Monday, June 11, 2012

Findings from the First National Needs Assessment of El Sistema-Inspired Programs (by Ben Fuller and Jennifer Kessler)

Preface: A slightly shorter version of this article was initially written by Ben Fuller and myself and published in the June issue of The Ensemble, a newsletter for the U.S. El Sistema Movement, co-edited by Eric Booth and Tricia Tunstall. For more information on The Ensemble, please write: 

El Sistema Needs Assessment: The Data and What It All Means

Back in January, the 2012 Sistema Fellows surveyed self-identified El Sistema-inspired programs across the country for the first-ever National Needs Assessment. As a collaborative project by the New England Conservatory, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Longy School of Music, the National Needs Assessment sought to identify every El Sistema-inspired program in the U.S., collect basic information and quantitative data for every program, and identify successes, challenges, and needs of U.S. programs in order to give clarity and direction for the movement going forward.  The information gathered in countless hours speaking with program directors is a September 2011-January 2012 snapshot, representing a broad overview that is neither comprehensive nor perfectly accurate. We hope you'll look at this data as a launching pad to further questions around what we need to be successful in our work.

Basic Facts
  • Approximately 7,000 students in 54 programs
  • 54 programs with 91 sites (second sites are most often started in organizations 3+ years old)
  • 9 hours of instruction/week on average (information on how many weeks per year was not obtained)
  • Serving students from ages 2 to 17 (predominantly elementary-school aged)
  • $1,800/child average expenditure
  • 16 programs in the Northeast, 13 in California, 10 in the South, 9 in the Midwest, 6 in the West
  • Sites include: 48 public schools (in or after-school not indicated), 18 community centers, 5 charter schools, 2 Churches, 2 Boys and Girls Clubs,1 Catholic private school, library
The Juicier Information

Programs overwhelmingly stated youth development, community development, music, and access as core values of their missions. Descriptions of the biggest successes of programs reflected their core values: 41% of program directors cited youth development, 32% cited musical growth, and 27% cited community development.

The most frequently cited “biggest challenges” were financial sustainability and funding (organizations with budgets greater than $500K listed “growth” as their greatest challenge). Almost all programs reported issues related to hiring qualified teaching artists and guiding them to implement the vision of the program.

What are the three greatest challenges that program directors believe teaching artists face in the classroom daily? 68% reported classroom management, 19% reported student attendance, and 13% reported teaching to mixed abilities.

There were mixed responses regarding type and amount of parental support, which included parents volunteering to organize events, serve as chaperones, and in some cases, serve on parental network committees. 61% of programs reported strong parental involvement, 24% reported some parental involvement, and 15% reported no parental involvement. Most organizations feel that the relationships with parents and families are excellent, and parental roles seem to mature as organizations grow.

Across all budget and years-in-service groups, program directors feel that the top key skills their students are learning are musicianship, discipline, self-esteem, and teamwork.

However, we were interested to discover this: most programs are not evaluating anything.
Programs that are evaluating tend to be focusing on musical evaluation. We wondered how programs know the skills that their students are taking away if they aren't evaluating the non-musical skills.

Cost per child: Based on a $230,000 average, $1811 per child. This is under the average recommended by the Wallace Foundation. It does not take number of sites, years in service, or weeks per year into consideration, and we know that several organizations are operating on a budget that suggests that there is no paid staff ($700- $15,000). Instead of $1800/per student being a number we should strive for, it could instead raise questions about what these numbers mean. In thinking about sustainability of organizations (particularly human resources), how can we shift from figuring out how little we can spend on cost per child to considering which elements are essential components for our programs' success and longevity, and what the long-term return on investment is for our programs?


Some principal findings of our survey are that evaluation and funding are really important, and that sharing resources such as repertoire, teacher training, and best hiring practices would be helpful to most programs. Perhaps more important than our findings are the questions raised. Why are we mainly in schools? Why are we mainly serving elementary-school children? When do we expand, and why? As Beth Babcock says, “Bigger is not necessarily better; better is better.”

While we were not surprised by most of the findings, we were interested to note that most of the challenges that El Sistema-inspired programs face are the same challenges that any other arts organization faces with arts education programs: recruiting and training teaching artists, supporting teaching artists in their work, meeting community needs, and fundraising. One major difference seems to be that El Sistema-inspired programs are - on the whole - rarely evaluating their musical and social outcomes, while many arts education programs are steeped in evaluation and assessment processes, so much so that it's possible to lose sight of what all of the documentation could be used for.

In terms of the social goals of our programs, what are the best ways to measure the outcomes of our work, in relation to the youth and community development values we all share? Here, we can look to assessment processes that the social sector has used successfully, such as the Child and Adolescent Functional Assessment Scale (CAFAS) Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths (CANS), and the Child Behavior Checklist. We are at the beginning of our journey toward understanding how to fulfill our mission to make a difference in the lives of children.

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