Charting a Course: Evaluation Design of the National School District and Network Grants Program

Becky Smerdon, Michael S. Garet, Jennifer O'Day, and Luke Miller, AIR
Barbara Means and Karen Mitchell, SRI International

Over the past decade, a number of reform efforts have aimed at reducing the size of the learning communities in the nation’s schools. Most recently, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $375 million to improving America’s high schools through its National School District and Network Grants Program. Likely to be one of “the most publicly scrutinized educational initiatives” in recent history, the foundation’s program is providing a catalyst to educators and policymakers to radically reshape secondary education in the United States.

AIR and SRI International are evaluate the Gates Foundation initiative. The purpose of this paper is to describe the framework underlying our evaluation design of a large-scale, multifaceted school reform initiative and to identify some of the methodological challenges inherent in work of this kind. 

Throughout this paper, we use travel as a metaphor for our evaluation design process. Specifically, we begin by describing the earliest stages of our journey—our starting point. Here we outline the foundation’s theory of change—their goals and vision for the initiative. We then turn to a discussion of defining the destination—the research questions we seek to answer—and finding the coordinates—the conceptual framework that will guide our evaluation. Next, we explore the terrain, providing an overview of the grantees and schools in the population, and determine our route (e.g., the design basics of our evaluation). We conclude with a discussion section about a few of the challenges of our evaluation and our need for reflection and refinement as the initiative grows and changes and as we learn through our research activities.

Michael Garet
Vice President and Institute Fellow