ACM TIG Week: Shifting the Value of Evaluation by Jeremy Foutz

Hello! I’m Jeremy Foutz, principal at STEAM Workgroup and chair of the Arts, Culture, and Museums TIG which addresses evaluation in informal learning environments. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, the informal learning sector includes a large group of organizations, such as libraries, zoos, museums, historic sites, science centers, and arts centers. I’m writing this from the land of the Potawatomi, Myaami, and (after forced relocation) the Lenape in a city named, apparently without irony, Indianapolis, Indiana. Please learn about these groups directly in their own words. I have the honor of introducing a week of posts from TIG members across the country from varied organizations, and I can’t wait for you to be able to reflect on their words.

In this post, I’m advocating for the value of evaluation, which in this context is hardly surprising. What I (among others) am pushing for, however, is a shift away from the traditional axiology into real evaluation in the 21st century that is in service of something beyond itself (to lightly paraphrase the wonderful Jara Dean-Coffey of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative). In other words, the value isn’t just in the findings or recommendations. As others have shared on the AEA365 blog and elsewhere, the value should be in the “why” of the evaluation. All of this makes “real evaluation in the 21st century” in informal learning environments even more vital than before.

using an axe to chop firewood with wood pieces flying apart

These posts outline some of the evaluation challenges in the informal learning sector, yet, even more interesting to me, they challenge the sector itself. Aspirational, right? We’ve all seen examples of evaluation supporting the status quo, tacitly (or intentionally) supporting inequity, or conducted to simply appease funders – and that certainly exists in our field, too. After all, our colleagues still need to know if organizational efforts are effective at reaching outcomes and/or generating “impact.” The posts this week implicitly take on entrenched positions in our field. Instead of recoiling because of expense, difficulty, and inherent complexity regarding the necessity of participatory approaches, meaningful inclusion, and economic and social access, these individuals jump in and, I expect, bring our field (if sometimes slowly) along with them.

These actions have real costs and risks, and many of us have seen them firsthand. The pandemic hit the arts and culture field hard with severe loss of revenue, inability to stay open or operate at anywhere near pre-pandemic capacity, and furloughs and layoffs are taking their toll. The fact that so many evaluators are willing to continue to lead difficult discussions, expend precious emotional energy, question long held assumptions, and promote meaningful learning and equitable spaces is a source of encouragement and hope. The informal learning field – broadly and in its evaluation practice – needs to be challenged, and these times make evaluation’s underlying purpose even more vital.

How will you help with this shift?

Rad Resources:

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Arts, Culture, and Museums (ACM) TIG Week. The contributions all week come from ACM 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@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “ACM TIG Week: Shifting the Value of Evaluation by Jeremy Foutz”

    1. Thanks, Kylie! I’m glad some of my jokes and attempts at cleverness are appreciated. If my back doesn’t hurt after some axiological work, I’m probably not doing it right. (Remember to stretch.)

      And, for the curious, that is an action shot of me chopping wood. There’s always more to do.

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