12/03/2013 09:33 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2014

Defining Outcomes in Arts Education

What is the purpose of theatre education at the K-12 level? What underlying objectives are shared by diverse programs in diverse communities? How do we reconcile a theatre's objectives in engaging future audiences with the educational objectives of schools and parents? The practical reality is that a climate of education budget cuts, standardized testing and stiff competition for budget dollars makes providing young people, especially in underserved communities, with meaningful arts education opportunities a challenging question.

This surfaced recently when I was sitting in a donor's office laying out our plans for Impact Creativity, an ambitious undertaking to raise $5 million over three years to bridge the budget gaps of our 19 member theaters and their education programs. American creativity is at stake, and so is our sense of equal opportunity -- 40 percent of underserved youth risk losing their access to arts education.

"But what are you setting out to do, actually?" the donor asked? "Raise $5 million," I answered. She paused. "And then...?"

Ah ha. We needed to connect the dots, in other words define theater education and its impact in more tangible ways, so that we can have a national conversation about something that currently differs from state to state, school to school, and theatre to theatre.

The network of 19 National Corporate Theatre Fund (NCTF) member theaters then set out to define clear objectives for the national Impact Creativity program while communicating how the individual theatre education programs address the larger questions facing our education systems: equity, resource scarcity and increasing demand for a high-functioning workforce.

The starting point was to unify behind arts integration programs -- where we apply theatre techniques and skills to other subjects and issues, both inside and outside of schools. With an intrepid task force of 10 people, including managing directors, directors of development, education directors of the member theatres, and Managing Director of Hartford Stage Mike Stotts at the helm, we have begun to shape goals through this lens.

"It was daunting at first given the number and variety of programs of the 19 member theatres," Stotts says. "But starting with arts integration gave us a first angle by which to frame our discussions and help to define and group our programs. We eventually expanded the focus to creativity and workforce preparedness as other key objectives of Impact Creativity."

The network of 19 theatres honed in on the need to better collaborate and share best practices; the need to support schools and adapt to the Common Core; and to strive for better measurement, especially if new technological tools can be deployed.

Arts skills are for everyone, not just the future actors and directors and stage carpenters of America. For many children, the only opportunity for this experience is in school. But we also recognized that the programs happening outside of school in a professional theatre, like the many playwriting and performance labs, imbue students with skills in communication, collaboration and performance, as well as enhance self-esteem.

Just last week, the Dallas Theater Center's program Project Discovery (an Impact Creativity Innovation Program), which prepares teachers and students to engage in the social justice issues that emerge from the theatres' productions, was awarded the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama. The award recognizes exemplary after-school and out-of-school time programs from across the country and is the highest national honor awarded to such programs.

In fact, it is theatre education programs like these -- often with an interdisciplinary focus -- that build skills and foster engagement in non-theatrical subjects through science and mathematics integration, educator training or the development of programming around special needs students and social issues.

My objective in sharing this experience and its results is not just to tout what I regard as a signal accomplishment of Impact Creativity in its own right, but to share a way we found to strengthen the link between arts education and the problem-solving objectives of many potential partners. The field is rapidly evolving as the post-recession, Common Core era continues, but our map is now clearer, and we welcome your thoughts and your engagement. We march forth, armed with renewed inspiration and purpose. Let's keep America creative together.