Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Gratitude in Evaluation: Asset-Based Program Evaluation During COVID-19

By Guest Blogger Jason Spector, Policy Studies Associates

Jason Spector 
Policy Studies Associates

We are entering a holiday season unlike any other, with limited gatherings and far too many empty seats at the table. Out-of-school-time (OST) staff, youth, and families face deep grief, challenge and uncertainty. It is not a time where program evaluation is at the forefront of our minds, and when evaluation does come to the fore in the OST field, it is often in the context of service gaps, disparities, and young people’s learning losses. These are all too real and point to the deep challenges of this era, from the disparate educational and health impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color to the mounting academic learning loss that is inextricably connected to race and class across the country. 2020 is a year of intersecting health, economic, education, and racial justice crises; it is also the year where resilience has shone through and there is much to express gratitude for and celebrate in the OST field and beyond. 

Asset-based evaluation can be a helpful, and hopeful, approach during this time and into the future.

What do we mean when we say asset-based evaluation? Consider the definition from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health: “Asset-based approaches emphasize the need to redress the balance between meeting needs and nurturing the strengths and resources of people and communities. They are ways of valuing and building on the skills, successes and strengths of individuals and communities, which focus on the positive capacity of individuals and communities rather than solely on their needs, deficits and problems. These assets can act as the foundation from which to build a positive future.” In short, assets do not diminish problems and needs, but they do serve as a broadened foundation upon which to build an evaluation strategy.

Source: California Afterschool Network (CAN)

How can an asset-based evaluation approach help address your organizational needs during COVID-19? Here are some helpful tips to get started:

  • Reexamine how you frame continuous improvement. Continuous improvement often involves developing and adapting strategies to meet problems or challenges. This is necessary, but incomplete. An asset-based approach can reframe continuous improvement as both addressing challenges and intentionally identifying program, community, and individual strengths—and then developing strategies to amplify those strengths. For example, a strength of the virtual program structure is it can attract a broader range of staff and volunteers across geographic boundaries. An asset-based continuous improvement question asks when virtual programming makes sense to continue in the future to broaden the staff and volunteer talent pool.
  • Broaden your measures of success. OST youth, families, and staff are benefitting from new services (e.g. food support and IT connectedness) and developing new socio-emotional strengths as they collectively face down adversities. At the organization level, providers are learning to rapidly adapt and develop new systems for virtual and blended learning that will increase organizational capacity for years to come. These are worthy indicators of success.
  • Use qualitative data collection to bring in more voices. Inclusivity is critical to an asset-based evaluation. Voices from students, families, and staff can rise to the fore through interviews and focus groups, as well as through open-ended survey questions. Who better to speak to the assets of the community than community members? 
  • Use an analytic lens that seeks out the positives. Both qualitatively and quantitatively, it is critical to analyze where are things working well and for whom. Whether these are individual case studies or examples of successful mass mobilization efforts (e.g., increasing student access to devices), there is much to learn from individual, program, and community strengths that can be both celebrated and scaled.
  • Celebrate the wins through positive feedback loops. When a staff member is called out by a student or family member for excelling in their role, how do you ensure that that information not only makes it into a grant report, but directly back to that staff member in a timely manner? Building positive feedback loops where information flows to all stakeholders to celebrate wins—not just address challenges—builds buy-in for evaluation and bolsters staff and community morale. Let evaluation be a source of inspiration!

As you consider taking one or more steps toward an asset-based evaluation approach, be mindful of evaluation overload. It may be preferable to do fewer things and do them well during this time. Accordingly, be cognizant of matching your evaluation strategy to your organizational needs and capacity, so that asset-based evaluation doesn’t become ‘just one more thing.’ And as you dive in, please share your examples of how you practice gratitude and/or asset-based evaluation—I am grateful for, and look forward to, learning alongside you.

Jason Spector is a Senior Research Associate at Policy Studies Associates. He formerly served as the Senior Director of Strategy and Evaluation at After-School All-Stars. Jason recently authored a chapter in the new book Measure, Use, Improve! Data Use in OST! titled “What’s Your Why? Matching Evaluation Approach to Organizational Need.” He can be reached at jspector@policystudies.com or on LinkedIn.    


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