It's funny how things work out sometimes.
Tamara Hamai and I have been sowing the seeds for our new program, Evidence for Engagement, for months. Our partnership happened so organically - a meeting of the minds for two evaluators who have experience with and a passion for organizations that serve youth and families. We'd been toying with the best way to support the organizations that we serve and help them use evaluation to improve their access to funding and the children and families they serve.
Then COVID hit.
The pandemic has caused all of us to pause and re-evaluate how our work fits into a very new, very different reality. Tamara and I know that small organizations, especially those who work in schools, are struggling right now. Their access to the people they serve has been essentially cut off. We realized that organizations may need our help even more than before.
Our solution: We're running a totally free, three-week email series that will help small youth- and family-serving organizations build their evidence base (which is required under the Every Student Succeeds Act for any organization receiving federal education funds). Through videos, worksheets, frameworks, and success stories, Tamara and I will walk participants through the process of becoming evidence-based organizations and help them see this as an opportunity, not a burden.
The goal: We want to help vital, community-based organizations plan for the future, open themselves up to new opportunities, and become more sustainably funded. We're hoping that this opportunity will help them better serve youth and families, not only during this difficult period of time, but also for a long time afterward.
For us, this is also about equity. We know that for many community-based, minority-owned organizations, budgeting for evaluation is out of the question. We also know that these grass-roots organizations are having a profound impact on their communities -- and that their communities need all the support we can give. We're hoping that we can get more small, local organizations approved as evidence-based programs in their districts and begin to level the playing field.
If you think this program will benefit you and your organization, sign up! If you know of someone else who could use this support, encourage them to join. Feel free to share this link widely: bit.ly/evidence4engagement
I've been training in Muay Thai (kickboxing) for a few years. I am always learning something new and being pushed outside of my comfort zone ... and I love it. However, I am and have always been a perfectionist. It's something I've struggled with my whole life: sometimes, I'm really proud that I've been lenient with myself, and other times, the perfectionism rears its ugly head. Lately, I've noticed it manifesting at the gym. As I'm trying to apply a new skill in work with a partner or coach, I've been getting frustrated and self-critical. My self-protective instincts (ironically not working to appropriately block a punch or kick) have made me think, "I don't like this aspect or that skill," instead of allowing me to see that this is a process of growth and that there is no place for perfection in that process.
I think organizations (and the people within them) can be the same way when it comes to evaluation. We get used to our routines, we think we've perfected them, and then one of a few scenarios happen that push us out of our comfort zones. Maybe we are required to learn a new system or skill, or -- even worse! -- we get feedback that doesn't match our own perceptions. Now at the gym, my feedback can be a simulated sparring round that doesn't end so well for me. But in our workplaces, while we are focused on serving the people we care about, feedback that we're not doing so well is upsetting to hear and painful to accept. That upset and pain is followed by questions -- "What could we do differently?" Why is so-and-so doing well at this when we're struggling?" or even "Is this feedback accurate or reliable?" Our self-protective instincts kick in.
The anticipation of negative feedback -- in whatever form -- is a huge barrier for people (including myself!) to try new things, reflect on their own performance, or seek help and other perspectives. Certainly, the accountability culture in education has only made these innate fears and insecurities worse.
Today at the gym was different though. The past few days, I've been more reflective about why I'm getting so frustrated and how that is keeping me from truly learning and growing. So today, I tried to pay attention to the moments when I got frustrated (ie. I collected some data on myself!). I worked with my coach to talk through those negative feelings and develop some strategies I could try in those situations. Then, I practiced and stayed open to more feedback... and by the end of the session, I felt more resilient and confident in my skills than I had in awhile.
Terms and methods like "continuous improvement" and "improvement science" get used a lot in both education and evaluation, and they are proven methods for making institutional (or personal) changes on all levels. I'm sure that what I did at the gym today was just a tiny Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle. Yet for me, these formal frameworks for self-assessment and reflection can sometimes be hard to grasp - and they can feel like another thing we're accountable for doing. However, we can look at them more simply: sometimes, all we need to do is recognize that we're passionate but not perfect, allow ourselves to be open to feedback, and develop an authentic plan for how we can improve. This is true for individuals and organizations.
As an evaluator, I love the moments when conversations about data lead to a-ha moments instead of feelings of defeat. (Data visualization is especially helpful here.) Sometimes, when we take a step back and think about why we're assessing or evaluating, we can see that it's not all about accountability and funding requirements (and not about our individual or collective insecurities either). Sometimes, it is just about putting our guard down (or up, if you're at the gym), remembering that we can always do better, and learning to see our imperfections as a sign of growth in the making.
I had some great conversations this week with colleagues about establishing a culture of data in organizations and training organizations who are new to evaluation and data. These conversations reminded me about one of my favorite old blog posts, that I originally wrote for the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSCE) in 2017. Given this week's discussions, it felt like a good time to bring it back into the rotation (with a few updates!).
Don't Be Scared of Data - How it Can Guide Family Engagement and Attendance Interventions
When I was a teacher, conversations around instructional data were baffling to me. Fresh out of policy school, I was eager to use what I had learned about data analysis to monitor how my students were performing, but as a social studies teacher, this task was more difficult than I had anticipated. I was required to keep a data binder, and administrators would periodically check to confirm that, well, it existed. However, I struggled to figure out what to put inside of it. My administrators did not help me understand how – absent standardized test data – I could track progress on specific standards outside of my grade book. It often felt like the conversation ended after the word “data” was uttered.
As I have focused my career on family engagement efforts, I have seen how conversations about using data to improve engagement are often greeted by the same blank stares I encountered as a teacher of a non-tested subject. On other days, talking about data elicits looks of panic or skepticism. At one particularly memorable training, community school coordinators were led in a debate about the utility of data. Sitting from my seat on the pro-data side of the room, I was amazed by arguments from the anti-data group. What resonated most is that these capable and talented colleagues understood data to simply be numbers on which their performance review was based, not as a tool to discover context and unlock insights about the families being served.
I think this belief system exists for a number of reasons. First, many educators are tired of increasing demands for data without sufficient training. Professionals need to understand how data can be collected, ways in which it should be analyzed, and how it can actually make their work easier. I have found that on-the-ground staff are often the last to receive the proper supports and professional development around understanding and using data. It becomes a symbol for all of the things we don’t like about accountability instead of the asset that it truly can be.
Perhaps more importantly, the work of engaging families – understanding needs, forming trusting relationships, and helping people when they are vulnerable – is incredibly difficult to quantify. Often, we know we have made progress or achieved results – not because of a spreadsheet or heat map – but because a family had enough food for the weekend or because a child stopped acting out as much in class. How do we tell those stories? How do we show our value as professionals when these important markers seem impossible to put into a spreadsheet? These are the critical questions we need to answer.
For these reasons, it is my mission to help educators and professionals realize that data does not have to be scary or intimidating. It does not require complex coding skills or mathematical know-how to track how clients are being served. If you would have been sitting across from me in the data debate, here are some tips to get you started:
Using your organization's qualitative and quantitative data can give you amazing insight into both the ongoing needs and continuing growth of the students and families you serve. With a little less reticence towards this approach, we can make a lot more progress in engaging families to help their children succeed.
Of course, if your organization is unsure of how to get started in this area, I'd love to be of assistance. Learn about the new Build Your Evaluation Capacity training package!
You may notice that the website has gotten a bit of an overhaul. I wanted to better communicate what clients get from working with me and what makes Structured Solutions different from other small evaluation firms.
The biggest change is that I've restructured the services I provide. There are now three distinct packages that clients can buy -- all still customizable, of course -- that will help you achieve your data and evaluation goals. The graphic below gives a quick overview, but I go into more detail below:
All three packages are designed as steps that organizations can take towards telling a rich, compelling story about the work they do for students and families and the impacts they have on their clients. Here are the details about each package:
BUILD YOUR EVALUATION CAPACITY
For organizations who are truly at the start of their data journey, this package is an ideal starting point. Your organization will get a customized training and follow-up technical assistance in the areas you need. The goal is for your entire team to leave the training with confidence that they can work with and use data like a pro.
CREATE A CULTURE OF DATA
The second package builds on the first and will include the custom trainings and support from Build Your Evaluation Capacity. After your team has been trained, we will get to work on developing data systems and procedures that are accessible to all skill levels. Depending on your organization's needs, we will create simple, customized systems for data collection, management, or visualization that allow for sustainability and continued attention to data in the future.
MEASURE YOUR IMPACT
In order to truly tell your organization's story, you must first know what impact you're actually having. The third package gives you all of the benefits of the first two but will culminate in a full-scale needs assessment or evaluation. As this type of work tends to be highly individualized and ongoing, we will work together to design a package that fits your needs and ensures that any evaluative requirements from funders or supervising organizations are met.
If your organization is in the beginning stages of its data journey and could use some support, I'd love to set up a conversation with you.
I love to read. Curling up with a good book and getting lost in the story for hours is pure bliss for me. Of course, adulthood prevents this from being a regular occurrence, but I still treasure the time I spend reading and the lessons I learn from the books on my shelves.
I was struggling to come up with a topic for this week's post and decided to look at my notebook of what I've read over the years. Given that a new decade has officially commenced, I excitedly realized that I could reflect on my favorite and most inspiring reads from the past decade. If Barack Obama and Bill Gates can share their lists of favorite books, why can't I? With much difficulty, I chose one book that I read each year that helped me understand the world - and why it is the way it is - with greater clarity and from other perspectives.
This book by two acclaimed reporters focuses on how empowering women in developing countries can bring about a reduction of poverty and an economic boost for all. Discussions on the impact of micro-finance - providing small loans to women (or men) to help them start a business, get an education, and/or support their families - and the stories of individual women who benefited it are compelling. The authors show how even minor investments can have a tremendous return - economically and emotionally - for women who have been abused, disenfranchised, or simply undervalued.
As an alumna of Johns Hopkins and a longtime Baltimorean, the story of Henrietta Lacks intrigued me on many levels. Rebecca Skloot's book talks about how a black woman in Baltimore in the 1950s inadvertently became the foundation of widespread and landmark medical research. Not only did I learn about the HeLa cells (which were removed from her when she was treated for cancer at Hopkins Hospital and used for research without consent) and the science they inspired, but I also got new insights into what Baltimore and Hopkins were like during segregation, how differently black patients experienced medical care than white patients, and how the Lacks family still struggles today.
I distinctly remember my 9th grade U.S. History teacher discussing this novel and its implication of the meatpacking industry in the early 1900s. I didn't think I could stomach Sinclair's descriptions of "how the sausage gets made" then, but when I read this classic as an adult, I was astonished to learn that this book is about so much more than horrifying practices of Chicago's meatpacking plants. What struck me most were the immense challenges faced by immigrant communities at the time and the conditions they had no choice but to endure in order to support their families and survive.
I would be remiss to not include a book by my hero, Jonathan Kozol. His compassionate and candid discussions of poverty and the unacceptable conditions of educational systems in America have inspired me since I was in college, and I was lucky enough to hear him speak and meet him many years ago. This book commemorates 25 years of his critically important work by following up with the children he befriended and wrote about through his impassioned research and storytelling.
Although this text was written in 1962, it is still incredible relevant to educational debates today. Callahan reflects on how the "efficiency movement" of the early 1900s influenced the structure of schooling in America. His book shares how the management of time and production efforts in American factories spawned everything from traditional school schedules and bell systems to accountability structures and the desire for measuring ... well, everything. Since schools are human-serving organizations and therefore quite different from factories, this book made so much sense to me as a partial explanation for how our educational systems developed in a misguided way.
My college professor (and my friend and mentor to this day), Dr. Floyd Hayes, is a Richard Wright scholar and first introduced me to his work. I've read many of Wright's books over the years and in fact started 2020 with one of his masterpieces. Yet Black Boy stuck with me in a profound way. This is Wright's autobiographical work, and his profoundly moving descriptions of hunger as a child made that phenomenon clear to me in a way that nothing else had. I am fortunate to have always had food on the table, but this book gave me a powerful understanding for those who struggle every day.
Ryan's book about the differences between two large high schools - one in a suburb and the other in the neighboring city - and the political underpinnings of those differences was not a comfortable read. He describes in detail the way that local, state, and national governments and courts have historically and systematically "saved the cities and spared the suburbs" through damaging, discriminatory policies. These policies and legal decisions, made under the guise of being progressive and helpful, in fact helped to keep our schools and neighborhoods segregated and our non-white citizens disadvantaged. This book, among others read at the same time, completely transformed the way I think about our government, public institutions, and society in general.
This novel follows the breakdown of a once tight-knit family after their only daughter experiences a significant trauma. While I have enjoyed many of Oates' novels, this one was a particularly compelling illustration of how trauma not only affects the person who initially experiences it, but how it also impacts the entire family system. Told from the perspective of the youngest brother, this is a story that I could not put down and that kept me thinking.
Anderson argues that our country's horrifying system of mass incarceration is the newest iteration of the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century. She shares compelling parallels between the systems of control, containment, and oppression used during slavery, segregation, and in between, to maintain white superiority and the widespread incarceration of black men that began with the War on Drugs. Her discussion of racism and social control is informative and eye-opening and is a critical read for understanding the dynamics of our current society.
This had been on my reading list for a few years, after hearing author Kathryn Edin speak at a conference. I wish I had gotten to it sooner, as it was one of the most enlightening books I have read in a while. Edin and Shaefer tell the stories of a number of families who, through circumstances often beyond their control, effectively live without any income. In what seem like unfathomable situations, the parents highlighted in this book dispel stereotypes about people living in poverty or who receive/are eligible for public assistance. I was blown away by the sheer resilience and persistence that these families continually demonstrated, and I learned so much about just how little is done to support those who need it most.
Which books inspired you the most over the past decade? Share your recommendations in the comments!
I know I'm in good company when I say that I'm not sad to say goodbye to 2019. I also know that the challenges I faced this year pale in comparison to the experiences of so many others whom I have read or heard about throughout the year. Yet personally and professionally, this year seemed to have a never-ending supply of curveballs to throw my way. I am happy and thankful to report that 2019 has ended far better than it started, but looking back, I can admit that I learned a lot of important lessons over the past 12 months.
Lesson 1: I've got a lot of good people in my corner. Here's a short list of who I'm especially grateful for:
Lesson 2: Sometimes you need a different perspective on the problem. Transitioning my business from Baltimore, where I lived for over a decade, to Columbus, where I didn't know anyone, was more challenging than I anticipated. After a number of frustrating months, I realized that there were other ways to run my business than the few tried and true strategies I was using. I started reaching out to people from different fields and points in their career for new insights.
I learned about search engine optimization, value-based marketing, and customer relationship management software. I joined the Ohio Program Evaluators Group (OPEG) and went to my first American Evaluation Association Conference. I gained a huge network of like-minded and supportive people who have opened up a world of ideas and opportunities for me. I learned that there is always something I can try to reach new potential clients, expand my impact on schools and communities, and grow my business. These experiences lit a fire under me to continue trying new things to make Structured Solutions better than ever.
Lesson 3: It's never ALL bad. I can't even tell you how many rejections I got this year. I felt so defeated and unclear about how to move forward. However, a lot of great things happened in 2019 too - they just get clouded by the discouraging events of this year. Here are some awesome things that happened for Structured Solutions in 2019:
I'm glad to put 2019 behind me, but like all challenging experiences, I know that it has helped me grow as a person and as a business owner. I am optimistic that 2020 will be a better year (hopefully for everyone else too!), but I aim to continue the spirit of character-building, self-improvement, and continuous learning that 2019 necessitated.
Happy New Year!
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.