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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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Heather Weiss

Child and family programs and reform efforts are increasingly under pressure not only to evaluate their work, but to integrate evaluation into the initial design of their initiative. This often presents dilemmas to practitioners. When resources are scarce, there is a pull to spend them on the programs—on helping families—rather than on trying to measure their progress or effectiveness. Few initiatives have the luxury of having evaluators on staff and outside technical assistance can be hard to find or afford. Finally, once committed to evaluation, it is difficult to choose amongst the many possible evaluation approaches and evaluators. Thus programs seek to find efficient and affordable ways to help them gain a better understanding of their options and how best to allocate scarce evaluation resources.

In an effort to provide practical information about the respective advantages and limitations of alternative approaches, Harvard Family Research Project has launched a new working paper series, The Evaluation Options Forum. We will pick a type of program, do a realistic prototypical example of it, and then solicit alternative plans for how to evaluate it. The plans are not meant to be full-blown or used as a recipe. Rather, they are meant to help similar programs frame their evaluation questions and approaches.

Alternative ways of evaluating family resource centers is both the topic of our first Evaluation Options Forum working paper and the theme of this issue of the newsletter. Family resource centers (FRCs) first became popular in the 1970s, and they increasingly play a key role in many national, state, and local efforts to develop more comprehensive and integrated child and family service systems. While many family centers have developed as independent, “stand-alone” entities in a single community, others have developed as part of a larger, system-wide reform effort. Many states, such as Minnesota and Georgia, are using the family resource center concept as the central element in their widespread reform efforts. A sampling of other major state efforts shows that Maryland has established 22 Family Support Centers, and Connecticut and Ohio each have 18 centers. We are featuring evaluations of one local and one state's efforts: the city of Seattle's family centers and Connecticut's 18 centers.

The Evaluation Options Forum section presents synopses of three alternative approaches to evaluating our hypothetical Robinswood Family Resource Center. The Robinswood case sketches many of the real contextual and political issues and resource constraints FRCs typically face. For example, there are multiple stakeholders—all with different needs and ideas about the goals and outcomes for the center and timelines for evaluation. As is increasingly the case, the challenge was not only to provide information useful in guiding and assessing the new FRC, but also to influence decisions about whether and how to scale up the pilot model. The three plans illustrate different but commonly used approaches: an experimental and quasi-experimental approach, a participatory approach, and a user-focused evaluation. Comparison among them should stimulate useful thinking about the tradeoffs within and between the approaches.

Our regular newsletter sections reflect our ongoing effort to present innovative evaluation approaches. The Theory & Practice section contains a description of empowerment evaluation written by one of the foremost authorities in the field, Dr. David Fetterman. Empowerment evaluation is becoming increasingly popular, especially among groups for whom traditional methods would impinge upon their cultural values and beliefs, such as First Nations, a Native American economic development organization profiled here.

Promising Practices highlights the recent work on a family preservation program evaluation by William Meezan and Jacquelyn McCroskey in Los Angeles. To continue our discussion of results-based accountability, Questions & Answers asks Kathy Martin of the Missouri Department of Social Services about her experience with designing and implementing it.

Before closing, I would like to thank the many readers who have sent us feedback on the newsletter and suggested topics and materials. When we began the newsletter a little over a year ago, I wrote, “This is an interactive newsletter, designed to serve as a vehicle for problem solving, for discovering new ideas and approaches, for discussing your own successes and struggles with evaluation ... The Evaluation Exchange depends upon your willingness to be an active participant. We urge you to submit summaries of your own work, suggestions for books or articles to be reviewed, and ideas about issues that would benefit from a public discussion within the newsletter.” We continue to rely on you, the reader, to make our newsletter an important clearinghouse for the best and most innovative approaches to evaluation that the field has to offer.

Heather B. Weiss, Ed.D.
Founder & Director
Harvard Family Research Project

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