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The Evaluator's Journey: Getting Educated on Education

June 09, 2017 by Steven Wind

You can call me the Existentialist Evaluator, but I think one of the most interesting parts of evaluation work is learning about things I previously knew little about, and how that changes my view of the world. In the last year, I had the pleasure to do interviews with business and foundation leaders, school superintendents, state legislators, and heads of government agencies as part of a project for an education advocacy organization. For that same project, I also co-facilitated focus groups with Latino parents. The varied perspectives on education of the key informants and focus group participants were fascinating and eye-opening. As I thought about what I was learning about education in Arizona from working on the project I was reminded of how many other education-related projects LeCroy & Milligan Associates has worked on that I have participated in and how my experience with each had provided me insight into another aspect of the institution we call “education.”

Early on in my work here, I was a team member on the AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) Toolkit project the former statewide student assessment in Math, Reading, etc.) This was a project that involved researching best practices for preventing students from dropping out of school and provided that information on a public portal, which was periodically updated. Later, I served as evaluator of the Native American Dropout Prevention Initiative (NADPI), another project of the Arizona Department of Education. The project was implemented at high schools on the San Carlos Apache and White Mountain Apache reservations. The evaluation included periodic visits to participating schools, which provided insight into the challenges faced by educators and students at reservation public schools.

Another early project I worked on was a student mental health needs assessment for a northern Arizona school district. This project included a site visit and key informant interviews with behavioral health professionals inside the school district and the surrounding community. Again, I was struck by the hard work of school personnel and social service staff to meet the needs of students despite resource limitations.

Over the years, I have also had the opportunity to gain insights into early childhood education through LeCroy & Milligan Associates’ work on First Things First (Arizona’s early childhood agency) Regional Needs and Assets Reports. For those reports we have collected data about early childhood education assets in various First Things First regions and have conducted mini-literature reviews on early literacy practices as well.

Over the last few years, I have had additional work-based opportunities to learn about the successes and challenges of public education in Arizona. For about three years I coordinated a project for the Arizona Governor’s Office of Education Innovation (GOEI) that surveyed teachers (and later principals) about preparation for, and implementation of, Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards (ACCRS) and the AzMERIT, the latest statewide student assessment. Although most of the questions of the web-based surveys were multiple choice, the most interesting data was usually teachers’ and principals’ responses to open-ended questions. Respondents often wrote passionately about their experiences working as a teacher or principal and gave extensive explanations of their views on ACCRS and AzMERIT.

Another multi-year education-based project I worked on was the statewide evaluation of projects participating in the Mathematics and Science Partnerships (MSP) program. This program provides federal money through the Arizona Department of Education for school districts to partner with institutions of higher learning to provide math and science professional development for teachers. Reading the Annual Performance Reports and evaluation reports from MSP projects around Arizona allowed me to again become aware of the great challenges school districts face in improving the education they provide to students. The MSP projects required the recruitment and retention of experimental and control teachers and the dedication of the participating teachers to attend professional development sessions on weekends during the school year and usually for a solid week during the summer. It was inspiring for me to read quotes from teacher feedback forms that showed how much and in what ways many teachers had been positively impacted and would bring their new knowledge and perspectives back to their classrooms to improve the educational experience of their students.

During the last year, I have seen the MSP program from the local level, working on an evaluation of an MSP project being implemented by three Pima County school districts. Not only has this work made me more understanding of the challenges faced by districts implementing MSP projects and their evaluators (isn’t it so easy, when you’re a statewide evaluator, to be critical of local evaluation efforts) but also to the challenges of middle and high school mathematics teachers. The requirement that Reformed Teacher Observation Protocol (RTOP) observations be done as part of the evaluation has brought me right into many classrooms to see firsthand the “doing” of education. Again, this was an eye-opening experience and only increased my appreciation of both teachers working hard at teaching and students trying to learn.

A final view into education in Arizona was provided to me by my work the last two years on the Parent School Effectiveness Survey for the Glendale Union High School District. LeCroy and Milligan Associates has fielded a team of phone surveyors who have contacted parents of students attending schools in the district to find out how satisfied they are with various aspects of their child’s education, from teacher support of students to school safety. The survey has again emphasized for me the important role parents play in their child’s education and brought to mind the many ingredients needed for a positive educational experience for a child.

I believe the breadth of my exposure to the many different aspects of the education field have not only made me a stronger evaluator for education projects, but also a more aware advocate for public education. It has only become clearer to me that teachers need adequate support and resources if we are to be able to provide children the high quality education they deserve.

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