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This is a guest blog post by Steven M. Ross, M.D., Senior research scientist and professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University.
The prospect of an evaluation isn’t warmly received by everyone. Compared to “assessments,” which merely measure things, evaluations use assessment results to make judgments about program quality and success. That factor naturally puts people on alert and wanting to put their best foot forward when the evaluator arrives on the scene. In that regard, as a professional evaluator, I have seen reactions from stakeholders ranging from active resistance to enthusiastic welcoming. Encouragingly, positive reactions are becoming increasingly common due to rising accountability and reliance on evidence for decision-making in most fields. In my current work with the George W. Bush Institute, independent evaluation is a highly emphasized component of every project. And, the results—whether positive or not—are taken very seriously. There are multiple reasons for viewing evaluations this way. Here are my top five:
- Improving program quality. Whether judged successful or not, virtually all programs could be improved in some way to fit present needs and conditions. Evaluations provide evidence on which components are working well and which are not. Recommendations for improvement are typically provided with the findings. This type of evaluation is often referred to as “formative.”
- Determining program effectiveness. Evaluations indicate the degree to which the program (service or product) achieves its defined objectives. The findings answer the overall question of whether the program was successful and should be continued as is or refined. This type of evaluation is often referred to as “summative.”
- Guiding long-term improvements. Programs that have been evaluated, refined and in operation for some time are likely to need adjustments due to possible changes in resources, objectives and target recipients. Continuous evaluation helps to keep the program effective and relevant for the long haul. This type of evaluation is sometimes referred to as “confirmative.”
- Establishing credibility with stakeholders and the public. Conducting independent evaluations sends the powerful message that those offering the program are concerned about its quality and improvement. Positive evaluation results, where obtained, further provide assurance that the program delivers what is promised.
- Providing evidence on what works. Evaluations are not only useful to program developers and providers, they also inform consumers, practitioners and researchers about what works. Take, for example, the Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative Fellowship, a program that endeavors to empower women from different countries to become leaders and advocates of democratic principles. Finding positive evaluation results for the Women’s Initiative Fellowship (which has been the case in initial studies) not only supports the efficacy of this specific program but presents effective strategies for comparable initiatives worldwide.
As the above list indicates, evaluation studies offer multiple benefits to program providers, consumers and policy makers. Evaluators, like me, naturally embrace these benefits, and appreciate organizations like the Bush Institute where individuals are thirsty to use the evaluation results to validate and improve their programs.