I just finished facilitating one of the most satisfying evaluation meetings of my career. No, I did not present results of outstanding successes or reveal the secret to improving schools.
Drawing on materials from the Wallace Foundation, I helped project leaders create a logic model to inform the evaluation activities scheduled for later this summer. The logic model broke down and described the complex school improvement activities the leaders had planned, which helped everyone get on the same page. We then detailed the outputs and outcomes the project hoped to achieve by implementing the activities—from specific improvements in teachers’ instruction and attitudes to changes in outcomes for students. We aimed for ambitious but attainable.
The two-day meeting, which took place in a large urban district in the midwest, wasn’t just a thrill for evaluator types like me. District leaders showed up in full force, even when heavy snow closed schools for the second day of the meeting. In evaluator lingo, I call “attendance during a snowstorm” a good proxy for leaders’ commitment and enthusiasm about evaluation.
Why is involving evaluators important for school improvement efforts? Because it makes the evaluation more useful and valuable. Because of the work on logic modeling, I feel fairly confident that two years from now, in my final meeting with this group, I will be able to provide them with data analysis that helps them make decisions that guide the future of the project.
When leaders engage evaluators early and meaningfully, the evaluation results speak directly to the project activities and lead to changes that strengthen outcomes. From the start, leaders and evaluators have a clear and shared understanding of the project, so evaluators can develop measures and collect data that relate to implementation of project activities, as well as the outcomes that the activities are designed to achieve.
Too often in school improvement, evaluators are called in years after an effort has been in place. The project leaders and the evaluators often don’t consider the quality of project implementation and, instead, look only at student scores on state tests. As a result, these evaluations run risk of coming to the broad, but not very actionable, conclusion that... the project didn’t work, but no one really knows why.
Starting evaluation efforts early doesn’t guarantee positive results, but it does make evaluation more useful in the long run. And, the long run is what school improvement is all about—engaging in the hard, thoughtful, and ongoing work needed to ensure that all schools offer all students excellent educational experiences.
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