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Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. I

AN EVALUATOR VIEWS NORTHERN
EDUCATION PROGRAMS

by

Kathryn A. Hecht, Ed.D.
Center for Northern Educational Research
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

(Ed. note: This paper was originally prepared for presentation at the Northern Cross-Cultural Symposium, Fairbanks, Alaska, November 1973, and has been revised for this volume.)

As a program planner and evaluator working in Alaska these past three years, I think many of my opinions and concerns in viewing educational programs are the same as they would have been had I been employed elsewhere in the country. However, my brief experience in the North, with its many unique attributes, has also directed my attention toward concerns which probably would not be considered priority evaluation issues elsewhere.

This paper will first address may general perspective and opinions concerning program evaluation, followed by comments specific to the Northern situation.

What is evaluation? One of the popularly quoted evaluation definitions was that of the Phi Delta Kappa National Study Committee on Evaluation (Stufflebeam and others, 1971, p. 40):

“Educational evaluation is a process of delineating, obtaining, and providing useful information for judging decision alternatives.”

The Committee did not consider judging to be the evaluator’s role. Other evaluators disagree; hence, the question of who has the judgmental role is often the key to disputes over defining evaluation. Discussions of other definitions can be found in Worthen and Sanders (1973), and Steele (1973), but further attention to this interesting debate over theory is not essential to the purpose of this paper.

Regardless of disputed definitions of evaluation, I make certain assumptions about what the term evaluation connotes. First, evaluation assumes there is a rational decision-making process in that decision-makers use information available to them to make the process a more workable one. Here I am mainly considering evaluation in terms of its usefulness to the project in which it operates, rather than an additional purpose of helping to clarify the project and its effectiveness to others, which, while important, is considered secondary.

Second, evaluation assumes some stability of program funds which would allow for planning and recycling. If this condition does not exist, evaluation data will be of limited use to the decision-makers and those administering the project. Questions of timing and funding certainly are central problems of operating programs under federal or state funding. Past examples of legislative action exemplify that neither time nor funding have been sufficiently taken into account. This is perhaps the main reason why evaluation has not previously proven very useful, since adequate planning time was not given-much less funded. Subsequently, programs with uncertain futures often had to be revised and resubmitted before data were available. This situation has had the unfortunate consequence of giving evaluation the appearance of an act that is done for someone else to fulfill a requirement without realizing the many benefits that could have accrued to the program itself.

Therefore, my third assumption is that evaluation can have usefulness for local program improvement and should not be thought of solely as a necessary exercise to satisfy an external funding source. Federally imposed evaluation can be considered a failure if judged in terms of providing data for local program improvement. Too often this failure is equated with the lack of likelihood that any evaluation will be useful at the local program level. Historically, it is perhaps unfortunate that the impetus for most evaluation efforts came from the federal government, specifically the evaluation requirements of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and that the impetus continues to be tied to federal funding. Though the Office of Education and Congress can be commended for requiring programs to attempt to describe their effectiveness, they have lost their potential for leadership and example settings in this area. (Further description of evaluation developments and shortcomings at the federal level, related to ESEA 1965, can be found in Worthen and Sanders, 1973, and Hecht, 1973.)

Fourth, any evaluation must be conducted in an atmosphere which has a tolerance for program failure as well as for success. If one cannot accept the fact that some parts of a program may do better than others and some may not do well at all, then information relative to making such judgments is not useful, and collecting data becomes wasted effort. Educators, from the federal to the local level, have failed to make this point clear in educating themselves and the public to realize that innovative quasi-experimental programs are just that-they have no guarantees of being better than the current program until they are tried and proven. If evaluation is not used in this manner, it then becomes apparent that every new program will continue or be dropped on a basis other than whether it is warranted or not. (For further discussion of the need to allow quasi-experimental programs to fail as well as succeed, see an excellent discussion by Campbell, 1969.)

Fifth, communication and cooperation among administrators, implementors and evaluators are essential to adequate evaluation. Though this sounds elementary and perhaps unnecessary to mention, it is probably the most significant adversary to evaluations. Evaluators are so accustomed to the negative reactions from those who feel threatened by evaluative efforts that they often neglect to take precautions to alleviate such tensions. Everyone involved in a program needs and deserves a thorough understanding of what an evaluation is to be and how it will be used. Though some basic researchers set up blind experiments or use deceitful conditions with subjects on a temporary basis, such tactics are not part of the repertoire of an evaluator.

All of the above assumptions are based on the fact that evaluation differentiates itself from more basic research in its usefulness to the programs in which it operates. While research strives for generalizable knowledge, applicable in every situation, evaluation strives to provide useful information for the improvement of a specific program. Programs conducted in a realistic educational setting, unlike research projects, are fluid in nature and are apt to incur unexpected pressures, directions, and changes along the way. Program evaluation therefore must be flexible, and need not adhere to a pre-set design or plan. Regardless of how technically good an evaluation may be considered, if it is not useful for program management, improvement, and other requirements of those responsible for the program, it is not considered a successful evaluation in that it has missed its primary purpose.

Given this brief look as to what is meant by evaluation generally (at least to this author), let me attempt to relate the above to evaluation of programs in the North. What are the problems, why do we have them and what can we do about them? First of all, I think many of you would agree that many of the programs with which we deal lack clear goal definitions. We perhaps may think we know intuitively what we seek to do; if there is more than one person involved in the program, each may think he or she has an intuitive knowledge of what he or she intends to do, but without goal specifications, there is no way of knowing whether there is any agreement among these intuitions or a way to explain them to others. One might argue that anything might be better than what currently exists in our schools, but such attitudes are hardly professionally responsible.

Without defined goals and objectives a program lacks not only understanding of where it is going, but also any way of knowing if it gets there. There is a quote from Alice in Wonderland which applies here:

“Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, ‘Would you tell me please which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where-----‘ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.”

Sometimes even when goals are defined, often the criteria by which to judge whether the goals are being achieved are unclear. For instance, take a program whose goal is to instill a regard for Native Heritage in Native students. What criteria will one use to see if the goal has been met? What are the specific objectives of the program? What are students expected to do as a result of being in the program? Are they expected to learn a Native craft, talk more freely with their elders, demonstrate an improved self-image or some other such change as a method of judging whether the goal has been achieved?

Another factor which is seriously lacking in the North is research; not as part of programs themselves, but as the background with which programs are assembled. Lacking is both the published educational research that would provide answers to many of the questions that we now try to resolve by the use of new and different programs and also the willingness to consider what is available. For instance, in a Native Heritage program improving self-image is often considered a rationale or goal. However, there is some research which suggests that minority children may already have a positive self-image. (Fuchs and Havighurst, 1972; Martig and DeBlassie, 1973; Powers and others, 1971; Soares and Soares, 1969). New programs should have the benefit of the application of new research findings that indicate that they are on the right track and have a good chance of being successful. In bilingual programs, for instance, there is only a smattering of research on the effects of bilingualism and bilingual training on various types of students. The whole area of cross-cultural education is one which in many ways lacks all three of the above-goals, criteria, and basic research, especially applied to the Northern situation.

A third problem could be considered the lack of adequate evaluation methodology and techniques in general, and especially those applied to the special conditions of Northern education dealing with such programs as the ones mentioned above. Evaluation is a new and developing field, and as such there is almost as much disagreement among its members as there is agreement on the “how to’s.” There is little ready-made training material available that could be used in the absence of having full-time professional evaluation help. The large cities can afford research and evaluation departments and many now have them, but the type of rural school system with which we most often interact can never be expected to gear up to that extent and, therefore, will require other means. The evaluation field needs to pull together to provide evaluation techniques and training that can be used in local school districts by the districts themselves with little or only periodic outside help. Also there is definitely a shortage of people knowledgeable in special evaluation techniques, such as for bilingual programs and cross-cultural situations.

Another problem that confronts us in the North is that we sorely lack a communication and dissemination network. Though problems across Alaska, Canada, and our more far-flung neighbors in Greenland, Siberia, et cetera, have much in common and often the programs we are attempting seem very similar, currently there are few effective mechanisms to share such information.

The fifth problem is a lack of manpower trained and available to handle the evaluation program planning and improvement techniques. There are usually people who are willing to come North for a day, look around, write a report and leave. This is hardly what is meant when we talk of useful evaluation.

What can be done? We have alluded to five “lacks” above and some of the things to be suggested are fairly self-evident. The first is the need for training of people who are on the scene, who can be part of programs and provide the necessary evaluation support. Training must include evaluation in its broadest sense, the intricacies of planning, carrying out and revising the program. Obviously, this requires both funding and commitment. The communication/dissemination network spoken of above is another area for action. The type of communication/dissemination network being suggested requires a great deal of openness on the part of those people planning and innovating new programs; a willingness to share their experiences, including their failures as well as their successes. Even though each program is different and has its own particular circumstances, certainly there is also a great deal of similarity.

There is another type of openness required-an openness to take a look at more general work done outside, though always keeping in mind the questions of applicability. In the North, we have often seen work done outside as clearly being so inapplicable as not to have any use. We might be missing much of what could be very useful. Though cultures are indeed different, dealing with a variety of youth may not necessarily be. Though language patterns are different, dealing with second languages may be another area of common problems with similar solutions. Very often what has been imposed from outside, especially in Alaska, has been inapplicable or at least has not been adapted so that it was useful. But given attempts to improve education for a variety of peoples throughout the country, we should be open to exchange and use as much of this information as we can.

Also we must remember the road goes the other way. Alaska, as I see it, by its very isolation, sparse population, multi-culturalism and other unique characteristics, is a place which could provide a proving ground for many new types of programs, approaches, innovations, et cetera, which could be shared far outside its borders. So often we think in terms of taking in, but seldom it seems do Alaskans think in terms of exporting their ideals. As increasing attention is focused on the North for economic reasons, education has an opportunity to display the best of what it is doing to the rest of the education community.

We need to play upon our own resources, for evaluation and for education in general. On a per capita basis, the population in Alaska has a greater diversity of background and expertise than probably any other state-a resource which is seldom considered and tapped as we perhaps have looked at education too narrowly in the past. Also, due to its newness in terms of its statehood, the formation of regional school districts in rural areas, and recent interest in providing diversity of educational programs, Alaska could be considered ahead in that it has little past experience or tradition to overcome. There are no required curriculums or other barriers which innovators in many other states have had to battle before the real work could begin. In Northern areas in general there seems to be a willingness to seek new solutions and a recognition that new solutions indeed are needed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Campbell, D., “Reforms as Experiments,” American Psychologist, 24:4, April, 1969.
Carroll, L., Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865, in The Complere Works of Lewis Carroll. The Modern Library, New York, 1936, (p. 71).
Fuchs, E. and Havighurst, R., To Live on This Earth, Doubleday, New York, 1972.
Hecht, K., “Title I Federal Evaluation: The First Five Years,” Teachers College Record, 75:1, September, 1973.
Martig, R. and DeBlassie, B., “Self-Concept Comparisons of Anglo and Indian Children,” Journal of American Indian Education, May, 1973.
Powers, J., and others, “A Research Note on the Self-Perception of Youth,” American Educational Research Journal, 3:4, November, 1971.
Soares, A. and Soares, L., “Self-Perception of Culturally Disadvantaged Children,” American Educational Research Journal, 6:1, January, 1969.
Steele, S., Contemporary Approaches to Program Evaluation, Capitol Publications, Washington, D.C., 1973.
Stufflebeam, D., and others, Educational Evaluation and Decision Making, Peacock, Stasca, Ill., 1971.
Worthen, B., and Sanders, J., Educational Evaluation: Theory and Practice, C.A. Jones, Worthington, Ohio, 1973.

 

 

 

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Last modified October 3, 2008