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“Your questions actually matter more than our questions”: how ParentCorps prioritizes participant and practitioner voices in data collection



When ParentCorps was just beginning, we rigorously collected information about every aspect of the program. Through randomized controlled trials, we observed, analyzed and interpreted that information, wrote up our findings, had those findings peer reviewed, and ultimately published. Using the framework and guideposts of traditional academic research, we showed how and why ParentCorps was impactful. 


Establishing this evidence base meant we could, in good faith, grow and scale the program to support thousands more children and families than before. 


Today, we’re in a different place. We know that ParentCorps “works,” meaning, we know that the program has positive impacts for children’s school success, mental health, and physical health. The questions that need answers now come from our school-based partners – the teachers and mental health professionals – who implement ParentCorps each day. 


These are the people who integrate ParentCorps into their unique contexts and communities, and they want to know what parts are working, and what parts could go better. 


Answering those questions doesn’t require a research study. It requires something more like a feedback loop. Our staff got tremendous practice applying and tweaking feedback loops during our partnership with the New York City Department of Education’s Pre-K for All initiative, the details of which are described in a chapter of a new book called Next Generation Evidence: Strategies for More Equitable Social Impact, published by Project Evident and the Brookings Institute. The book (all 500 pages!) can be downloaded for free here


ParentCorps’ Laurie Brotman, Shanika Gunaratna, Spring Dawson-McClure and Erin Lashua- Shriftman co-authored the chapter. They present a case study of our work within NYC’s Pre-K for All as an example of how to center the voices and input of people delivering your program (in our case, school staff) and the people participating in your program (in our case, parents and caregivers) as the guiding force behind your evidence building strategy. 


I sat down with Spring Dawson-McClure, Manager of Research Strategy, and Erin Lashua-Shriftman, Manager of the Data Team, to learn more about ParentCorps’ changing learning strategies and what lessons they carry with them from the partnership with universal pre-K in NYC. 


This Q&A has been edited and condensed. 


Clarissa: What are the origins of this chapter?


Spring: Project Evident was a new organization offering support to programs to be more strategic and intentional about using data to improve outcomes in the real world. It was well timed for us because we were transitioning from massive randomized controlled trials and a particular way of doing rigorous research, to trying to learn about ParentCorps in other ways and trying to be more practitioner driven – trying to think, well, what are the kinds of questions that we can answer much more quickly to help us improve what we're doing? 


Clarissa: How is the approach that you developed through this partnership different than doing the randomized controlled trials?


Erin: Our partnership with Project Evident required a perspective shift. When you're in randomized-controlled-trial-world, it's really research forward – not only the data collection and all of that, but also the program is being implemented in a more controlled way so that you can study it. So it's this researcher-driven experience. And what we wanted was to now be in a practitioner-driven, program-forward space where we see what is happening in the real world as we try to scale our program and grow into more schools. And I don’t want to say there was tension, but there was a push and pull. 


Spring: We felt that tension as researchers and program developers, and it reflected an evolution in the field of prevention science. In our training, you develop something in a highly controlled situation and you test it. Do you get the signal that it works? That it matters? And then you do it in more of the real world. That’s the long, slow arc of efficacy and effectiveness trials. 


From the beginning, ParentCorps was developed and tested in preschool programs with community partners. But with the infusion of a ton of time and energy and people resources. And so the next question was when we're not there in that way, what makes it possible for a school-based mental health professional to facilitate our program for families, for example, on top of everything else that they're responsible for? 


Then and now, we heard so many questions from teachers, preschool leaders, and our own coaches about how this needs to work differently. How can we make it realistic for folks to be able to do this evidence-based program on top of their full time job? What kind of supports do they need? 


"What makes it possible for a school-based mental health professional to facilitate our program for families, for example, on top of everything else that they're responsible for?"

Clarissa: Why is the shift toward collecting more practitioner-driven evidence important, and how is it aligned with ParentCorps’ overall mission, values, and scaling goals?


Spring: One of ParentCorps’ values is autonomy, and by that we mean really trusting and respecting that each person is the expert of their life, their context, their family, their classroom. And so centering questions from practitioners – from a mental health professional who's facilitating ParentCorps for families, for example – that says, we think you know more than we do about what would improve the program in your context. Your questions actually matter more than our questions. 


So I think it's a respect for expertise. And just in a really pragmatic way, we're relying on other people to implement our program, right? We want it to live on in many more places than our team could ever be, and we want it to become part of pre-K, part of how systems are engaging with families. And so that means that we need other people to make it theirs and to tell us what they need to know next to make ParentCorps feasible and effective and relevant in their context.


Erin: The folks that are so deeply invested in our program that partner with us, they know best what their needs are to have the program happen, and happen well. And so, say a given principal wants to understand, are my families coming? How can I reach them better? If we can collect that information, answer their questions, and feed it back to our partners so that we can help the program happen well, then that's meaningful work to do.

"Centering questions from practitioners – from a mental health professional who's facilitating ParentCorps for families, for example – that says, we think you know more than we do about what would improve the program in your context. Your questions actually matter more than our questions."

Clarissa: As ParentCorps expands, what are lessons that both of you are carrying with regards to collecting data from and for these partnerships?


Erin: There's this piece about how early data is in the conversation. A lesson learned over a long period of time is that it doesn't go well if data collection is an added-on thing – if we go through all the stuff that's got to happen for programming, and then we mention all the stuff that's got to happen around data collection.


As much as data can be embedded in the conversation, the better. We don’t want it to be a surprise to partners that we value and collect information. We want to be transparent about how we'll share it back with them. 


Spring: What I'm now wondering is, what are the low burden ways that tell us the most important things? How does a parent feel in our parenting program? Is there still this experience where parents feel genuinely seen and heard and believed and cared about? Are we consistently creating this kind of experience for facilitators so they can show up in this way for parents?


Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven is ParentCorps’ Communications Specialist. 


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