ACA TIG Week: Steven Holochwost on Looking Deeply: Evaluation That Gets Under the Skin

My name is Steven Holochwost, and I am a Senior Research Scientist at WolfBrown, a consultancy and research firm, and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. In those roles I conduct evaluations of educational programs for children, and in particular, children at risk.

Lessons Learned: One of the areas in which I work is early childhood education. Over the last two decades, there has been growing interest among policy-makers and the public in this area. While this growth has been driven by a number of factors, it is attributable in part to studies incorporating what might broadly be termed neurophysiological measures into evaluations of early education program. It is one thing to demonstrate that students in high-quality early education programs have better test scores in kindergarten than their peers; it’s quite another to be able to show that these differences have correlates in the function of children’s brains and bodies.

Evaluators may feel that using neurophysiological measures are beyond them, in part due to cost. Where some measures are concerned, this is true: using neuroimaging techniques to observe the structure and function of children’s brains, for example, is tremendously expensive. However, recent advances in technology have made other, non-invasive neurophysiological measures relatively affordable. For example, it is now possible to examine children’s levels of stress by measuring the hormones in their saliva, or to track their engagement in a task by recording their heartbeats. The insight these techniques afford the evaluator can help address not only the question of whether a program is achieving its desired effects, but why.

Hot Tip: Of course, neurophysiological measurement requires specialized expertise and training to be used effectively and responsibly. My suggestion: pool your resources. Even if no one in your organization has this expertise, people in other organizations do, including researchers working in colleges and universities. They may be willing to help in exchange for an opportunity to apply their expertise to the ‘real world.’

Resources: The company Salimetrics offers training and analytical services for people interested in collecting a variety of neurophysiological measures. See the training page on their website at

The website of two wonderful potential collaborators, Drs. Cathi Propper and Roger Mills-Koonce, can be found here. Dr. Propper is a nationally-known expert on vagal tone, a non-invasive measure of attention and engagement, while Dr. Mills-Koonce is an authority on numerous physiological measures available in saliva, including alpha-amylase and cortisol.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Arts, Culture, and Audiences (ACA) TIG Week. The contributions all week come from ACA TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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