What We’re Reading – January 2021

HEI staff members share what we’re reading this month. We welcome your recommendations for next month!

books in black wooden book shelf
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Patricia Steele, PhD: Educated by Tara Westover

Key Takeaway: Yes, I’m two years behind everyone reading this incredible memoir. I’m captivated by the reality that educational opportunity can afford transformational change, for individuals and for generations. A reminder for why we do the things we do.

Tashera Bolds, PhD: “Culturally Responsive Evaluation: Theory, Practice, and Future Implications”

This article was published by the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment (CREA) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.  

Key Takeaway: Cultural considerations of the populations and contexts impacted by our evaluation practice is critical–and substantially so when serving diverse, historically marginalized communities. This article, and the work of the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment (CREA) more broadly, explores the application of culturally responsive evaluation from both theoretical and practical lenses. Revisiting these resources was a timely reminder of the importance of actively and consistently reflecting on one’s own approach to evaluation and ensuring that it is culturally grounded.

Donte McGuire, MEd: Black Teacher Griot blog project 

Andrea (she/her/hers) is a self-described “teacher, learner, curriculum designer, and lover of Black folks” whose site provides space for Black teachers to share their experiences as educators. I specifically appreciated the post, “Dreaming my way free…” 

Key Takeaway: This particular blog post, “Dreaming my way free… “, is a great example of what I enjoy most about Andrea’s work and the Black Teacher Griot website. They both provide me with visions that exist beyond, but not disconnected from, the current inequitable and oppressive educational systems–visions that are always rooted in love and community.

In my work, a lot can be gained by immersing myself in the data. Yet, this quote from Andrea reminds me that there is also much to gain from intentionally setting the data aside to imagine possibilities I never thought was possible: “Some dreams are not simply about creating new realms, some are connecting us to the past, showing what is already inside our communities and ourselves.” 

Tait Kellogg, PhD: Rural Matters” podcast

I’ve been listening to the “Rural Matters” podcast, a reflection of my interest in rural higher education. Especially great was the recent episode with our partner at Education Design Labs, Leslie Daugherty, when we spoke about challenges and opportunities for community colleges in rural areas.

Key Takeaway: Rural areas are resilient and rural community colleges in particular are often instrumental institutions for their communities.


Staff Spotlight: Tait Kellogg, PhD – Director of Research & Strategic Services

HEI invites you to get to know our fantastic staff members. Each month, we will highlight a different colleague. This month, learn about Dr. Tait Kellogg’s background and what drives her professionally.

Tait Kellogg, PhD

Tait Kellogg brings to HEI both content knowledge in higher education as well as a broad set of methodological skills. Prior to her work as an external evaluator, she worked internally doing research and evaluation at Tulane University’s Center for Public Service. Tait’s aim is to provide useful, asset-based evaluation and facilitations. In a previous role as the data analyst at a college access nonprofit, she learned firsthand the challenge of understanding an organization’s impact internally. Tait is passionate about helping universities, nonprofits, and foundations conduct research and gain strategic tools that help them work towards their mission. Tait earned her BA from Millsaps College, her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University in Higher and Postsecondary Education and her PhD from Tulane University in the interdisciplinary program City, Culture and Community – Sociology.

What first drew you to work in higher education?

My passion for access and interest in expanding postsecondary opportunities is rooted in my personal experience. I was the first in my family to get my bachelor’s degree and I struggled to pay my way through my education. After getting my master’s, I worked in different areas of higher education like international education and career services in NYC, but I eventually moved to rural Mississippi, where I worked for the Woodward Hines Education Foundation with students who aspired to go to college but lacked easy access to quality information on applying to and paying for college. I saw myself in those students, and now ten years later, I see myself in many of the students supported by HEI’s research support work. I’m also now inspired by my colleagues working to help organizations identify how to connect students to meaningful work and meaningful life paths.

What is your favorite part of working at HEI and with HEI’s clients?

My favorite part is the staff–the team we have built. Our people have a wide variety of lived experiences, and they all authentically come together around the shared values of having high-level skills and wanting to bring them to people on-the-ground who are making a real impact in higher ed.

I also love the work we do! We get to explore questions in the world that are directly impacting  people. We work quickly; we put out high quality products. We also try to be flexible with our clients, adapting to their needs as they evolve. For example, during COVID-19, we pivoted our research and strategic services work quickly to hear from learners and community partners to understand how higher education was unfolding during this unprecedented time, and offer immediately applicable recommendations to clients. If a philanthropic foundation wants to learn and strategize based on their own data, or a department wants to hire a firm to conduct high-quality custom research, HEI can support them in a way that is responsive to their inevitably changing needs.

What gives you hope in the work you do?

I have great hope for the power of education to transform individuals’ lives. I also have great hope for the power of learning for organizations–and that’s what we do at HEI. We help organizations become learning organizations so that they can be more effective in realizing their missions. Recently, we were doing a “data party,” which is where we help organizations make sense of their data–often massive amounts of data–and connect it to their work on the ground, and then grow from the learnings. We filter through that data and create slides, and then bring staff together to reflect on what has actually unfolded on the ground in the last year. Experiences like these are powerful for reducing fear around data and allowing staff members to feel more connected to aspects of the work that can feel abstract. In supporting organizations around learning and being strategic about how to become better, I find hope.


Client Spotlight – 55,000 Degrees: Achieving a More Educated City

In December, HEI had the privilege of writing the final report and hosting a virtual summit for 55,000 Degrees—a nonprofit that started in 2010 with a goal of increasing the number of adults in Louisville with college degrees to 50% by the end of 2020. The resulting report tells the story of a meaningful public-private partnership around postsecondary education. What began as an aspiration to drive economic growth via postsecondary degree attainment evolved into a more comprehensive roadmap for prosperity and opportunity via equitable P-16 educational pathways and workforce preparation. Because of the achievements and pathways built by 55,000 Degrees, Louisville is better positioned to expand educational opportunities, reduce systemic barriers, and prepare a 21st-century workforce—all for a more equitable and competitive city.

To learn more, check out the report.


What We’re Reading

HEI staff members share what we’re reading this month—some work-related and some not…We welcome your recommendations for next month!

Patricia Steele, Founder and Principal
Spiritual Intelligence: The Ultimate Intelligence
by Donah Zohar and Ian Marshall

Tait Kellogg, Director of Research and Strategic Services
White Fragility
by Robin DiAngelo

Tashera Gale, Director of Evaluation Services
For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education
by Christopher Emdin


Work-Based Learning Framework

This is the final post in a brief series on work-based learning opportunities in a virtual environment. HEI’s report on digital tech WBL in the capital region can be found here. For more information, please reach out to us—we’d love to hear from you.

You’ve already established your initial strategies for a virtual WBL offering, and you’ve determined how you’ll ensure the quality of your offering. Now you need a preliminary WBL framework to structure a well-balanced continuum of WBL to provide a path of growth for participants well beyond your initial offering. Again, you can think of WBL as any educational activity comprised of meaningful workplace experiences that facilitate academic, technical, and employability skill development to support entry into or advancement along a career pathway. Individuals of all experience levels seeking to gain authentic career-aligned work experience can benefit from WBL opportunities, including K-12 students, postsecondary learners, young adults, adult jobseekers, and incumbent workers. WBL encompasses a wealth of program models that exist along a continuum that transitions across phases from foundational awareness, to early exposure, to preparatory engagement, and finally to immersive experience. As you move across the WBL spectrum, the length of participation within an activity increases, interactions with employers are more abundant, and the nature of involvement at worksites is deepened; thus time, exposure, and engagement are core differentiating factors of WBL models. The chart below depicts a WBL framework organized along a four-phased continuum, with each phase comprised of models of various types.

  • WBL opportunities within the Awareness Phase are foundational, serving as an introduction to a specific career domain. Though activities of this type do not take place on a worksite, information acquired during these events can spark initial career-related interests within learners and influence decisions to pursue additional opportunities for further career exploration.
  • WBL activities within the Exposure Phase often afford learners opportunities to become acquainted with a career through first-hand experiences in the workplace. These short-term, introductory encounters provide insights relating to an industry or business, including environmental conditions, real-world application of concepts, and professional culture. Exposure activities also provide information about job roles and responsibilities associated with an occupation, thereby aiding in the identification of knowledge and skills required to pursue that career pathway.
  • WBL activities within the Engagement Phase comprise extensive, structured opportunities that allow participants to authentically perform responsibilities required within the workplace. Learners benefit from increased technical knowledge and employability skills development, as well as enriched interactions with industry professionals.
  • WBL models within the Immersion Phase are most comprehensive, where learners participate in long-term work opportunities in an industry or occupation. These learn-while-you-earn positions embed a formal instructional component within the work experience, where learners receive customized hands-on training that often supports attainment of an industry-recognized credential.

Undoubtedly, outcomes attributed to an individual WBL model are strongest across the later phases of the continuum given the depth of the learning experiences; however, overall impacts are most extensive when cumulatively acquired to support early and sustained developmental continuity. While widely applicable across stakeholder groups, this effect is of greatest significance when advancing priorities centering broadened participation and equitable access of opportunities to populations historically underrepresented within the industry’s workforce.


What does Afrofuturism have to do with Evaluation?

By Donté McGuire, Research Analyst

The title question is not rhetorical. Neither does this post attempt to fully answer this question. Instead, it is a topic I have reflected on since attending AEA’s Eval20 Reimagine virtual conference. Specifically, I was challenged by the session, “Illuminating the future context through an equity lens: Why systems evaluators need to use foresight and futures thinking without imposing Western cultural values”  led by Jewla Lynn of Policy Solve and Jen Heeg of Humanity United. When the presenters shared a picture of Janelle Monae’s Archandroid album cover, describing it as a “shining example of Afrofuturism in popular US culture,” they held my attention. To understand why I was surprised to hear the term Afrofuturism in a session about evaluation, I can simply return to last month’s HEI FYI.

In the What We’re Reading… section of October’s newsletter, I highlighted N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky along with this comment: “While this book does not have an explicit relevancy to HEI’s work, it does shape my worldview and approach to my work.” Just a month after not seeing the connection between the Afrofuturist books I read and the evaluation work I do, I found myself in a session that contradicted that perspective.

As a relative newcomer to the term, I understand “Afrofuturism,” at its basic level, to refer to the ways Black people see themselves in the future—a perspective informed by the past and present but separate from racist and White supremacist stereotypes. Clearly with or without this term, there have always been Black folk who have imagined themselves in a future radically different from the one White supremacy was creating and predicting for them.

As a relative newcomer to the field of evaluation, I wonder what it means for me, as a Black evaluator, to use, reference, and be inspired by Afrofuturist ideas in my work?

Here are some of my initial thoughts:

  1. Be explicit about Black futures. One thing Afrofuturism highlights is the dearth of racial diversity in science fiction and fantasy productions in U.S. popular culture. In other words, the disregard and neglect for Black life in the present is mirrored by the absence of Black people in the future imaginations of popular, White U.S. culture.

    Here’s the connection: Almost every evaluation project I have worked on has some forward-looking component, whether it’s organizational strategic planning or recommendations for future actions. I’ve noticed that the lack of explicit language regarding marginalized groups in this future planning (e.g., “Black people in higher education”) usually aligns with perpetual, inadequate strategies to address the needs of those communities. This correlation speaks to the failure of generic language related to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

  2. Black people have good ideas about more than just “Black” issues. Although I have worked in areas of education ranging from residential life to international education to college access and am pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education, White people and non-Black People of Color engage my ideas around the aforementioned topics in one way while engaging my ideas about the topic of race/ethnicity in another way. Whereas I am never outright dismissed, I cannot help but notice the listener’s curiosity that comes from trusting the speaker’s point of view when I’m talking about issues related to Black people or race that it absent when discussing other topics.

    To be clear, I am not talking about being in conversation with White and non-Black People of Color who don’t “get it”; I am talking about the ones that do. We all need to consciously acknowledge that Black people, including black authors, have much to say on all kinds of topics. Reading The Stone Sky and the other books in Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy (where a full and diverse Black future is normalized) has made me think more about issues such as my relationship to the environment, grief and mourning, concept of time, community, and leadership than it has about race and ethnicity.

    So even when evaluating organizations where Black people’s experience can be improved, I should look to them for insight on issues beyond the employment experience of their demographic group. For example, what thoughts do they have about the organization’s governance or leadership or strategic priorities? These questions represent an opportunity to learn from those Patricia Hills Collins refers to as the “outsider within.”

  3. Getting to new futures requires new tools. As I learn more about the field of evaluation, I realize that many “standard” tools and practices of evaluation are limited in their ability to allow for a genuine engagement with Black futures. For example, the AEA presenters discussed the ways Western values can be standard in systems thinking. I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s popular quote: “the master’s tools will not destroy the master’s house.” 

    The presenters provided a link to specific tools and resources that evaluators can use, which not only reference Afrofuturism, but also Indigenous Futurism: Decolonizing Our Future.

Is your organization a learning organization?

Many organizations want to have a learning posture towards their work and mission, yet many don’t take the time to build their own capacity to become dynamic learning organizations.

  • Does your organization or program have formal structures in place to consistently ask questions about your effectiveness?
  • Do you gather the right data to measure the impact of your work and initiatives?
  • Do you have systematic processes or periods for analyzing and discussing data and its meaning?
  • Is there cyclical decision-making around resources, staffing, partnerships, and investments based on a formal learning cycle?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then most likely your organization could use some internal capacity building around becoming a robust learning organization.

True learning organizations cannot rely only on outside evaluators but must have learning woven into the fabric of the organization so that reflection and growth are institutionalized (Coffman & Beer, 2011). Also, to assess effectiveness, there are questions that an organization must consider beyond the specific outcomes of individual programs (Preskill & Mack, 2013). As Moss, Coffman, and Beer (2020) emphasize, learning and decision-making are often organizationally siloed, with responsibility for evaluation and strategic decision-making assigned to different teams. Our goal at HEI is to support our clients in building the internal structure and capacity to reflect on their goals and make decisions organization wide based on data.

At HEI, our team has developed the Insight Learning Framework, an approach for helping entities build the structure needed to become learning organizations. The Insight Learning Framework goes beyond evaluation to support organizations as they strategically increase their own capacity for using data for crucial decision-making. After all, without a learning culture where curiosity, flexibility, and a willingness to discuss failure are valued, even well-planned evaluations won’t have any long-term impact on organizational decision-making (Taylor & Liadsky, 2018). 

The Insight Learning Framework includes five stages: (1) Develop Your Learning Agenda, (2) Create a System for Learning, (3) Implement Your Learning System, (4) Reflect on Lessons Learned, and (5) Take Action and Plan for the Future. At each stage in this framework, different tools might be appropriate depending on the organization. You can find more information on the Framework here.


Coffman, J. & Beer, T. (2001). Evaluation to support strategic learning: Principles and practices. Center for Evaluation Innovation.

Moss, I.D., Coffman, J., & Beer, T. (2002). Smart decision-making. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Organizational Research Services (ORS). (2013). Getting more from measurement: Five insights for social innovators. Seattle, WA.

Preskill, K., & Mack, K.(2013). Building a strategic learning and evaluation system for your organization. FSG. Taylor, A. & Liadsky, B. (2018). Achieving greater impact by starting with learning: How grantmakers can enable learning relationships at the grant application stage. Taylor Newberry Consulting and Ontario Nonprofit Network.


CLIENT SPOTLIGHT: American Council on Education (ACE)

Congratulations to the American Council on Education (ACE) on the release of their superb report entitled, Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: 2020 Supplement by Morgan Taylor, Jonathan M. Turk, Hollie M. Chessman, and Lorelle L. Espinosa. HEI contributed to one of the chapters in this report, “Career and Technical Education in the Learning Economy: Toward a Promise of Racial Equity.” These reports provide crucial data to inform efforts in closing equity gaps in higher education.


CLIENT SPOTLIGHT: WHEF in the Washington Post

HEI is proud to provide evaluation support to the Woodward-Hines Education Foundation (WHEF), whose mission is to help more Mississippians obtain postsecondary credentials, college certificates, and degrees that lead to meaningful employment.

WHEF’s flagship program, Get2College, was recently featured in the Washington Post for its innovative efforts to help Mississipians fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), such as online tutorials, phone consults, and an upcoming drive-through advising event. Through services like these and others, Get2College provides counseling on college admission and financial aid, and supports grants to increase college access and success, to 45,000 Mississippi students each year. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided additional barriers to many students trying to access Get2College services. From the Washington Post:

“People are very concerned about so many other things right now, especially those from underserved communities,” said Shannon Grimsley, outreach program director at Get2College….“We want them to know we’re here to get them over the finish line.”

While technology is essential for college advising this year, it can also be a formidable barrier. Poor broadband access in some of the rural parts of Mississippi has made virtual FAFSA workshops tricky as students get kicked off or screens freeze up, Grimsley said.

Read the full article here, and learn more about Get2College here.


What We’re Reading…

HEI staff members share what we’re reading this month—some work-related and some not…We welcome your recommendations for next month!

Jessica Payton, Research Analyst
“First Generation in STEM with Miguel A. Lopez Perez” podcast.
The hosts on this podcast discuss their experiences as first-generation, Mexican-American graduate students in STEM fields.

Donté McGuire, Research Analyst
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin.
While this book does not have an explicit relevancy to HEI’s work, it does shape my worldview and approach to my work.

Rob Pagano, Business Manager
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Allen Sibley.
Just as it sounds!