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Evaluation and Assessment: Beyond Anecdotal Evidence
Laura Day Giarolo, Director of Learning & Community Engagement, OPERA America
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Original Content3/5/2012

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Once a month, OPERA America staff members gather to discuss reports and publications that we’ve recently read. At our most recent Journal Club, one colleague reported on The Arts and Human Development: Framing a National Research Agenda for the Arts, Lifelong Learning, and Individual Well-Being, released fall 2011 by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While the report’s purpose was to outline areas of arts participation ripe for future research, one of the studies cited, The Creativity and Aging Study: The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults, found that older adults who participated in arts activities "reported higher overall physical health, fewer doctor visits, less medication use, fewer instances of falls and fewer health problems when compared to the comparison group. The intervention group also evidenced better morale and less loneliness than the comparison group. Similarly, [those participating in arts activities]… reported a trend toward increased activity." To which OPERA America staff members said, "Well, duh!"

One issue that arts organizations must face is that so much of the positive impact we see of our work is measured in "Well, duh!" terms. Anecdotal evidence is important, and a powerful personal story makes a great case for marketing and fundraising materials, but an organization must set up certain procedures to accurately report the impact and evaluate the success of its educational programs. In-depth longitudinal research studies, such as those recommended in the NEA/HHS report can be time-consuming and costly. Still, funding opportunities for this type of work does exist. For example, the Metropolitan Opera Guild is in year two of a multi-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education (Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination) to study the impact of opera-based teaching and learning on public schools in Brooklyn.

On a smaller scale, opera companies can combat the "Well, duh!" conundrum by undertaking two steps in tandem: program evaluation (the process of determining the effectiveness and efficiency of projects, policies and programs) and assessment of student learning (the process of determining how much or to what extent participants/students have developed their knowledge, understanding and abilities). Recognizing the fact that many arts organizations confuse these two concepts, the National Endowment for the Arts recently engaged WestEd to conduct research into current best-practices in assessment of student learning. Improving the Assessment of Student Learning in the Arts — State of the Field and Recommendations provides a description of the current state of arts assessment, including a review of the high-quality literature available, common practices being used to assess student learning, and needs of the field to improve arts assessment. It examines current trends and practices for assessing student learning across multiple arts fields, including:
  • Dance
  • Folks Arts
  • Literary Arts
  • Media Arts
  • Music
  • Musical Theater
  • Opera
  • Theater
  • Visual Arts

Program evaluation and assessment of student learning were also topics of discussion at the recent Education Forum, and will be explored in further detail through two webinars this spring:

Program Evaluation for Opera Education
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
1:00 - 2:00 p.m. EST
Evaluation is an inherent part of the artistic process, and it should be part of every arts education program as well. Knowing how effective and efficient your projects, policies and programs are can lead to improvements in program design and implementation as well as increased funding. Dr. Patti Saraniero of Moxie Research will discuss what evaluation is (and isn't), describes what the evaluation process and offers additional resources. This webinar is intended for those new to evaluation.

Assessment of Student Learning
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
1:00 - 2:00 p.m. EST
Anecdotal evidence and observations indicate that an opera-based educational experience benefits students and helps them learn. But how can you document that learning process to funders, school administrators and policy makers to gain their continued support of opera education? As importantly, assessment helps teachers and artists understand student learning and progress. Learn more a variety of assessment strategies for students of all ages from Dr. Patti Saraniero of Moxie Research.

Webinars are available free of charge to Professional Company Members ($25 for other membership categories and $50 for non-members). For more information or to register, click here.
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