Evaluation is a research enterprise whose primary goal is to identify whether desired changes have been achieved. Evaluation is a type of applied social research that is conducted with a value, or set of values, in its “denominator.” Evaluation research is always conducted with an eye to whether the desired outcomes, or results, of a program, initiative, or policy were achieved, especially as these outcomes are compared to a standard or criterion. At the heart of program evaluation is the idea that outcomes, or changes, are valuable and desired. Some outcomes are more valuable than others. Evaluators conduct evaluation research to find out if these valued changes are, in fact, achieved by the program or initiative.
Evaluation research shares many of the same methods and approaches as other social sciences, and indeed, natural sciences. Evaluators draw upon a range of evaluation designs (e.g. experimental design, quasi-experimental design, non-experimental design) and a range of methodologies (e.g. case studies, observational studies, interviews, etc.) to learn what the effects of a given intervention have been. Did, for example, 8th grade students who received an enriched STEM curriculum do better on tests, than did their otherwise similar peers who didn’t receive the enriched curriculum? Do homeless women who receive career readiness workshops succeed at obtaining employment at greater rates than do other similar homeless women who don’t participate in such workshops? (For more on these types of outcome evaluations, see our previous blog post, “What You Need to Know About Outcome Evaluations: The Basics,”) While not all evaluations are outcome evaluations, all evaluations gather systematic data with which judgments about the program or initiative can be made.
Another way to differentiate social research from evaluation research is to understand that social research seeks to find out “what is the case?” “What is out there?” “How does the world really work?” etc. For example, in political science, researchers may want to find out how citizens of California vote in national elections, or, what are their attitudes towards certain candidates or policies. Sociology may investigate the causes of racial segregation or the relationship(s) between race and class. These instances of social research are primarily interested in discovering what is the case, regardless of the value we might attribute to the findings of the research. Researchers in political science are neutral about the percentages of California voters who vote Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green, etc. They are most interested in knowing how people vote, not if they vote for one particular party.
Although evaluation research is interested in a truthful accurate description of what is the case, it is ALSO interested in discovering whether findings indicate that what is there (i.e., is present) is valuable, important, desired, etc. When evaluators look for outcomes they don’t just want to know if anything at all happened, or changed, they want to discover if something specific and valued happened. Evaluators don’t just set their sites on describing the world, but on determining whether certain valued and worthwhile things happened. While evaluators use many of the same methods and approaches as other researchers, evaluators must employ an explicit set of values against which to judge the findings of their empirical research. The means that evaluators must both be competent social scientists AND exercise value-based judgments and interpretations about the meaning of data.