El Sistema USA and Duke: Advancing the Power of Music for Human Development (2017-2018)


An emerging field in education and human development, El Sistema is the evidence-based system of classical music for social change founded in Venezuela in 1975 by economist and conductor Jose Antonio Abreu. El Sistema and its worldwide replications create an environment of opportunity through the collective practice of orchestral playing and choral singing as a model for personal, social, academic and musical development.

Since its inception, El Sistema has transformed the lives of millions of children. El Sistema USA (ESUSA) is the U.S. national alliance of individuals, programs and organizations based on the Venezuelan model. El Sistema-inspired programs are broadly defined as intensive youth music programs that seek to affect social change by empowering children with the fewest resources and greatest need through the ambitious pursuit of musical excellence.

With 120 nonprofit members and affiliates, ESUSA was founded in 2014 and is led by Katie Wyatt, an adjunct faculty member of public policy and music at Duke. In 2016 ESUSA, the Duke Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) and the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts announced a partnership to incubate ESUSA at Duke to support member programs through research, conferences, advocacy and talent development.

Project Description

SSRI and ESUSA are engaged in research funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to study the structural organization, community support and alignment of ESUSA members to the guiding principles of El Sistema. This Bass Connections project will continue to develop the multidisciplinary team that includes SSRI and the Music and Public Policy departments at Duke by engaging students and other faculty to build on the research findings of the study, continue the national ESUSA census and organize a national symposium at Duke for students, faculty and ESUSA members in Spring 2018.

The research component of the project will further disseminate the findings of the Duke-NEA study, including presentations at national conferences in the arts, education, program evaluation and other pertinent arenas. The project team will also further the assessment of the ESUSA census and develop an improved census tool, and develop shared measures for ESUSA member outcomes by understanding the elements of highest interest and impact.

The symposium component of the project will involve organizing a national symposium to share the Duke-NEA findings and other major university research in El Sistema. Professional development sessions led by Duke faculty will focus on how El Sistema-inspired programs can best address educational inequality and promote growth in cognitive, social, emotional and health outcomes for students and families enrolled.

Related Course

PUBPOL 290S: Social Entrepreneurship and the Arts (Spring 2018)

Anticipated Outcomes

Publication of findings from Duke-NEA study, including a social network analysis of staff and board members across ESUSA members; measurement of member organizational health; description of organizational success when aligned with the founding principles of El Sistema; national symposium at Duke in Spring 2018 highlighting research in El Sistema and sharing best practices in ending educational inequality for low-income students through the framework of El Sistema-inspired programs

Student Opportunities

The team will likely be comprised of one or two master’s students in the social sciences or statistical science and two to four undergraduates in the social sciences, to support further research in impact of El Sistema; eight to ten undergraduate students from public policy, education and music who are enrolled in PUBPOL 290S, to support a Spring 2018 symposium; and one graduate student from public policy, education or music to act as project manager in leading the undergraduate team members in preparing for the symposium.

The team will meet together each week. During the fall, team members will gain an understanding of the overall topic, the program’s practices and the research being conducted, as well as the outcomes being measured. During the spring, they will work on individual and group projects to gain insight into components of their own choosing related to the research or the symposium. Students in PUBPOL 290S will have as part of their coursework preparation for a required joint presentation in the symposium.  

Students in PUBPOL 290S will receive a grade for their participation in the symposium, and the graduate student project manager for the symposium will receive a paid stipend, with a formal performance review process of job expectations, goal setting, progress and assessment. Students participating in research will have deliverables connected to deadlines to the three research goals, and will also have the same formal performance review process connected to their stipend.


Fall 2017 – Spring 2018

Team meetings will take place on Fridays, 10:00-11:00 a.m.

  • Fall 2017: Publish Duke-NEA research; work on dissemination of Duke-NEA findings (e.g., presentations, publications); review all census materials; develop recommendations for the Census 2017; finalize symposium planning and design; begin registration and recruitment
  • Spring 2018: Finish dissemination of findings; create measurement plan for next study, host symposium


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Scott Lindroth, Trinity - Music
Matthew Nash, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
Kenneth Rogerson, Sanford School of Public Policy
Lorrie Schmid, Social Science Research Institute*
Jessica Sperling Smokoski, Social Science Research Institute
Kathryn Wyatt, Trinity - Music*

* denotes team leader