If you do not know what you want to accomplish you cannot assess whether you have succeeded. Thus the purpose of the after-school program should be clear, which will determine what kind of data will be useful. The AFT professional development modules included in this toolkit are designed specifically to boost academic development although they approach learning in a nontraditional way. This approach develops other important attributes in children and youth. Careful thought should be given to the following questions:
- What is the purpose of your program?
- What data will be gathered to demonstrate the impact of project learning on your goal(s)? When?
- How will you gather the data?
- What is the theory that connects particular projects to the achievement of academic goals? Who will analyze the data to assess whether progress was made? If progress was not made, did it lead to adaptations that worked better?
- One project is not sufficient to draw broad conclusions. How will you ensure a large enough sample to attempt any kind of judgment?
The goal of this toolkit is to see after-school staff increase their use of project learning and other project approaches. Our theory is that because this strategy embodies multiple aspects of learning and youth development, the model will lead to greater participation and improvements in students’ attitudes, academic learning, perseverance with academic tasks and social skills. When approached for support, policy makers and those willing to fund programs require evidence of benefits to students. Staff themselves want to know that it is worth expending the extra planning and effort necessary to implement such a program. Therefore, it is important to gather data of effects on students. It is also necessary to gather data on the frequency with which Project Learning is used. Without such data, showing even a weak correlation between Project Learning and improvements for students will be impossible.
There are many variables that contribute to student engagement in academic learning. They include: interest, attitude and participation in activities. Some of these can be measured not only in the after-school program but in regular day participation, reflections of students, daily observation and from interaction with regular day teachers.
If you plan to show improvement after entry to the program, you should make some baseline notes about students at the beginning.