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5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of an External Program Evaluation

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This post is by Pam Blumenthal (@Pamelamapdx), Director of Links Programs, which includes Future Connect (@GetTherePDX), at Portland Community College (@PortlandCC).

Today's post is the practitioner perspective on Monday's post: Evaluating Education Programs Effectively: What Researchers Should Keep in Mind.

 

When the first external evaluation of Future Connect wrapped up this summer, we didn't just learn about how our program is doing—we also learned how to work successfully with an evaluation team to produce the clearest and most useful results.

Based out of Portland Community College (PCC), Future Connect provides scholarships and support for first-generation and low-income college students in and around Portland, Oregon.

Additionally, students in the Future Connect program work with our college success coaches, who offer one-on-one advising, mentoring, and resources geared toward successful college completion and transitions to four-year universities or careers.

We partnered with a local nonprofit research and evaluation organization, Education Northwest, to serve as our external evaluator. Since Future Connect had never undergone an external evaluation, the Education Northwest team walked us through each step, providing strong communications and organizing logistics, and the team was very collaborative throughout the process.

The results of the evaluation were not surprising. Rather, they highlighted what we already knew.

For example, when Future Connect started a few years ago, the emphasis was on helping students become successful at PCC. As we have evolved, however, we have moved in the direction of supporting high school students as they transition to PCC, as well as supporting PCC students as they progress toward transferring to four-year universities or entering the job market.

Put another way, the evaluation affirmed that we need to provide both an onramp and an offramp to young people.

In addition, we knew that supporting African American students is a growth area for us, and the data included in the evaluation reinforced that we need to develop more strategies for retaining African American students and supporting African American male students in particular.

The evaluation findings also showed us the number of students who have concerns with food and housing security, and we are working on solutions to better support our students in both areas.

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Now that the evaluation is complete, we'd like to share some lessons learned for other practitioner groups following the same path:

Have a clear reason for doing the evaluation. To get something out of it, you need to be open to looking at how you're doing and be ready to explore your blind spots.

Make sure the timing is right. Future Connect was at the right place in its evolution for an evaluation--the program had been around long enough that we had sufficient data and experience for the evaluation team to do its work. We were also at the point where we were open to growing in new directions, a need the evaluation affirmed.

Designate a point person to lead communications with evaluators. Having one person communicating directly with the Education Northwest team and then providing the Future Connect staff with the information it needed helped avoid confusion. It also made the process more streamlined.

Generate enthusiasm among program staff members. It's important to communicate the benefits of doing the evaluation to your program team. The more collaborative your team is in the evaluation process, the better results you'll get from focus groups and staff surveys.

Build a relationship with the evaluation team. We are always looking for ways to build partnerships, and Education Northwest is highly connected with other organizations and community colleges that support our type of work. Building a strong relationship with your evaluation team could lead to new partnership possibilities. 

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