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5 Reasons You Should Be Evaluating Your Professional Development Programs

Professional Growth

Wouldn’t it be great if we knew when our professional learning programs were successful? What if we knew more than just the fact that teachers liked the presenter, were comfortable in the room or learned something new? Wouldn’t it be better to know that teachers made meaningful changes in teaching practice that resulted in increased student learning?

We can ascertain all of this and more by conducting program evaluation.

Every day we engage in random acts of evaluation – multiple times per day, in fact. When we get dressed in the morning, we implicitly ask ourselves a set of questions and gather data to answer them.

  • Will it be warm or cold?
  • Will the temperature change throughout the day?
  • Will there be precipitation?
  • Which clothes do I have that are clean?
  • What do I have on my schedule? How should I dress for that?

Of course, getting dressed is pretty low stakes. At worst, we might find ourselves too warm or cold, or under- or overdressed for an occasion. Buying a new car, however, is a higher stakes proposition. We could end up with a lemon that costs us a lot of money, or even worse, is unsafe. When we evaluate, we are more or less systematic about it depending on the context. For the car, we may create a spreadsheet and collect data on different models, their price, performance, safety features and gas mileage. Or, at the very least, we would read up on this information and note it in our heads.

But what about our professional learning programs? What does it mean to evaluate a program?

What is Program Evaluation?

Program evaluation is applying systematic methods to collect, analyze, interpret and communicate data about a program to understand its design, implementation, outcomes or impacts. Simply put, program evaluation is gathering data to understand what’s going on with a program, and then using what we learn to make good decisions.

Program evaluation gives us key insights into important questions we have about our professional learning programs that help inform decisions about them. For example, we may want to know:

  • How well does the program work? Is it changing teacher practice?
  • Is the program meeting the needs of the participants?
  • To what extent has there been progress toward the program’s stated objectives?
  • Do we have evidence of student learning attributable to the program?
  • How can the program be improved?

Part of the innate beauty of program evaluation lies in its abundant flexibility. First, there are numerous forms and approaches, and second, evaluation can be conducted both before and during a program, as well as after the program ends.

Systematic Methods

What do we mean by systematic methods? Much like a high-quality lesson or unit plan, program evaluation is the result of good thinking and good planning. It’s knowing what we want our programs to accomplish and what types of assessment will help us determine if we are successful. Being systematic means:

  • Ensuring that we understand what our programs do and what they are expected to do for both educators and students
  • Identifying which questions need to be answered
  • Knowing what data we need to collect to answer those questions
  • Identifying the primary users of our evaluation results – those who rely on the answers to be able to make good decisions

There are myriad strategies for collecting data. Surveys, interviews or focus group interviews, and observations or walkthroughs are common methods. We can also look at student achievement data, student work samples, lesson plans, teacher journals, logs, video clips, photographs or other artifacts of learning. The data we collect will depend on the questions we ask.

5 Reasons to Evaluate Professional Learning Programs

Learning Forward offers a set of standards, elements essential to educator learning that lead to improved practice and better results for students. The Data Standard in particular calls for professional learning programs to be evaluated using multiple sources of data. While adhering to a set of standards offers justification for action, there are specific advantages of program evaluation that substantiate its need:

  1. Evaluating professional learning programs allows leaders to make data-informed decisions about them.When leaders have evaluation results in hand they can determine the best course of action for program improvement. Will the program be expanded, discontinued, or changed?
  2. Evaluating professional learning programs allows all stakeholders to know how the program is going.How well is it being implemented? Who is participating? Is it meeting participants’ learning needs? How well is the program aligned to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) definition of professional learning?
  3. Evaluation serves as an early warning system.It allows leaders to peek inside and determine the degree of progress toward expected outcomes. Does it appear that program goals will be achieved? What’s going well? What’s going poorly? Evaluation uncovers problems early on so that they can be corrected before the program ends.
  4. Program evaluation helps us understand not only if the program has been successful (however “success” is defined) but also why the program is or is not successful.It allows us to know what factors influence success of the program.
  5. Program evaluation allows us to demonstrate a program’s success to key stakeholders such as boards of education and community members, or potential grant funders.Evaluation results allow us to document accomplishments and help substantiate the need for current or increased levels of funding.

All Evaluation is NOT the Same

The word “evaluation” can strike fear into the hearts of teachers and administrators alike. People naturally squirm when they think they are being evaluated. Although personnel or employee evaluation shares some characteristics with program evaluation — such as collecting and analyzing data, using rubrics, assigning a value or score and making recommendations — they serve entirely different purposes.

Program evaluation focuses on program data, not on an individual’s personal performance. The focus of the evaluation is on how the program performs. In education, we take great care not to let program evaluation results influence personnel evaluation. And remember the example about buying a car? That’s product evaluation, and it too shares traits with program evaluation but serves a different purpose.

Are you convinced that program evaluation will help you generate insights that inspire action to improve professional learning in your school or district?

Next up in the series

In Part 2, we’ll take a deeper dive into program evaluation and understand the big picture of how evaluation is conducted, the forms it can take, and how it relates to research.

Sheila B. Robinson

Sheila B. Robinson, Ed.D of Custom Professional Learning, LLC, is an educational consultant and program evaluator with a passion for professional learning. She designs and facilitates professional learning courses on program evaluation, survey design, data visualization, and presentation design. She blogs about education, professional learning, and program evaluation at Sheila spent her 31 year public school career as a special education teacher, instructional mentor, transition specialist, grant coordinator, and program evaluator. She is an active American Evaluation Association member where she is Lead Curator and content writer for their daily blog on program evaluation, and is Coordinator of the Potent Presentations Initiative. Sheila has taught graduate courses on program evaluation and professional development design and evaluation at the University of Rochester Warner School of Education where she received her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Program Evaluation Certificate. Her book, Designing Quality Survey Questions was published by Sage Publications in 2018.