Readers of this blog know that I have emphasized for some time the need to strengthen a culture of evaluation in Rotary. Evaluations should be undertaken not only for our service projects, but also to assess how our clubs meet, work, and grow – or wither away. This post is about a recent evaluation of an education project supported by my club, and how the evaluation is proving to be useful not only for the local nonprofit we worked with, but also for our club and more generally for practitioners and policy makers working in the field of education.
For several years my club has supported One World Education (OWEd), a great nonprofit based in Washington, DC. OWEd runs the largest argumentative writing program in public and charter schools in the city. The nonprofit reached 5,800 middle and high school students this past school year. The aim of the program, which runs for 4-5 weeks in the schools, is to improve the research, writing, and presentation skills of the students, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and do not do very well in school.
In previous years, our support to OWEd consisted in providing a bit of funding and volunteering at some of their events. This year, we provided college scholarships for some of the high school students (seniors) who participated in the program and worked especially hard. But we also did more. Together with a team at American University, we designed an evaluation of the program to better measure its impact. For more than 550 students, teachers collected essays written in class before and after the program. The essays were graded by professors and instructors in the Department of Literature at American University. This enabled us to assess whether the program made a difference in the writing skills of middle and high school students.
The evaluation demonstrated that the program has a positive impact. The program generates statistically significant gains in writing quality, especially for students who performed worst on the initial pre-program assignment. The positive impact of the program was confirmed through data on the perceptions of teachers and students about the program. Two summary briefs about those evaluation results have been written and are now available for public schools and for charter schools separately.
It is clear that this type of evaluation is beneficial for the nonprofits whose programs are evaluated, as the evaluations enable the nonprofits to measure their impact, and take corrective action when needed. The evaluations are also beneficial for our club in reassuring members that we are investing in worthwhile initiatives.
But there is more. Many others are interested in such evaluations and may learn from them, possibly generating larger impacts beyond the specific programs being evaluated. And these evaluations provide for great stories to be featured in local newspapers or magazines as well as social media, giving more visibility not only to the nonprofits and programs being evaluated, but also to the Rotary clubs that supported those evaluations.
This is what we are focusing on now – making sure that the positive results obtained by OWEd through its program are better known in Washington, DC, and beyond. We are writing short articles that document those results, and some of the stories of the students who benefited from the program. We have secured already two placements for stories in the local media and we hope to write additional articles for national publications about the results of the evaluation. In addition, we will also prepare technical papers for academic journals. It remains to be seen whether we will be successful, but we now have a stronger story to tell thanks to the evaluation.
Finally, as mentioned, the evaluation has been summarized in two easy-to-read briefs. The two briefs, together with briefs about the work of other nonprofits operating in the field of education and skills for youth in the city, will be included in a small brief series on innovations in education in Washington, DC to be published by the World Bank. We hope that this simple brief series will help attract attention to the nonprofits doing great work in the city, while also helping practitioners and policy makers learn from the experience of successful programs.
In summary, evaluation is essential not only to help improve service projects, whether implemented by Rotary clubs or nonprofits, but also to tell stronger stories about ways to improve the lives of the less fortunate. Investing more in evaluation seems to be a win-win for nonprofits as well as service clubs. And for Rotary as a whole, as I mentioned it in a previous series of posts on this blog, focusing more on partnerships, innovation, and evaluation seems key to achieve larger impacts.