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Volume VIII, Number 1, Spring 2002
Issue Topic: Family Support
Nearly twenty years ago I launched the Harvard Family Research Project to provide a knowledge base for the emerging family support field. I presented my early research at a 1983 conference at Yale University, a memorable event because it brought together pioneering researchers, program developers, and policymakers to lay out the trajectory of modern-day family support. The fact that family support is now part of mainstream programs for children and families indicates how far the field has come.
This issue of The Evaluation Exchange provides an opportunity to take stock of family support evaluations and their role in moving the field forward. As the family support field matures, evaluation addresses more complex issues about the range of program effects, and the circumstances in which programs work best. We present two thought provoking pieces. Using meta-analysis, McCartney and Dearing challenge us to change the ways we examine the evaluation evidence, and to consider the evidence contextually. Dunst urges getting beyond the question of "what works" toward a more detailed scrutiny of the relationship among family support principles, program practice, and family outcomes.
The evolution of family support will depend in large part on how families shape and assess the activities that promote their well-being. We have compiled several articles that illustrate a broader notion of family support to include families gaining access to information and using it to leverage change. Families use data to advocate for better-performing schools for their children, build family-strengthening environments at the neighborhood level, and educate policymakers. In doing so, they begin to level the playing field between professional and layperson, and lend a new dimension to the empowerment principle in family support.
Having families at the center of getting and using data stimulates new directions in data collection methods and dissemination practices. Patton reminds us that partnerships with families enrich the variety of evaluation options, and also challenge evaluators to examine the assumptions of traditional evaluation methods. This issue reflects many exciting examples of community-based practices - study circles, storytelling, videography, and neighborhood asset mapping - to document what matters most to families.
Family support evaluation is no longer only about understanding program effectiveness; it is also about building capacity for evaluation at all levels. With the increasing use of evaluation as a tool for learning and continuous improvement, evaluators are designing research-program partnerships that both add value to the research and transfer evaluative skills to local programs and individual parents. Several articles in this issue describe how partnerships add value to evaluation design, indicator development, and formative evaluation approaches. They illustrate that it is possible to involve families and programs without making tradeoffs that compromise the research design and the credibility of the results.
Considerable discussions are taking place about creative approaches to evaluating family support initiatives. The HFRP research team and I invite you to share your ideas by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heather B. Weiss, Ed.D.
Founder & Director
Harvard Family Research Project