Serve as an Evaluation Partner
We are increasingly asked to serve as an evaluation partner, working alongside districts, service agencies, or others, from the early stages of project design and building local capacity for continuous improvement.
Evaluation is often seen as something that external researchers are hired to do. But state agencies, school districts, social service agencies and other organizations often need to have in-house research and evaluation capacity. It’s what enables an organization to engage in data collection and analysis to support continuous improvement. WestEd evaluators sometime serve as evaluation partners, working alongside clients and helping to build the in-house capacity to conduct research and evaluation.
Research has shown that evaluation results are more likely to be used when stakeholders are involved in the evaluation throughout. We often use developmental evaluation approaches with clients whose initiatives are in their early stages, holding project kickoff meetings to help our clients develop shared goals and a vision for the project. When evaluators collaborate with clients on this critical stage of the work, we can use our content and evaluation expertise to make substantive recommendations if challenges arise or changes need to be made. WestEd researchers in the Justice and Prevention Research Center have written about the importance of a common vision and flexibility when serving as evaluation partners.
Evaluators may partner with agencies or departments to conduct needs assessments to shape or determine the feasibility of interventions.
Evaluators can also use their expertise to collaboratively develop a program’s theory, logic model, and plan of action. Laying this early groundwork can strengthen a program’s potential for impact.
As a program is implemented, evaluators can serve as partners by continuously offering feedback about how implementation is progressing, and by facilitating discussions about adjustments that may be needed. Additionally, evaluators and clients may jointly develop protocols, create centralized data-collection systems and processes, and engage in the reading and interpretation of findings. By enhancing program staff’s capacity to collect and use data, evaluation partners can help them eliminate redundant data-collection practices, identify new areas for data collection, and build systems that can remain in place after the evaluation is over. Ultimately, partnerships with evaluators empower stakeholders to effectively serve their communities and sustain projects in the long-term.
Illustrative examples from our work
Conducting needs assessments
For the National Institute of Justice-funded Atlanta Public Schools Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, WestEd evaluators are partnering with the district and are coordinating a steering committee with county juvenile courts; city, county, and school police departments; district and state boards of education; school district staff, including the superintendent; state criminal justice agencies; and over a dozen representatives from nonprofit and community organizations. These members are also part of working groups, for which the evaluators are leading sessions and providing research on best practices and gaps in the district’s student support services, information and data systems, safety policies, family and community engagement practices, and school police practices. Surveys and extant data also provide the district and schools with information to identify school safety strengths and areas of improvement, all for the purpose of identifying needs and informing the development of a comprehensive school safety plan for the district.
Data collection and use
WestEd created the Data for Decisions Initiative to help increase the understanding and capacity of educators, policymakers, and researchers to use data. Researchers working in partnerships in the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northeast and Islands developed a set of structured activities to help districts and schools foster a culture of data use. REL researchers packaged the activities in a workshop toolkit for facilitators and included other resources that focus on the quality and use of postsecondary data.
In a REL West partnership with the Clark County School District, WestEd researchers and data- use specialists are helping the district expand its Early Warning Indicator system to include additional data and to provide training for school leaders, data teams, and support coordinators to strengthen the use of those data. The partnership addresses how the data are displayed, how teams engage with the data to ask locally relevant questions, and which supports to provide for students at risk of not graduating. As the work continues, the partnership will conduct evaluations of particular interventions.