Monday, April 11, 2011

Empowerment Evaluation

I’m here in New Orleans, where the incredibly massive and information-packed Annual Meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA) is taking place. I had my eye out for topics that were relevant to community psychology, but thought I’d have to try a little harder to find some. As it turns out, the cross-linkages are everywhere, and I’ve been able to attend sessions on topics such as action research, mixed methods, and how to apply for federal grants.

But the highlight of the conference for me so far was a session on empowerment evaluation. This is a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of community psychologists, and I was fortunate to attend a session that featured David Fetterman, the man who literally wrote the book on the topic (or at least edited it). He was accompanied by a group from Canada who gave an inspiring example of empowerment evaluation in action as well as another speaker offering critiques. However, it was clear that Fetterman was the star of the show. The discussant leading the talk gave an intro to the session that, much like this intro, went on just a little too long, though I can’t really blame her since she was faced with the difficult task of trying to summarize a novel-length bio full of accomplishments.

David Fetterman is the guy on the left.

Empowerment evaluation has transformative potential, whether it’s used by education researchers, community psychologists, or anyone else. As David said in the talk, it was “the right idea at the right time,” and has been adopted widely, though it is still invisible in some settings, and controversial in some others.

What is empowerment evaluation? Well, first let’s define evaluation. According to Wikipedia, evaluation  is the “systematic determination of merit, worth, and significance of something or someone using criteria against a set of standards.” Program evaluation usually involves some kind of external assessment of outcomes or impact, though other factors such as program design or cost effectiveness may be measured. Evaluation is becoming increasingly important as funding agencies claim commitment to “evidence-based” practices. However, there are some significant challenges to traditional evaluation. Ideally, evaluation should not be used merely to determine whether some program has value or not, but as a tool that can help any program improve. Empowerment evaluation is far better suited to this task.

Fetterman introduced the empowerment evaluation session with a tongue-in-cheek remark about how it was exactly like traditional evaluation – just “turned upside down.” The short definition of empowerment evaluation is “the use of evaluation concepts, techniques, and findings to foster improvement and self-determination.” There’s an expanded definition in the newest book, but I think the key distinguishing word in this shortened definition is “SELF-determination.” In traditional evaluation, external evaluators act as experts who can objectively ascertain whether a program is successful. This can lead to distrust of the evaluator, especially if funding is at stake. Even more challenging is the problem of knowledge utilization – that is, does anyone actually use the information gathered in the evaluation? In empowerment evaluation, the evaluation is led by the program staff, and the evaluator acts as a “critical friend” or coach that assists them in conducting the evaluation, leaving them with increased capacity for self-evaluation. Some critique empowerment evaluation by saying that internal evaluations are bound to be biased. Fetterman counters that with his own examples, saying that when evaluation is truly used as a tool for continuous improvement, program staff are actually far more critical of themselves than outsiders would be – because they know exactly what is wrong with the program and they want to fix it. Not only are people more honest, but they are also far more likely to use the information gained in the evaluation to improve their program.

There’s a lot more to say about empowerment evaluation, but I’m just a noob in this area, and this post has been long enough, so here I’ll leave you with some of the many resources on the topic:

Empowerment Evaluation website:

Empowerment Evaluation blog:

Collaborative website:

Books & Publications:

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