Measuring what counts

by Jini Stolk

What really happens when a young person experiences music, theatre or dance? Is it possible to understand and explain the transformative power the arts can have on people’s lives? Can we measure joy?

These questions will be tackled during our final PAEO workshop, Measuring What Counts, May 29th, 9:30 – 1:00 at CSI Spadina. (register by emailing [email protected] ). Like the previous workshops, this one will be firmly positioned towards collaborative action and problem solving.

We all know that the numbers – how many schools, how many students, how many workshops – don’t tell the story. But we also understand that we need to go beyond anecdotes and case studies to convince the unconvinced and, ideally, free up new resources and support.

The session’s focus on evaluating, strengthening and communicating the impact of arts organizations’ educational activities echoes one of the major themes raised in our Performing Arts Education Overview. The funders we interviewed – although strong believers in the value of the arts – expressed the need for a standard method of evaluation that measures the impact and quality of arts education activities. Some said they’d like to find a way to measure changes of attitude and behaviors to build a base of knowledge on whether arts education programs are having an impact.

The expectations around arts education can be overwhelming. A new pilot project in the States  is using Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerry Washington and Forest Whitaker to go into eight of the nation’s worst-performing schools, pledging to help turn them around by integrating arts education. Organizers hope to show that the arts can reduce behavioral problems and increase student attendance, engagement and academic success.

Wow. That’s a lot to prove

But our own arts community could unquestionably take a big step forward by freely and honestly sharing the results and impact of our educational activities. And we could work together in everybody’s best interest to develop appropriate evaluation tools – defining the terms, parameters and measures used to describe and evaluate our work rather than leaving it to the funders to fill the gap, or leaving it to each organization to reinvent the wheel.

As for that question about measuring joy: I suggest that anyone planning to attend our workshop, or interested in this topic, should read the wonderful and inspiring Measuring Joy: Evaluation at Baltimore Clayworks  – to find out how one small organization put in place a down-to-earth, commonsense, understandable framework for measuring joy and impact.

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