There are so many terms for school arts programs: specials, related arts, expressive academics, integrated arts… All are attempts to describe how visual arts, music, and sometimes other content areas fit into a school culture. Most of the time, these terms describe arts programs in terms of how they differ from all other content areas, like math or science. It’s a subtle nod to the fact that most arts programs are treated like an unnecessary but nice activity to give some change of pace from the rigors of academic learning. Big eye roll!
Of course, that’s not how arts teachers see themselves or their programs. It hurts to be reduced to background music or pretty hallway decoration. There can be so much pressure from administration to perform, compete, present, and display in order to create positive news about a school or, more bluntly, make the administrators themselves look good.
I do not want to downplay the arts’ role in creating positive news about a school or improving students’ morale. There absolutely is value in that. However, when it seems that performances and displays are the only thing that the administration cares about when discussing arts programs, it severely limits the possibilities– not to mention, it contributes to arts teacher burnout by dismissing teachers’ value.
Outcomes vs. Outputs
The important mindset shift for administrators (and teachers!) to make is in understanding the impact a program has beyond these flashy events. It comes in uncovering a program’s intended outcomes, rather than outputs. What’s the difference? I’m so glad you asked!
Outputs are events, tests, data points, or other summative items/activities that generate outcomes. Outcomes are the broader impacts that these items/activities have on students, the school, and the community as a whole. The way I remember the difference is that outputs are something more tangible– something you can “put” somewhere. Outcomes are what “comes” of a program– the impact that it has.
For example: Art shows and concerts are examples of an output. They are singular, summative events. But they are NOT the outcomes, or the impact, of your program. The outcomes from arts shows or concerts might include: increased ability to speak about art in a variety of contexts, management of stage fright, involvement in community activism, connection to a variety of other content areas, exposure to careers in the arts… amongst many others.
When advocating for arts programs, the outcomes (NOT the outputs) are what teachers are really fighting for. If administrators are putting the screws on teachers to perform, compete, and display more– point to the outcomes. “This is what my program is really about. Those activities (outputs) interfere with / don’t align with my ability to achieve those outcomes.”
Similarly, when speaking about the awesome outputs you do align with, don’t forget to connect them with your true outcomes. Ex: “Our spring art show was incredible! Students used their platforms as artists to invoke emotions about our local environment.” When you demonstrate to all stakeholders that your program has social, emotional, academic, and community-based impact, you remind them that you are more than just “background music” or “shiny art.”
Knowing your intended outcomes is essential to designing an arts program that is based on community values with an eye for long-term health and growth of the program. If you want to establish your meaningful outcomes and build an engaging and equitable program around them– that’s where I come in. Click here to learn more about my process to take arts programs from struggling to thriving!