To decipher how big data contributes to student learning

Educational Systems Improvement offers new understandings of evaluation

Michael Sharpe uses innovative evaluation methods to assess impact. Impact, after all, is the anticipated consequence of a policy decision or project that has been implemented. Yet impact often has various meanings to different people, and is judged accordingly.

Michael Sharpe photo Michael Sharpe

Research Associate

Many of the evaluations which require some determination of impact are those aimed at improving the human condition. One expectation we have with poverty, education and health programs is that they will ultimately benefit people. Thus, considering impacts is essential to the many and varied programs that are intended to help people.

Photo of a group of kids jumping
Sharpe worked with a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education to determine whether improved accessibility of learning materials for students with print disabilities lead to increased academic performance. Through the application of impact evaluation principles, it was possible to examine this important issue.
“Many times evaluators are required to design their evaluation around a specific series of questions, which often times, do not address the issue of impact. Even so, it remains the most interesting question people want answered.”

While the concept of impact evaluation may be simple to understand, it can be complex to construct. One has to recognize that the desired impact may not be immediate but beyond the tenure of a policy decision or implemented project. Still, parameters must be set about short-term and intermediate-term impacts — benchmarks that allow us to conclude that distal impact is likely to occur. Making decisions about what those parameters will include is driven through achieving stakeholder consensus and using evaluation strategies to determine how successful we were in reaching those benchmarks.

Image with arrows moving in different directions with the word 'impact'

Program evaluation has existed for many decades, but only relatively recently have the stakes risen so high to assess impact. The pressure for both public and private entities to demonstrate accountability has become increasingly intense; no longer is it sufficient just to say that an evaluation has occurred — funders want to know what substantive impacts have occurred.

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Institute on Community Integration

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