with others and they relished this invaluable process.  Artists, art teachers and AIP’s brought creative spark to the schools and assumed new roles as collaborators in instructional design.

2) Documentation of classroom interactions of the Teacher Researchers was utilized to reflect on instructional design and teaching practice.

3) Making the subtleties of learning visible with Learning Process Walls and use of the Studio Habits of Mind.

4) The looking at student work protocol inspired teachers to continually refine their teaching and take pride in student progress.  Various formative and summative assessments were piloted in Music and Visual Arts.



Feel free to send questions our way. We are willing to debrief any aspect of this project with you or connect you with other key players off line.

Project Consultants

Liz Lindsley

Kristin Heavey

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