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Dennie Palmer Wolf and Jennifer Bransom offer lessons from the evaluation of a Dallas-based effort to promote “360-degree literacy” for children, using complementary partnerships between elementary schools and the city’s arts and cultural organizations.¹

“It takes a village to raise a child.” In practice that notion often means bringing together a network of providers, each to do their separate work: Families are in charge of behavior, schools are responsible for academics, clinics look after children's health. However, if we really were to build a village, a child's learning (or behavior or health) would necessarily be the concern of many segments of a community. Thus we would be challenged to think, work, and evaluate programs in new ways.

In Dallas, Texas, under the auspices of a new organization, Big Thought (BT)² this more integrative kind of thinking is emerging, especially with respect to students' learning. Big Thought oversees an innovative collaboration between the City of Dallas, the Dallas Independent School District (DISD), and the city's arts and cultural organizations. Its work is rooted in the belief that a city's institutions have to join forces to ensure that children receive an education that will foster the next generation of city councillors, entrepreneurs, librarians, artists, and wise parents.

Through BT, each Dallas elementary school receives a common allotment of dollars to purchase the services of artists and education staff from the city's arts and cultural organizations. Technical support teams from BT help principals and teachers select, use, and build on their experiences, thus ensuring that every student has access to the kinds of learning that can occur in theaters, libraries, and science centers.

In the late 1990s, BT realized that for its programs to mature and attract national funding, a major evaluation was in order. Big Thought thus partnered with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR), an organization that, like BT, insists on a network of civic supports for public education. Following is a brief description of some of the lessons learned through what has become a multiyear partnership.

Lesson 1: Create and Sustain a “Mixed Table”
A common evaluation focus, one that resonated for all partners—the city, the district, the cultural institutions, as well as principals and classroom teachers—had to be identified. To do so AISR staff and BT together created a mixed table, with participants representing each partner. The result was a focus on literacy in the broadest sense: fluency in informational and creative writing, music notation, understanding museum displays, etcetera.

Sustaining this partner discussion has been vital to the evaluation. The initial focus mentioned above has now evolved into the concept of “360-degree literacy,” an approach that enhances students' command of the numerous ways of sharing and creating meaning, both within and beyond the classroom.

Lesson 2: Design to Reflect the Partnership
A first step in designing the evaluation was to secure a joint commitment to a longitudinal study, in order to yield substantial outcomes. Next was constructing a design that was respectful of and feasible for schools and classrooms. The evaluation was thus framed as an examination of what teachers can do when they have the support of their city's resources.

The evaluation also had to include a set of measures that “rang true” to the varied partners. These measures included the following:

  • District and state accountability measures of reading and writing
  • Classroom measures of how student behavior changes when students are working with artists or in arts/cultural settings
  • Interviews with students about the work they generate in classroom and partnership lessons
  • Diaries in which students record how they use their free time, including the literacy-related activities they engage in outside the classroom

Lesson 3: Create Shared Returns
To ensure that the evaluation helped build capacity for each participating organization, AISR and BT have worked to keep it as participatory and transparent as possible:

  • Teachers and principals help design classroom and partnership lessons.
  • Observers and interviewers are drawn from the staff of BT and local cultural organizations but are trained by AISR researchers. This process has yielded a much wider understanding of evaluation, as well as an opportunity to look closely at what makes programs effective.
  • The DISD Division of Evaluation and Accountability collaborates on data analysis, facilitating discussion about what can be learned from large-scale accountability testing with a complement of classroom measures.

Such multiple-partner evaluations are neither simple nor swift. However, they hold the promise of building citywide coalitions with shared, rather than simply parallel, missions.

¹ The authors would like to thank the Ford Foundation, the Meadows Foundation, and the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs for their generous support of this work.
² See also: Annenberg Institute for School Reform. (2005). Voices in Urban Education, 7. The topic of this issue of Voices is community-based education; the issue includes another article by and about Big Thought.

Dennie Palmer Wolf
Opportunity and Accountability
Annenberg Institute for School Reform
Box 1985, Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
Tel: 401-863-3828

Jennifer Bransom
Dallas ArtsPartners & Program Accountability
Big Thought: A Learning Partnership
2501 Oak Lawn, Suite 550, LB-42
Dallas, TX 75219
Tel: 214-520-0023 ext. 232

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