More than a requirement of a program’s funders, external evaluation is integral to successful program planning and data-based decision making. Evaluations can answer many questions, such as: What’s working and what’s not? Is the program making a difference? Should it continue, expand, or be cut? At Education Northwest (EdNW), we have worked with a broad range of program teams to maximize the power of evaluation. A new brief by some of EdNW’s expert evaluators shares lessons we have learned over decades of experience that can help staff of state and local education agencies and nonprofit organizations use evaluation results for continuous program improvement.
The brief, part of a series of Lessons Learned distilling EdNW’s years of experience and research, describes six recommendations for getting the most out of external evaluations. The first lesson stresses the importance of clarifying needs and examining your reasons for seeking external evaluation during the planning stages—before program implementation. “Your answers will help you develop a clear statement of evaluation needs and a corresponding budget,” explains Kari Nelsestuen and her colleagues.
Another lesson on using evaluation findings provides several practical tips: “Think about how you will use the evaluation from the very beginning of your project. Ask your evaluator what role he or she can play in presenting results to multiple stakeholders. Include internal and external dissemination of findings in your initial timeline and budget. Invite other program staff members to create opportunities to use the evaluation results. And, consider how to use evaluation findings in an ongoing way—not just once a year.”
In addition to lessons, the publication suggests resources for selecting the right evaluator, as well as learning more about logic models. It also refers readers to an online checklist to use to plan an evaluation. The brief’s authors point out, “No single solution makes an evaluation successful. Instead, success depends on a complex interaction of people, methods, and a genuine interest in looking critically at program challenges and successes.” Their hope is that “these lessons learned help you get the most from your evaluation and create a project team culture that values, understands, and uses your evaluation results.”