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Are We Asking the Right Questions?
by Laura Day Giarolo, Manager of Education & Community Engagement, OPERA America
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Original Content1/1/2011

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Collecting and carefully mining data to make informed decisions can lead to increased quality, efficiency and effectiveness in any field. In order for that to be the case, an organization must first establish common goals, a common vocabulary and agree on both definitions and metrics of success. Taking this approach requires the re-evaluation and re-examination of tacit assumptions, especially in the field of arts education.

Most arts organizations’ primary business is that of performance, and so determining what type of role educational programming will play internally and in the community is essential. The word “education” may come to stand for the creation and distribution of study guides, the provision of behind-the-scenes access for discovery or a more in-depth and involved commitment to school- or community-based learning. Education programs may provide a way to supplement lower attendance, increase visibility in the community and sow the seeds of the next generation of attendees.

An organization may define education as high quality teaching and learning — but is that teaching and learning about the art form, or is it using the art form to enhance and improve teaching and learning in the classroom? Is the impact of that organization’s education programs best described by the number of students who learn about and attend a rehearsal or performance of a specific piece, by the work those students create in the classroom the next day or by tickets sold to those same students 20 years hence?

Different departments within our own performing companies may each care about a different way of defining success and measuring impact; other key stakeholders, such as partnering or participating teachers and administrators, may have still other ways of doing so. Incorporating the views of these key stakeholders into an organization’s ongoing business plan is the key to maintaining relevance and adaptability, as decisions such as these cannot wait for a larger strategic planning process to be completed.

By establishing a common vocabulary and a predetermined vision of success, an organization can then begin the process of determining what data need to be collected in order to assess its progress towards success. Quantitative data, such as the number of students served, may seem straightforward, but what are the ways in which those data can be sliced and diced to give richer insight? Does the number of students served equal the number of students who were scheduled to attend a final dress rehearsal, or those who actually attended? For a lecture to adult members of the community, is the number served equal to the number of tickets sold, the number of purchasers who bought the tickets or the number of seats that were filled? What are the age and grade-level breakdowns of the population served? How do you determine the age of an older attendee, or report on an audience’s ethnic diversity while respecting the privacy of the audience members who may not wish to report their information? How do you measure impact using qualitative measures, such as by viewing a portfolio of student work or teacher lesson plans?

These are all important questions to ask and to thoroughly understand, and addressing these issues will form a major portion of OPERA America’s upcoming Education Forum in New York City on Saturday, January 15, 2011. For more information about the Forum, please contact Laura Day Giarolo by calling 212-796-8620, ext. 206 or e-mailing LDay@operaamerica.org.
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