TOP staff and evaluators had several tips for programs embarking on a similar study:
Take the time to develop relationships. A recurring theme in the story of this project is the strength of TOP’s partnerships. These relationships have been fundamental to carrying out such a large-scale study.
Be transparent. Let both partners and participants know exactly what you are studying and why. It will be vital to both recruitment and participation, and will ultimately improve data quality.
Don’t be afraid of change. Too often, we feel stuck within the confines of our previous decisions. A key strength of the TOP study has been the willingness to acknowledge what isn’t working and fix it. Be pragmatic in your choices and flexible in response to new information.
Allow for your study to expand. Programs and populations change over time; so, too, do the goals of research. Periodically review your research design to determine whether you’re really getting what you need to make decisions and inform others.
“However long you think it will take, double it.” Data collection and analysis are rarely efficient and linear processes. Do your best to plan efficient methods of collection and synthesis, but know that no one gets everything right the first (or second, or third…) time.
Go big! Small additional investments in evaluation can yield large returns in terms of impact. The results of this study are exceptionally useful and compelling because of the scale of the project.
Keep your eyes on the prize. TOP staff, evaluators, and school faculty and administration are all committed to the value of early education, and the power of demonstrating its impact. Your research should be motivated by the same goals that guide your work: improving the lives of at-risk kids.