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Volume XIV, Number 1 & 2, Spring 2008
Issue Topic: Building the Future of Family Involvement
Evaluations to Watch
The first four articles in this issues Evaluations to Watch section spotlight the national Parental Information and Resource Centers (PIRC) program and the ways in which a new evaluation approach is helping it build the family involvement field. We begin with an overview of the evaluation strategy and continue with articles describing three PIRCs' evaluation plans and lessons learned.
Helen Westmoreland and Suzanne Bouffard describe the evolving evaluation strategy for the national Parental Information and Resource Centers program, the program’s potential to build the family involvement field, and the role of the National PIRC Coordination Center.
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act gives parents the right to be involved in their children’s education in numerous ways—from taking part in school improvement to exercising options for school choice and supplemental services. But many schools need help in reaching out to parents and informing them of these rights, and parents often need additional information about how they can advocate for and help their children.
To address these needs, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) established the National Parental Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs). Through a competitive process, this program funds and oversees one or two PIRCs—statewide centers charged with promoting family–school relationships, including an emphasis on helping parents and schools understand the parent involvement provisions of NCLB—in every state or U.S. territory. Building on their history as technical assistance providers, the PIRCs funded for 2006–2011 have a new mission to build statewide knowledge of and capacity for parent involvement, as well as a new opportunity to reposition themselves as leaders in their states and in the field. There are currently a total of 62 PIRCs in all 50 states and a number of U.S. territories and outlying areas.
As part of its ongoing work to build family involvement practice and policy, Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) is collaborating with SEDL (formerly the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory) to serve as the National PIRC Coordination Center. The Coordination Center provides technical assistance and guidance to build the PIRCs’ capacity for program planning, implementation, and evaluation.
With support from the Coordination Center and ED, PIRCs are positioned to help build the field of family involvement both within their states and nationally. To help the PIRCs fulfill this role, the Coordination Center uses a multifaceted approach, which includes an emerging strategic framework for quality implementation and a new and field-building evaluation strategy that helps PIRCs use evaluation to inform and improve their family involvement practices.
The PIRC program is becoming a national think tank for parental involvement. PIRCs are increasing the visibility of parental involvement issues and services, leading efforts to coordinate parental involvement efforts across states, and working together to build knowledge. The new evaluation strategy is critical to these efforts, because it helps us—and the field—understand how we can make the most difference. —Patricia Kilby-Robb, National PIRC Expert and Contracting Officer's Representative at the U.S. Department of Education
The PIRC program is becoming a national think tank for parental involvement. PIRCs are increasing the visibility of parental involvement issues and services, leading efforts to coordinate parental involvement efforts across states, and working together to build knowledge. The new evaluation strategy is critical to these efforts, because it helps us—and the field—understand how we can make the most difference.
—Patricia Kilby-Robb, National PIRC Expert and Contracting Officer's Representative at the U.S. Department of Education
The PIRC Evaluation Strategy
The evaluation strategy is designed to achieve three primary goals: a) to assess evidence of impact for PIRC accountability and sustainability, b) to facilitate a process of learning and continuous improvement in each PIRC and the program as a whole, and c) to inform the field at large. The Coordination Center’s approach to evaluation honors the great diversity among the PIRCs, from their geography to their local needs, while addressing the commonalities across the PIRCs and emphasizing that each PIRC is part of a collective story of impact. It groups PIRCs’ activities and desired outcomes into similar categories, in order to analyze the value-added of PIRCs for multiple outcomes and through multiple activities. This strategy also helps the Coordination Center target technical assistance accordingly.
The three primary components of this evaluation strategy are:
1. Integrating program practice and evaluation. With this new evaluation approach, the PIRCs are bridging the divide between doing and assessing parent involvement work. For the first time, ED is requiring each PIRC to work with an external evaluator. Maximizing this opportunity entails improved collaboration between PIRC directors and external evaluators. As a result of Coordination Center-facilitated institutes and ongoing meetings, directors now report more investment in the evaluation process and evaluators feel more grounded in the day-to-day work of the PIRCs.
National PIRC Website
The National PIRC Coordination Center, a collaborative effort between SEDL, the Miko Group, and HFRP, has launched a new website to help support the Parental Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs). The new website details the Coordination Center’s plan for technical assistance, provides useful links about PIRCs, and has a directory to help you locate your state PIRC. www.nationalpirc.org
An important part of this collaboration is feeding evaluation data back into the program for learning and continuous improvement. PIRCs are collecting and analyzing data not just for compliance with federal mandates, but to learn about what does and does not work well in their centers and to make changes accordingly. To facilitate this process, PIRCs are investing in management information systems, staff development, and regular meetings to discuss progress. PIRCs are also sharing this information with each other and with the public to promote best practices.
2. Activity and outcomes alignment. From October 2006 to October 2007, the first year of a 5-year funding cycle, PIRCs engaged in the first phase of the evaluation strategy: planning their evaluation activities for the entire cycle. One of the Coordination Center’s primary goals during this year was to help PIRCs create a strategic evaluation plan that links their activities, the outcomes mandated by the federal legislation, and their evaluation design and measures. To help PIRCs create and improve these plans, the Coordination Center conducted regional training workshops and provided evaluation resources. The first step was to ensure alignment between PIRC activities and the legislated outcomes (e.g., increased home–school communication, improved school readiness) that PIRCs chose to measure. PIRCs are now able to focus on getting high-quality data that has a clear link to their individual efforts. In addition, the Coordination Center is able to look across all of the PIRCs to understand the kinds of outcome data that will be available at the end of the 5-year grant cycle.
3. Increasing evaluation rigor. In addition to better aligning their activities and outcomes, the PIRCs are also engaged in a number of other strategies to strengthen their evaluations. For example, some PIRCs have begun using more rigorously tested data collection measures to assess their progress toward outcomes. Almost half of the PIRCs have elected to conduct quasi-experimental research studies that use rigorous methods to examine the effectiveness of specific parental involvement approaches. These studies, which employ comparison groups to show the impact of specific programs or services, will contribute to a growing evidence base in the parent involvement field.
New and Upcoming SEDL Resources
For four decades, SEDL has worked to improve teaching and learning. In recent years, they have helped school, districts, and states meet the challenges of No Child Left Behind with resources, professional development, and other strategies. In addition to their work on the National PIRC Coordination Center, SEDL offers a vast number of practice and research-based family involvement resources, including research syntheses, strategy briefs, and a searchable database of school–family–community publications. You can access these resources at www.sedl.org/connections.
In October, 2006, the National Institute for Literacy awarded SEDL a contract to create and carry out a plan to get five new publications into the hands of parents nationwide. The free booklets give parents tips that support the development of their children’s five crucial early reading skills: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. One of the booklets, Dad’s Playbook: Coaching Kids to Read, is designed for fathers; another titled Big Dreams contains little text and is designed for parents with low-literacy skills. To find out when these resources become available, visit www.sedl.org.
Through intensive work with all the PIRCs, the Coordination Center has witnessed a shift in perspective toward a program-wide understanding of the critical role of evaluation for program quality and sustainability. Many PIRCs have increased the quality of their evaluation methods and measures and have created systems to build and sustain evaluation capacity. The PIRCs are becoming incubators of innovation, whose evaluation and research studies will not only inform PIRC services, but make an important contribution to the field and to parents and educators across the country.
In the words of Patricia Kilby-Robb, National PIRC Expert and Contracting Officer’s Representative at ED, PIRCs are becoming “a national think tank” for parental involvement, which will inform the field at large. With support and leadership from the Coordination Center, the new focus on using evaluation data to identify and promote effective practices is a large component of this innovative and field-building work. The following three articles illustrate the range of PIRC approaches and strategies, demonstrate how PIRCs are using evaluation, and highlight efforts to promote parent involvement in systemic and collaborative ways.
Helen Westmoreland, Research Analyst, HFRP.
Suzanne Bouffard, Ph.D. , Project Manager, HFRP.