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.
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.
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.
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.
Growing up in New Jersey, the day after Labor Day always marked the start of a new school year ... and the day I finally got to wear the new outfit I had carefully planned and crack open my new, pristine notebooks.
If you couldn't tell, I have always loved the excitement of returning to school.
Unfortunately, for many children, families, and educators, this year felt different.
Some of the usual excitement and jitters have been replaced by trepidation about what to expect from a year like no other.
Concerns about health and safety, academic progress, and schedule juggling have been abundant in my conversations with teachers and the staff and family surveys I have analyzed.
So how will schools and districts know if they are adequately addressing their stakeholders' fears?
Well... they've got to ask them.
Colleagues in a number of recent conversations have been discussing the use of continuous improvement cycles. If you're not familiar with continuous improvement, its hallmark is the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) Cycle.
Alicia Grunow of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching explains the PDSA cycle:
More simply put, schools and districts need to:
Then, the cycle starts all over again ... quickly.
We're not talking about huge, multi-year studies here ... This is a relatively quick and simple process!
Make a plan, implement the plan, figure out if the plan worked, and if not, adjust and try again!
With school kicking off, schools and districts have already put a short-term plan in place and are putting it into action.
And this year, short cycles of trial and error are going to be key, as even our modes of schooling could change multiple times throughout the year.
So how can schools and districts get feedback from their stakeholders NOW to see if their plan worked?
Instead of a lengthy formal survey, think of creative ways to ask for feedback:
Asking one or two questions at a time in interactive ways will make it easy for stakeholders of all groups to participate, prevent them from getting tired of surveys, and give you real-time data about how people are feeling.*
*Just make sure the platforms you choose will allow for translation.
Now here's the kicker: once you collect data, you have to complete the cycle ... ACT!
Make it clear for students, families, and staff that you valued their feedback and are going to put it to use ... and tell them how!
Start this crazy school year off right by lifting up the voices of your stakeholders in fun and easy ways and demonstrating that their feedback will guide your next round of planning and action.
What are your creative ideas for hearing from stakeholders? Share them in the comments!
When I started my doctoral program at Vanderbilt, I certainly didn't expect to get into a ... heated discussion, shall we say? ... with the professor of my first course.
We were discussing characteristics of effective leaders, and our professor mentioned that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, one of the most well-known personality tests, was essentially worthless.
You see, despite its incredible popularity, there is actually no data to show that Myers-Briggs is a valid and reliable assessment -- that it measures what it intends to, and that you'd consistently get the same outcomes if you took it again and again.
Now, I've always been a pretty introspective person, and I (still) love personality tests as a fun way to reflect on how I think, feel, and interact with others. I'd never taken them as a scientific assessment of my psyche, but Myers-Briggs especially had stood out to me as a somewhat revelatory framework for why people interact and act the way they do.
I had always gotten the exact same result when I'd taken the Myers-Briggs (ENFJ, if you're curious), so when my professor started talking about how most people get quite different results each time they take it, and that there was no research to support its utility, part of me was bummed, and part of me was fired up.
I argued (civilly, of course) that I didn't use it as a formal diagnostic tool, but instead as a helpful resource or an interesting way of looking at things. So why should it matter? (Newsflash: It does matter.)
For fun, I recently read The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre. Of course, she confirmed what my professor had said many years ago. However, it reminded me of something I see often in education.
People who are passionate about helping children and families often feel that they KNOW that what they're doing is helping the communities they serve, even without any real data to back it up.
We KNOW that our Family Science Night was a success because there were lots of families there, and everyone enjoyed themselves. We BELIEVE that a teacher is effective because the children love them. We FEEL the impact of an after-school program because, well, it's been in the community forever.
Unfortunately, we can't rely on gut instincts, feelings, and beliefs alone to tell us if something is effective... just like I couldn't make decisions based on only an affinity for Myers-Briggs.
Let me be clear: education, and family engagement in particular, tends to get kind of fuzzy. While we can't rely on intuition, it's also true that we can't rigorously test everything that happens in schools. We need to find a middle ground.
But this isn't just my random interest in personality theory.
When it comes to children and families, we need to make sure that what we're doing to try to help them actually works.
Luckily, it's not that hard to get started. We can begin tracking data, analyzing trends, and ultimately, measuring our impact so that we know we aren't just THINKING that we're changing lives. We actually are.
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Fear. Uncertainty. Frustration. Isolation.
In recent conversations with districts across the country and in analyses of surveys for clients, these words have come up a lot. Families, educators, and community members are feeling a whole lot of unpleasant things as we grapple with how - or if - we can simultaneously facilitate safety and high-quality learning experiences in our nation's schools.
Instead of shopping sprees at Staples (oh, how I wish!), we are experiencing back-to-school season like never before. Reopening plans change so quickly we can't keep up, and districts are scrambling to ensure that the safety protocols can be met and that all students can actually access and benefit from remote learning. My conversations and analyses lately have shown me how palpable and salient these fears and questions are for so many people.
The good news? While no one really knows what will happen with COVID, we do have some ways to alleviate the feelings I listed above. Think about these: Communication. Relationships. Empathy. Engagement.
Let's be honest: we have always needed these things. However, with most districts going fully or partially remote this fall, the role of families in children's education is even more prominent than before. For those of us who have long promoted the critical nature of family and community engagement, we've been saying to ourselves lately, "Now's our time."
It's time for family engagement to be a priority for all educators, community members, and policymakers, not an afterthought. We must lift up the voices of families, truly hear what they have to say, and use their feedback as a key driver for decisions moving forward.
It's time for us to leverage the wealth of resources in our communities to support families who are struggling right now. In my city, I was pleased to see that the City of Columbus and Columbus City Schools have agreed to spend $7 million of the CARES Act funds on providing Chromebooks for every student and wifi hotspots for families who lack internet access.
It's time to embrace partnerships with organizations who can help make learning fun, interactive, and accessible. Here's an example of how one of my favorite local institutions, the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), is facilitating the exploration of science for children in under-resourced communities.
It's time for us to focus our energy and public dollars on practices that have been proven effective and to put systems in place to begin tracking our progress. AttendanceWorks has done a great job of bringing data tracking to the forefront as we work to ensure that all students have an equitable school experience this fall.
More than anything, it's time for us to dismantle barriers created by historical and institutionalized racism and to embrace all children and families as our own. We need to be unafraid to check our privilege, acknowledge racist policies and practices, and work to rectify harm that has been done. If you're not sure where to get started, here is a free training on implicit bias for K-12 educators from the Kirwan Institute on the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State (I attended an incredibly powerful trainings with them this week.).
As we continue to weather the uncertainty from COVID, we need to remember that we all have the ability to communicate effectively, build meaningful relationships, empathize with others, and engage families in partnership. With these priorities and a plan for how to measure if we're doing them right, we will be able to help all children, families, and communities make the most of this unconventional back-to-school time.
How are institutions and organizations near you embracing engagement during this time?
I admit: I didn't think it was that hard to get a survey translated.
Over the past few weeks, I learned just how wrong I was -- and ate a big piece of humble pie in the process.
With colleagues, I'm working on a landscape analysis of how families and educators in California feel about family engagement and the state's requirements for incorporating stakeholder feedback into district plans for improvement. We're designing a training program around these topics, but to make sure our program will be relevant, we wanted to hear from the people who would be participating in it. We designed a survey and planned for focus groups, and I naively thought we were good to go.
Although Baltimore has a growing -- but fairly localized -- population of English Language Learners, the families at the schools where I worked were predominately Black and English-speaking. When I worked at the district, we had a cadre of interpreters we regularly contracted with for events, and we used large-scale survey software that easily facilitated (mostly adequate) translations.
So when we decided to translate the California survey into nine additional languages, I didn't anticipate just how difficult that would be.
Our survey was fairly basic and brief, so I built it out in Google Forms ... only to learn that despite the widespread availability of their free translation technology, there was no mechanism for translating surveys in their tool. (I'm honestly still scratching my head about this.) The most straightforward (ha!) way I found to create a multilingual survey in Google was to independently translate the survey into each language, build a separate page in the survey for each language, copy and paste each line of the translated surveys, and then use skip logic to direct people to the page with the language they selected.
We gave up on Google. We found out that our client had a Survey Monkey account that included the ability to create multilingual surveys. I was excited. Finally - a logical way to complete this seemingly simple task!
Nope. I was still wrong.
While this platform at least offers a dropdown menu of languages on the survey page (thereby making it easier for respondents and avoiding the skip logic silliness on the back end), it turns out that this paid feature was just as cumbersome to use as the Google option. What I ended up having to do was download a coded text file for each language, pay to independently translate each of the languages (Thank you, Stepes Translation, for coming to our rescue!), copy and paste each line of the translations into specific sections of the text file, and then upload the translated file to the system. NINE TIMES.
With my hand cramping from all of that Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V action, I was stunned by how technically difficult and frankly, inaccessible the survey translation process was. Who is actually going to go through all this? More importantly, what does this mean for the voices of those who are not native English speakers? Without access to a large, institutional subscription to a powerhouse survey software, my gut tells me that very little translation is likely to happen. As a result, many important voices are being silenced.
I don't have a solution to offer here, but I'm glad that this is a lesson I learned. This has opened my eyes to the institutional roadblocks that prevent equitable language access in our country... and I know I've just scratched the surface. Translation services, albeit not 100% reliable, are widely accessible and free online, yet they are not integrated into lower-cost survey platforms. This not only causes a huge headache for survey designers, but it inhibits the ability to hear from non-English speakers about important issues. As I seem to say in a lot of my blog posts, we have to do better.
If anyone has a better solution than the relay race I just ran, please share in the comments! I do hope that a more accessible and user-friendly option exists.
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.