What exactly IS program evaluation?


Welcome back.  It is Tuesday.

Some folks have asked me–now that I’ve pointed out that all of you are evaluators–where will I take this column.  That was food for thought…and although I’ve got a topic ready to go, I’m wondering if jumping off into working evaluation is the best place to go next.  One place I did go is to update the “About” tab on this page…

Maybe thinking some more about what you evaluated today; maybe thinking about a bigger picture of evaluation; maybe just being glad that the sun is shining is enough (although the subfreezing temperatures remind me of Minnesota without the snow).   The saying goes, “Minnesota has two seasons–green and white.”  Maybe Oregon has two seasons–dry and wet.   That is an evaluative question, by-the-way.  Hmmm…thinking about evaluation, having an evaluation question of the week sounds like a good idea.  What’s yours—small or large?  I may not have an answer, I will have an idea.

Ok–so now that I’ve dealt with the evaluative question of the day–I think it is time to go to more substance, like “what exactly IS program evaluation?”  Good question–if we are going to have this conversation, then we need to be using the same language.

First, let me address why the 489px-Wikipedia-logo-en-big link is on the right.  I’ve learned Wikipedia is a readily available, general reference that gets folks started understanding a subject.  It is NOT the definitive word on the subject.  Wikipedia (see link on the right) describes program evaluation as “…a systematic method for collecting, analyzing, and using information to answer basic questions about projects, policies, and programs.”  Well…yes…except that Wikipedia seems to be defining evaluation when it includes “projects and policies.”  Program evaluation deals with programs.  Wikipedia does have an entry for evaluation as well as an entry for program evaluation. Read both.

Evaluation can be applied to projects, policies, personnel, processes, performances, proposals, products AND programs. I won’t talk much about policies, personnel, performances, proposals, or products. Projects may be another word for program; policies usually result in programs; and processes are often part of programs.

Most of what this blog will address is program evaluation because most of you (including me) have programs that need evaluating.  When I talk about program evaluation I am talking about “…determining the merit, worth, or value of (a program).” (Michael Scriven uses this definition in his book, Evaluation Thesaurus, 1991, Sage Publications.)Scriven book cover

It is available at http://www.amazon.com/Evaluation-Thesaurus-Michael-Scriven/dp/0803943644/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1260231404&sr=1-2 (or through the publisher).

So for me and what you need to know about program evaluation is this:

  • The root of evaluation is value (OED lists the etymology as [a.  Fr.  évaluation, f.  évaluer, f.  é- =es- (: L.  ex) out + value])
  • Program evaluation IS systematic.
  • Program evaluation DOES collect, analyze, and utilize information.
  • Program evaluation ATTEMPTS to determine the merit, worth, or value of a program.
  • Program evaluation ANSWERS this question:

“What difference does this program make in the lives and well being of (fill in the blank here—citizens of Oregon, my 4-H club, residents of the watershed, you get the idea).”

NOTE: I talk about “lives and well-being” because most programs are delivered to individuals who will be CHANGED as a result of participating in the program, i.e., experience a difference.

For those of us in Extension, when we do evaluation we are trying to determine if we “improved something;” we are not trying to “prove” that what we did accomplished something.  Peter Bloom always said, “Extension is out to improve something (attribution), not prove something (causation).”  We are looking for attribution not causation.

Many references exist that talk more about what is program evaluation.  My favorite reference is by Jody Fitzpatrick, Jim Sanders, and Blaine Worthen and is called, Program Evaluation: Alternative Approaches and Practical Guidelines (2004, Pearson Education)Fitzpatrick book cover_

It is available at http://www.amazon.com/Program-Evaluation-Alternative-Approaches-guidelines/dp/0321077067/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1260232702&sr=1-2 (or through the publisher).

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