In my last post, I talked about how the recent American Rescue Plan Act will bring an influx of funds specifically for out-of-school time (OST) -- after-school and summer -- programs, as well as for community schools and wraparound services.
This is a huge win for those working tirelessly in family engagement and OST!
I also mentioned that to be on the safe side, it's a good idea to start building your evidence base now, in case these funds are earmarked for evidence-based programs under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Now that you're all familiar with the four evidence levels, let's dig into the most accessible one: Level 4.
So many grass roots, small, community-based organizations are at a disadvantage with ESSA's evidence requirement. Here's why: 1) evaluation services can get expensive, and 2) they often require technical know-how or an outside consultant to do them well.
Program staff are great at working with kids, families, and schools. That's why they do this work! They didn't sign up to be evaluators, so I get why the thought of doing an evaluation can send some program staff running for the hills.
But let's take a deep breath.
Here's the great news about Level 4: if you know that your organization is planning to evaluate your family engagement or after-school services but hasn't done so yet, you can demonstrate that there is a great likelihood that your services are impactful and still get access to those Title I and other federal funds.
That's it - demonstrating a likelihood! It's a great way to get your foot in the door with districts while working towards the bigger goal of becoming evidence-based.
So you may be saying - Amanda, that sounds great, but how do I show that my services are likely to have a positive impact on kids and families?
Here's what you need to apply for ESSA Level 4 approval:
1) A logic model for your organization
Essentially, logic models are a depiction of what you put into your program (resources, activities), what you hope to get out of it (short- and long-term outcomes), and how you'll know you're on track to do that (measures, benchmarks).
Check out my post about the ins and outs of logic models here.
2) Citations demonstrating the impact of similar programs
We can use online tools like Google Scholar to find existing evaluations and research studies that show that similar programs serving similar groups of kids or families had a positive impact.
So, if you're a program in a major urban center and you find a study demonstrating the effectiveness of a small, rural initiative, it's probably best to keep looking. We want to compare apples to apples here.
You'll also have to make sure that the studies you find meet the ESSA standards described in my last post.
3) A plan for your future evaluation
All you need to do is put together a plan for how you are going to measure your program's impact in the future. You'll have to share who you'll study, what you'll look at, and when you'll conduct this research.
You may need to chat with an evaluator for this one. Don't worry though - evaluations don't have to be a multi-year, super expensive endeavor!
I hope you noticed that none of those three requirements needed any program data!
So if you're started to track your family engagement or student data, Level 4 gives you time to get your systems up and running, while still giving you access to the funds you need and the students and families you want to work with!
If you want to know how to DIY the ESSA Level 4 process, sign up below for Evidence for Engagement, the free mini course from Tamara Hamai and me!
With weekly videos and worksheets, it will walk you through how to get your application ready for your local school district and get your foot in the door.
Here's a sentence we don't often get to say in education: the motherlode of funding is coming our way!
The recently-passed American Rescue Plan Act has set aside ... brace yourself ... over $2 BILLION for out-of-school time (OST) -- after-school and summer -- programs!
Not to mention, there is funding for community schools and all the wraparound services that so rarely get enough attention or funding but are absolutely critical for bolstering families in underserved communities.
This is a game changer for kids, families, schools, and OST/community school providers.
But we can't rest on our laurels and wait for the money to rain down on us. (Wouldn't that be nice?) It's time to be proactive!
I've had a lot of conversations with OST folks recently about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)'s evidence requirements.
Basically, if a school or district is going to purchase a program or services with federal funds (ie. Title I), they need to make sure that there is some evidence to show that what they're purchasing is effective.
Makes sense, right?
Unfortunately, that's not as easy or straightforward as it sounds.
Many small, community-based, minority-owned organizations don't have the capacity or funds to hire an evaluator. For me, this is a serious equity issue.
But for no money, there is a way to get your foot in the door.
To be deemed evidence-based, a program needs to meet one of the following levels:
For most programs, Level 4 is a natural place to start. With a little bit of guidance and planning, you can be on your way to accessing Title funds!
Now, the American Rescue Plan Act does not seem to specify that spending is limited to evidence-based programs ... but why hurt your chances of getting access to this lifeline?
Now is the time to position your program for maximum benefit from this upcoming funding opportunity.
If you want to get more information about Level 4 and becoming evidence-based, sign up for the FREE mini-course that Tamara Hamai and I developed. Each week you'll get emails with videos and graphic organizers to help you get ready to become an evidence-based organization!
It's hard to believe that a year ago this week, my husband and I returned from a trip to visit my family and went into lockdown for the first time.
At that time, the thought of staying at home for even two weeks straight sent my anxious brain into overdrive.
Now, it's been a year since we've been in a restaurant, a year since I've been to the gym, and a year since I've seen most of my friends. Somehow, we've made it through this year of change, fear, and loss.
On a more positive note, it's also been a year full of learning and growing as people and as educators.
In reflecting on this past year, here are the biggest takeaways that (I hope!) the education world has realized:
1. Families are critically important partners in the work of educating children.
In a recent teacher focus group, the challenges of connecting with families this year were their biggest concern.
No longer can we pretend that families and schools exist in separate planes.
Educators have seen just how important family engagement is for getting their own work done.
Teachers (and other critical school staff!) and families MUST be equal partners in the sometimes herculean task of educating children, especially those who come to school with a variety of needs and challenges.
2. Teachers and families both need to be commended for how well they adapted to educating children at home.
I am constantly in awe of teachers this year -- teaching is the hardest thing I've ever done, and I cannot imagine having to change basically every skill and strategy you've honed throughout your career in a flash. Their work was more challenging than ever during the pandemic, and in many cases, they put their health on the line to do the best they could for their kids.
Now, my dog is the only kid I've had to contend with this year (although he does make working from home challenging at times!). So I have great admiration for parents who have found ways to adapt their schedules, learn how to teach their children, and maintain positive, loving relationships in an unimaginable situation.
From the surveys and focus groups I've done over the past year, it's been clear how hard this has been for educators families, and both groups deserve our respect and gratitude now more than ever.
3. We can no longer rely on our memory or conversations with peers to know who we're reaching and who we're not.
I'm sure you anticipated this lesson ... but we MUST use data to drive our supports for children and families! Without kids and families in school buildings every day, a different approach was critical to figure out who was getting what they needed ... and who had barriers that the school should help families overcome.
I've gotten to work with a number of different schools, districts, and organizations on their use of data this year, so imagine my PURE JOY to hear that a staff member at one of these schools said that with the use of the data tracker we developed, "We are no longer guessing."
That's just it! We don't have to guess.
We can use simple, low- or no-cost strategies (Don't forget to download my free guide here!) to make sure we know EXACTLY what's happening with each of our kids.
No one's falling through the cracks on our watch.
By engaging families as equal partners, respecting the hard work that both educators and families contribute to the education of their kids, and by easily tracking how our families are engaging (sometimes more importantly, how we're trying to engage with them), we open up a new world of home-school collaboration and possibilities for success.
In the coming months, as we start to transition back to some semblance of normal life, I hope that we don't regress and forget all that we've learned this year.
I'm excited to find new ways to support educators and families in their journey towards more equitable, data-informed partnership.
I have a few things up my sleeve for 2021, so stay tuned!
Let's see how we can all continue to grow and learn together in this next phase of the year.
In my last post, I talked about how logic models -- although they can be a chore -- can actually be a great visual roadmap of your program's components, benchmarks, and goals.
Working collaboratively to develop a logic model can be a unifying experience for teams, a way to get everyone on the same page about the work.
But what keeps your finished logic model from disappearing into the dark void of your computer's file system, never to be found or opened again?
If you've been reading my blog for awhile, you may know where I'm going...
You can use your logic model to help design your team's data tracking system!
Although people design them differently, logic models always have a column for either the measures that you'll use to assess progress (as I have in my template below) or the immediate outputs that would occur as a result of your activities.
If you're measuring your family engagement efforts, some examples could include:
Your logic model is basically a cheat sheet to the data points you'll want to track for your program!
So if you follow the steps in my free guide to tracking your engagement data, you'll see that you've already answered some of the questions in Step 1 -- why you're tracking the data.
I don't know about you, but I think that identifying the purpose behind each part of our work is often the hardest. But since you've already connected your measures to your short- and long-term goals, you're ahead of the game!
With your logic model in hand, you'll be ready to tackle the rest of the questions with ease and start tracking.
If you haven't gotten your hands on my free guide, use the form below to get your copy!
"Ugh, they're making us submit a logic model? What is the point of a logic model anyway?"
"I don't understand all that technical jargon. What am I supposed to put in a logic model?"
These are the thoughts I imagine my clients having when a funder or state department of education requires them to create a logic model ... and rightfully so.
Logic models are often overly complicated, far too technical, and not connected to ACTUAL practice - so it's no wonder that they are not intuitive for people doing "the work" in education.
It doesn't have to be that way though. Let's talk about what a logic model actually is and how it can help your organization.
I found the following definition of a logic model on the Community Tool Box (emphasis added):
“A logic model presents a picture of how your effort or initiative is supposed to work… Effective logic models make an explicit, often visual, statement of the activities that will bring about change and the results you expect to see for the community and its people. A logic model keeps participants in the effort moving in the same direction by providing a common language and point of reference.”
Here's what I love about this definition:
1) It clearly conveys that a logic model is a visualization of how your program operates, and
2) It helps teams see that a logic model can actually streamline their work and make sure everyone is on the same page.
The image below from the CDC is another great way to think about what a logic model can do.
So instead of an annoying task you have to complete for grant funding, think of a logic model as a dynamic map of your program and how you will collaboratively work towards achieving your goal.
Recently, I introduced this new way of thinking to a school district team I'm working with.
I'm designing a data dashboard (learn more here!) for them so that all of their family-serving teams can share data and serve their district's families more efficiently. (I'm really excited about this.)
When we met with each team individually, they were all saying the same things about how they engage with families and what data they already or want to track.
Yet, collectively, they couldn't see the forest for the trees. They didn't know how similarly each team was operating!
Let me be clear: this wasn't because they were not communicating or working together. It's because they didn't have a framework to guide their collective work and show where there was overlap across project teams.
So we got to work. Using Google Slides, we did an interactive work session where the teams brainstormed what they would put in each part of a logic model. Below is a screenshot of their "Activities" brainstorm.
Then we did a virtual "gallery walk" so they could see how much overlap there was. See how many "I do this too" stars there are in the image?
After this, it took no time to put together their ideas into a more traditional logic model format.
If your team is currently struggling with making a logic model, don't be afraid!
Reframing how we think about logic models can go a long way towards making them purposeful, usable tools to make our family engagement work more effective.
Isn't it so gratifying to learn a new skill and get to apply it?
One thing I've been learning lately is how to use ArcGIS, a super fancy mapping tool that allows you to collect, analyze, and visualize all sorts of data.
I've talked about mapping with clients and at conference presentations for awhile, and I've loved using public (read: FREE) mapping tools to learn more about the communities I was serving or studying.
I’ve used maps in many ways – describing the community for grants or needs assessments, determining which students need home visits, or figuring out which resources are near students’ homes.
Most recently, I've gotten to use maps through my part-time work as a researcher at Ohio State.
We were trying to figure out if the students in our college had practicum placements within federally designated "medically underserved communities."
Using a free public map file from a government agency and uploading a list of addresses where our students were placed, I was able to instantly visualize and (through ArcGIS's fancy tools) analyze the percentage of our students working within underserved communities.
Seeing it all come together was magical.
It painted such a clear picture of the impact of our college and the difference that our students are able to make.
Given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on disadvantaged communities and the rising awareness of systemic racism on, well, every aspect of community life, knowing what children and families need outside of school – and acting on it — is critical.
Using data to pinpoint which students are at the greatest risk of disengaging from online school or whose families struggle to meet basic needs is essential for targeting interventions and outreach.
Here's a list of free mapping tools to get you started (from my May post on the AEA365 blog):
City and county agencies also have amazing resources. See if your health or police departments, school districts, or universities have online tools for exploring your area.
Here’s a map I created of the schools, hospitals, and other services where I live, from the city’s mapping tools:
To get started mapping your own data, I always recommend starting with Google Maps!
Beyond being a lifesaver for those with a poor sense of direction like me, Google Maps offers a free tool for creating your own maps. You can map multiple data sources and use colors, symbols, and labels to make sense of your data.
Then go play! See what maps you can create of your community.
Now think about each of your students and families as dots on that map. Imagine what they might see every day when they walk down the street. What resources are available to them in their community? In what ways is their community potentially putting them at risk?
You can use what you learn from your mapping explorations to influence survey questions and interview protocols for students and families. For example, if there has been a recent rise in crime rates in a neighborhood, ask families and students if they feel safe and what the school or district could do to make them feel safer.
Certainly, your findings can also help you figure out what services to offer within your program or school.
It's been so enjoyable to build my mapping skillset and explore a whole new way of looking at data. I hope you take some time to play around with these mapping tools and see what you can learn!
It's the end of the year, when we reflect on the past year and look forward to new beginnings.
I haven't done any rigorous data collection about this, but I think it's fair to assume that most people would rate 2020 as a giant dumpster fire.
So let's take it back to 2019.
Last year was challenging for me in a different way. I had moved to Ohio from Maryland the previous year, and I naively thought that I could transition my business to my new home with relative ease since most of my work was remote.
As it took time for new connections to materialize into new contracts, I knew that things weren't headed in the right direction.
Now, I had a few metrics I used to measure my business:
At the time, those weren't pretty.
However, what was most telling for me was how I FELT.
I was discouraged, uncertain, and anxious. And in terms of my business, I didn't know what to do to make it better.
Certainly, the quantitative data was informing how I was feeling, but the numbers alone did not compel me to act.
I just wanted to feel better! I knew it was time to make a change.
Around that time, I met a new neighbor who specialized in website design and SEO. I heard about a marketing consultant whose approach resonated with me. I saw that the American Evaluation Association's (AEA) conference was featuring a lot of workshops and resources for independent consultants.
I sprang into action. I met with these new specialists, went to the conference, and got to work. And ultimately, I turned my business (and outlook) around.
While there is always room to grow, the numbers I mentioned earlier do reflect the changes I've made to my business. Yet I don't think they show HOW or WHY those changes happened.
From my neighbor, I learned something new and gained hope that some simple strategies could make my website work better for me.
From the marketing consultant, I felt understood and discovered a new way to communicate what I do and why I love it.
From AEA, I gained a large group of new colleagues, friends, and referral partners - but most of all, I felt accepted, validated, and supported.
To me, those feelings and networks are what helped me turn the page in my business - the fuzzy, not easily measurable, qualitative stuff.
Had I not reflected on those things, I might have stayed in my rut.
Maybe you already track your data, and maybe you don't, but if you're getting the feeling that something's not right, think about the qualitative data you can explore to see what's up.
How do your families feel when they interact with you? How do the staff feel? What is the tone of your interactions? How engaged are students in relationships with peers and staff and with their learning?
These things matter.
One thing I'm grateful for from 2020 is that a lot of educators are seeing just how vital family engagement is for student achievement.
So while we're reflecting on this crazy, crazy year, let's take a second to examine how our students, families, and staff FELT and how we helped them feel better.
If that's what we take with us into 2021, then I think we're off to a good start.
This week I've got a co-author to help me continue my qualitative data series!
Sarah Dunifon is Founder and Principal Evaluator of Improved Insights LLC, an educational evaluation firm focused on STEM and youth-based programming. She is based in Cleveland, Ohio and is a fellow board member of the Ohio Program Evaluators Group.
We hope you enjoy our post below.
Qualitative data can be a bit elusive.
It’s not usually too hard to find data for things that are measurable. We know we can do surveys, or count the number of attendees, or track patterns over time.
Qualitative data though - the context for those numbers - often takes a little more work to track down. Of course, we can always do interviews and focus groups with stakeholders to learn about their experiences, our usual go-to’s.
However, if you think of qualitative data for what it is - simply put, another information source - you’ll find that so many other forms of it are hiding in plain sight.
Think about the chatbox in your last Zoom session - you may not have realized it, but that’s a source of qualitative data! Other sources you may have readily available include the phone call logs that your teachers keep when they call families or even the observations you did of an event (online, drive-up, or fully in-person).
If you need more, there are lots of ways of collecting qualitative data, and many of them are even more prevalent now in our almost fully virtual world.
This makes our lives a lot easier, as we prepare to write our annual reports, apply for grants, or share the impact that our program had during this unusual year.
Like I mentioned in my last post, sharing the context for our quantitative findings can make those reports tell a much richer story.
Yet it’s not always intuitive to know how to turn a whole bunch of text into these powerful programmatic insights.
So when you find these sources of qualitative data, what do you do with them?
We can actually find patterns in our data by assigning thematic codes to different words, phrases, or even images. Sometimes, you start with a set of codes that have to do with your program goals, or the research concepts underlying your program.
Other times, you just code as you go. If you start to see a lot of mentions of a particular topic, that topic can become a code.
Coding can take many forms, and there is fancy software that can help you do it, but sometimes all you need is a notebook and some markers or a color-coded spreadsheet.
Below you can see some sample data about an after-school program focused on science and animals that we’ve color-coded according to the themes we saw.
In one glance, you can see that our participants liked a lot of aspects of the program, but games and activities (in blue) and the food (in pink), got the most mentions.
Coding allows us to see what’s happening across the dataset and pull out themes or key insights that we need to highlight.
Sharing your qualitative data analysis can be an important addition to your data story when demonstrating the impact of your work. It can add relevance, personality, and context to quantitative data by illustrating individual effects.
By reviewing our datasets systematically, we can also find some incredible quotes - the kind you would never attempt to paraphrase if you were writing a paper because they were so perfectly worded -- and let our stakeholders’ words shine.
You can feature key quotations by offsetting them or putting them in a different color in your report to highlight individual experiences and catch readers’ attention.
Another popular way to display qualitative data is in a word cloud.
Word clouds are visual representations of keywords that come up frequently in a set of qualitative data. Typically, the bigger the word, the more frequently it appeared in a data set.
There are plenty of critiques of word clouds in the data visualization space and rightly so - word clouds can often obscure meaning rather than clarify it. So if you are going to use them, here are three things you should know:
1. Give the data a good cleaning to remove anything that you don’t want represented in the visual.
Here, we’d recommend removing any responses that do not give value (e.g., “idk,” “I’m not sure,” “Nothing,” etc.) as well as any text surrounding the main themes (e.g., “I like the [...],” “I love [...],” “my favorite thing is [...],” etc.).
2. Consider the messages or key points you see in the data that you wish to convey visually. If it is possible to condense themes further or pull out important words, now is the time to do so.
This might mean collapsing phrases as best as possible to a single word, or perhaps a few words of important meaning.
3. Make sure to keep the essence of the data - meanings can be misconstrued when collapsing phrases into single words or shorter phrases.
If you’re finding this is happening, perhaps a word cloud is not the best way to display your data.
However, with data cleaning and basic analysis, the word cloud can change drastically.
Take a look here at three versions of the same word cloud we generated on WordItOut using the data we shared earlier. The first was created with original - or “raw” - data, the second with cleaned data, and the third with some basic analysis and condensing.
Notice how the prominent words change with each version, and how the meaning and key messages can shift.
As you can see, while word clouds are one of the most accessible forms of qualitative data displays, they take some work to be most effective.
However, word clouds aren’t your only option. Data visualization experts like Stephanie Evergreen, Storytelling with Data, and Depict Data Studio all have great resources on different qualitative data displays.
The case is clear - with some simple analysis and visualization, qualitative data can be a powerful addition to your data story.
You should know by now that I'm a bit of a data nerd.
I love spreadsheets. I love organizing data and using it to illuminate patterns. I love the "ah-ha" moments when clients realize how much their own data can tell them about the kids and families they're serving.
So it may surprise you that I'm here to say that numbers and spreadsheets don't tell us everything.
That doesn't mean that numbers (or quantitative data) are irrelevant.
It just means that they are even more informative when paired with stories, quotations, or anecdotes (qualitative data).
(See the box for a quick refresher on the difference between the two).
Here's an example. Yesterday, I was re-reading an article from The Columbus Dispatch, my local paper, about the spike in youth violence that has occurred during the pandemic.
It's been horrible to hear about how many children and teens (well, really anyone, for that matter) have been victims of gun violence since the spring.
The article cites a number of statistics -- that the number of children treated in Columbus for gunshot wounds this spring and summer was double the rate from 2019 (from 16 to 32); and that children from racial or ethnic minorities are twice as likely to be shot than white children.
Those are AWFUL statistics - and they certainly help me see that there is a dire situation here.
But then, the article talks to a teacher whose student -- an eight year-old boy -- was killed. Here's what the article shares about (and from) the teacher:
Thalgott has lost a handful of former students during her 20 years of teaching on the South Side. She's seen even more students who have lost a parent to gun violence.
Having lost some former students or their family members to gun violence -- either as victims or perpetrators -- this quote really gets to me.
This quote conjures up such raw emotions that suddenly it puts the statistics they cited into context.
Those 32 children are somebody's child, somebody's sibling, somebody's student, somebody's mentee. Hearing from a person who actually experienced that loss made a big difference in how I processed this article. I imagine it did for you too.
Quantitative data can be so powerful, but its impact is amplified when we lift up the voices of those we are serving or studying.
Qualitative data -- gathered through interviews, focus groups, open-ended survey questions, or observations -- can sometimes more effectively communicate the experience of what is happening in your school or community.
I'll be doing a series of posts on qualitative data over the next few weeks -- how to collect it, how to use it, and how using a combination of data can truly help you tell your story.
I started writing a completely different blog post for this week, but when I read the news this morning, I knew I had to shift gears.
CNN featured a story yesterday called "Teachers and social workers search for students who are 'missing' in the pandemic."
The word "missing" made my heart drop.
It immediately reminded me of this story, of a young girl from Washington, DC named Relisha Rudd. I heard about her story in 2014, and it broke my heart -- at the time, I was a community school coordinator and led our school's charge for attendance and engagement tracking and interventions. Staff from Relisha's school tried to track her down, only to find that a man working at the homeless shelter where she was staying had been impersonating her doctor to the school.
She is still missing to this day.
As a community school coordinator, her story lit a fire under me to do everything I could to make sure that we knew, to the best of our ability, that our kids were safe and able to come to school.
I have thought of Relisha over the years and find the tragedy of her story to be a call to action for schools, districts, and other youth- and family-serving organizations.
How can we make sure that no other students fall through the cracks?
When I read the story this morning about the Robla School District in California doing home visits and trying everything they can to find their students "missing" from online school, I had so many thoughts:
Labeling students as "missing" drives home the gravity of the situation our country is in. Families are truly struggling because of the virus and the economy, but honestly, lacking access to the internet, to stable housing, and to consistent work have been challenges for so many families for so long. The fact that things are only getting worse is upsetting and shows us that we have so much work to do.
Literally going into neighborhoods searching for children is heroic, but also emotionally grueling. I remember the disappointment and worry of having a string of unsuccessful home visits -- you gear yourself up for making a difference, only to find that addresses were incorrect or have changed, or worse -- you just don't know where students and families are living. That is scary, and it is emotionally taxing for educators.
While data tracking can't help us physically locate a family, it can help us focus our efforts where they are needed most. You may have seen that last week, I released a guide for how to Track Your Engagement Data in 4 Simple Steps. I believe strongly that using simple functions in Excel can help educators pinpoint exactly which students and families need additional support -- whether that's with attendance, engagement, or academics.
(I know it can work because I've seen the impact it has had on my own work in schools!)
So in honor of Relisha and in commitment to the well-being and success of students who may be "missing" from online school today, let's get tracking.
To learn more about data tracking, visit my Engage with Excel page or sign up below.
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.