How evaluators adapt their evaluations to the developmental context: Evaluation design

What evaluation design is best? This debate has raged through the field of evaluation on what constitutes credible evidence[1] with some arguing for RCTs as the “gold standard” and others questioning the superiority of the RCT.

This debate is somewhat meaningless when we understand that the evaluation design is chosen based on the evaluation questions. Evaluations seeking outcomes or impact are perhaps best served by an experimental (i.e., RCT) or quasi-experimental design whereas evaluations seeking the needs of the program and fidelity of implementation are better served by a descriptive (e.g., case study, observational) or correlation (e.g., cohort study, cross-sectional study) design.

In the context of youth programs, however, longitudinal designs may be particularly important. Longitudinal designs are critical for measuring and understanding development over time. They’re especially critical when knowledge of long-term effects, that may not manifest until the end of the program or after services have ended, is needed.

In my study, evaluators did not change their evaluation designs based on the age of participants. I asked evaluators to rank their choice of evaluation design and majority chose quasi-experimental (37%), descriptive/correlation (23%), or experimental (15%) as their primary choice. Few evaluators chose a case study (8%) or ethnographic (4%) design. A further 13% evaluators chose to write in another design, with majority indicating a mixed methods design.

I also asked evaluators how many waves of survey or interview data collection they would do across the three years of the evaluation. For those who responded to survey questions, 69% said they would do a baseline and multiple follow-up surveys, 28% said they would do a baseline and one follow-up, and only 3% said they would only do a baseline or post-test survey. For those who responded to interview questions, 93% said they would do multiple sets of interviews or focus groups and only 7% said they would do only one set. However, there are likely no differences because of the length of the simulation study’s evaluation of three years.

Be sure to check out the previous post on how the evaluation approach differed across age conditions. Stay tuned for more results from my study in terms of the evaluation methods, as well as a discussion explaining these results and next steps!

[1]  Donaldson, S. I., Christie, C. A., & Mark, M. M. (Eds.) (2009). What counts as credible evidence in applied research and evaluation practice? Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Developmental Appropriateness as Cultural Competence in Evaluation

Children and adults differ more than simply age; rather, they differ in culture as well.1 This recognition can be hard for evaluators: as we have all passed through childhood, it is easy to believe we have the same or greater knowledge of children’s culture than they do. Furthermore, our “spatial proximity to children may lead us to believe that we are closer to them than we really are—only different in that (adults claim) children are still growing up (‘developing’) and are often wrong (‘lack understanding’).”2

This points to a need for cultural competence, which the American Evaluation Association (AEA) describes as “critical for the profession and for the greater good of society.”3 Cultural competence practice in evaluation includes:

  • Acknowledging the complexity of cultural identity
  • Recognizing the dynamics of status and power (e.g., the differential power between adults and children)
  • Recognizing and eliminating bias in language
  • Employing culturally (i.e., developmentally) appropriate methods

In particular, culturally competent evaluations require inclusion of cultural expertise on the evaluation team.4 In the case of youth programs, this means inclusion of developmental expertise, which can involve developmental experts (i.e., psychologists, developmental scientists) but evaluators should also strive to include the youth themselves.

A youth participatory approach can reduce the harmful power imbalances between adult evaluators and youth participants,5, are more ethical for youth6, and offer many benefits for children and adolescents, including knowledge about the evaluation process and improvements in self-esteem, decision-making, and problem-solving skills.7

However, a youth participatory approach can vary by a range of levels.8 At the lowest level, participants are simply included as a data source, which can yet more vary by direct (i.e., surveys, interviews) and indirect (i.e., observations, archival data) data collection. Further up the participatory ladder is giving youth input on the evaluation process. The highest level of youth participation is youth actually leading the evaluation, much like they would in a traditional empowerment evaluation.

Inclusion of youth, or at least adult developmental experts, can improve the likelihood of a culturally competent evaluation for the first two bullet points mentioned above. However, evaluators still must make sure the evaluation design and methods are culturally, and therefore developmentally, appropriate. The next post will discuss how evaluators can promote cultural competence across the evaluation process in the context of youth programs.

What is the developmental context? and why is it important to evaluation?

In a paper presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Evaluation Association1, Tiffany Berry, Susan Menkes, and Katherine Bono discussed how evaluators could improve their practice through the developmental context. They argue that evaluators have spent years discussing how the program context (e.g., age of program, accessibility, size of program, timeline, political nature) and evaluation context (e.g., stakeholder involvement, method proclivity, measurement tools, purpose, use of results) affect the practice of evaluation. However, there has been little discussion on how the participants of a program, and particularly the age of participants, also affect the practice of evaluation.2 Thus, they describe what they call the Developmental Context and the three core developmental facets that define the development context.

1. Principles of Development

The first component of the developmental context involves knowledge of principles and theories of development. These principles and theories explain how the environment, the individual, and the interaction between the environment and individual explain development over time. There have been many broadly accepted theories of such development. Two of my personal favorite, and two that emphasize the interaction between the environment and individual, include Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006) and Lerner’s (2006) developmental systems theory.

Relevance of Principles of Development to Evaluation

People are a product of their individual attributes and the contexts they live in over time. Thus, when conducting evaluations, it is important to examine participant, program, and other contextual characteristics in tandem. A systems perspective to evaluation can be a useful endeavor to achieve this. This type of approach also helps in answering the “For whom does this program work?” question in evaluation.

2. Developmental Domains

Developmental domains refer to cognitive, socioemotional, physical, and other domains of development. For instance, the cognitive domain refers to intellectual or mental development, such as thinking, memory, reasoning, problem-solving, language, and perception. The socioemotional domain refers to relationship skills, social awareness, self-management, self-awareness, and responsible decision-making3. The physical domain refers to development of body structure, including sensory/motor development and coordination of perception and movement.

Relevance of Developmental Domains to Evaluation

Developmental domains primarily seem to affect the appropriate methods for participants. For example, knowledge of the cognitive stage of participants can help evaluators accommodate the reading level ability for construction of a paper survey. Knowledge of the socioemotional stage of participants can determine whether focus groups or interviews would be better suited for participants. Also, knowledge of the physical stage of participants can determine whether computer surveys, which require the use of fine motor skills for using a mouse and keyboard, are appropriate.

3. Age of Participants

The age of participants is perhaps most salient to evaluators. We typically group young participants into a variety of categories (e.g., infants, toddlers, young children, older children, adolescents, teenagers, young adults, youth) but these categories often overlap and are not clearly defined in the literature. For example, are youth comprised of children as well as adolescents?

Relevance of Age of Participants to Evaluation

While age is typically used as a determinant of whether a data collection method is developmentally appropriate, the issue becomes complicated when considering children and adolescents from diverse populations (e.g., low-income, cultural and ethnic minorities, those with mental, emotional, or physical challenges).4 Disadvantaged youth may not be at the same developmental stages as their more advantaged counterparts.5 While age is a simple factor to consider when designing and conducting evaluations, consideration of age alone may not be sufficient to ensure a developmentally appropriate evaluation.

Developmentally Appropriate Evaluations

In evaluation, one thing is clear: context matters. Many evaluators have described how the context of the program (e.g., age of program, type of program, feasibility) and the context of the evaluation (e.g., resources, stakeholder involvement, measurement tools) affect evaluation designs, methods, practices, and measures. However, evaluators have only begun to examine how the developmental context also affect how evaluators design and conduct evaluations. Specifically, how should the age of participants affect evaluations?  Continue reading “Developmentally Appropriate Evaluations”

Importance of Measuring Participants’ Reasons for Being in the Program

This blog post was originally posted on AEA365 and was written with Tiffany Berry, a research associate professor at Claremont Graduate University. 

Today we are going to discuss why you should measure participants’ motivation for joining or continuing to attend a program.

Sometimes, randomization in our impact evaluations is not possible. When this happens, there are issues of self-selection bias that can complicate interpretations of results. To help identify and reduce these biases, we have begun to measure why youth initially join programs and why they continue participating. The reason participants’ join a program is a simple yet powerful indicator that can partially account for self-selection biases while also explaining differences in student outcomes. Continue reading “Importance of Measuring Participants’ Reasons for Being in the Program”

Embedding Continuous Quality Improvement Throughout Organizations

This blog post was originally posted on AEA365 and was written with Tiffany Berry, a research associate professor at Claremont Graduate University. 

Today we are going to discuss the importance of embedding quality throughout an organization by discussing our work in promoting continuous quality improvement (CQI) in afterschool programs.

CQI systems involve iterative and ongoing cycles of goal setting about offering quality programming, using effective training practices to support staff learning and development, frequent program monitoring including site observations and follow-up coaching for staff, and analyzing data to identify strengths and address weaknesses in program implementation. While CQI within an organization is challenging, we have begun to engage staff in conversations about CQI. Continue reading “Embedding Continuous Quality Improvement Throughout Organizations”