Work to improve quality in Dallas began with Big Thought’s launch of the Thriving Minds initiative. Thriving Minds worked with local and national panels to develop a framework for judging the quality of teaching and learning. Thriving Minds worked to align the standards it was developing with the University of Pittsburgh’s Principles of Learning, which the Dallas Independent School District had adopted. Of the six dimensions of quality teaching and learning that Thriving Minds outlined, the first three are, according to an evaluation the second year of Thriving Minds, “elements of effective instruction necessary to support creative learning, while the last three are elements necessary for rigorous and creative learning in the arts.” (See the Six Dimensions for Quality Teaching and Learning).

In Dallas, teams of observers assessed quality in four arts disciplines: dance, music, theater, and visual arts using the Six Dimensions. These teams convened three times per year to receive training in the observation and assessment process. Some observers remained on the teams for several sessions, while others moved off and new observers moved on. New observers were paired with experienced team members to ensure continuity. Teams visited arts instruction in school settings and out-of-school programs.

In year one of the work in Dallas, educators created and tested the tools (which have been refined and are now available on this site). In the second year, Thriving Minds convened observers to conduct and score assessments of arts education. According to the Thriving Minds second-year evaluation, “The first goal of the panels was to develop baseline data on the quality of classroom and out of school instruction in the arts,” and “the second was to develop a widely shared definition of quality teaching and learning in and across disciplines, settings, and providers in Dallas, so that all partners could set goals and work towards achieving new levels of excellence.”

During training, observers were assigned to three-person teams that included a teacher, a community instructor (artist, children’s librarian, etc.), and a researcher. On the first day of training, participants learned how to apply the six dimensions to various educational venues. Observers practiced assessing and scoring using videotaped sample lessons. On the second day, observers visited five to seven sites. On the third day, participants gather again to discuss what the observed and build consensus about the scores they’ve assigned to each lesson.

In Dallas, participants responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to observe educators in a variety of settings and learn what other teachers were doing, as well as the chance to discuss quality education in-depth with motivated colleagues. Observers viewed participation as valuable professional development and frequently returned session after session to learn and contribute further, and recruited friends and colleagues to participate as well.