Top Lessons for Conducting Needs Assessments in Migrant Education Programs (MEP)

By Sengsouvanh (Sukey) Leshnick and Hannah Diaz from Social Policy Research Associates

What Is a Needs Assessment?

A needs assessment is a thorough examination of the needs, interests, and objectives of a program. Information collected through a needs assessment can inform and drive decisions about program design and planning. Results from a needs assessment can help program planners gain critical insight into what program participants and communities need and can also help identify any gaps in services.

What Are Migrant Education Programs?

Migrant Education Programs (MEPs) provide a range of supplemental services to migrant children and their families. These services are intended to help migrant students succeed in regular school programs, meet statewide standards for academic content acquisition and student achievement, close the achievement gap between migrant and nonmigrant students, and graduate from high school.

Migrant education programs operate in diverse contexts: programs are located in both urban and rural contexts and serve linguistically and ethnically diverse students. Migrant families and their children face immense challenges, the most important of which are living in poverty and being isolated from extended family support networks. As students, children from migrant families often struggle in school due to frequent interruptions in their education. A needs assessment can inform MEPs in at least two ways: by helping program leaders prioritize service planning and program delivery, and by helping programs design services that are responsive to migrant students and families. Conducting a rigorous needs assessment can be challenging. Here, we identify the top seven elements of designing a successful needs assessment for a migrant education program.

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1.    Pay Attention to Local Context

The unique challenges facing migrant students and families suggest that evaluators should pay close attention to the local cultural context of each program. In particular, evaluators will need to be mindful of the contextual factors (cultural, political, and socioeconomic) that shape migrant education programs and influence their ability to effectively serve students and families. To enhance evaluators’ ability to understand the local context, we suggest that they consider the following questions:

  • What cultural norms are important to understand when interviewing migrant students?
  • Does the evaluation staff team reflect the linguistic and cultural background of the targeted migrant community?
  • Do evaluators possess the cultural humility to reflect on their own lived experiences when interacting with students and families whose backgrounds and cultural experiences differ from their own?

2.    Design Accessible Data Collection Tools

To enhance the quality and authenticity of the data collected, it is important to design data collection tools that are widely accessible in terms of language and format. Community survey tools should be translated into the language most widely used by participants. When developing interview protocols, evaluators must ensure that questions and explanations are linguistically correct rather than direct translations.

To enhance participation in the needs assessment, evaluators should also consider the format of data collection tools. We suggest planning and facilitating group meetings (or community input sessions) either in person or online to encourage group dialogue and maximize opportunities for sharing. It is important to tailor the facilitation style to account for variations in participant experiences, group sizes, cultures, and power dynamics. Evaluators can also make use of innovative facilitation techniques—such as graphic recording—to ensure a high level of engagement and understanding across diverse audiences.

3.    Include Broad Community Voices

A hallmark of a strong needs assessment is that it includes the voices of a diverse range of stakeholders: students, parents, community leaders, elected officials, and program staff. This ensures community input and buy-in at all stages of the needs assessment. To capture community voices we recommend conducting community “input sessions,” one-on-one interviews, focus groups, and surveys. To encourage stakeholder participation in the needs assessment, especially for migrant students and parents, we suggest the following:

  • Broadcast invitations to the community input session or focus group widely through different vehicles, such as school websites, newsletters, automated phone calls from the school or district, and letters to parents.
  • Attend meetings for parents of migrant students to share information about the needs assessment and solicit their input on needs, gaps, and priorities for their children.
  • Use social networking and online methods to facilitate communication about the needs assessment, including the school or district Facebook page and Twitter account, listservs, and text messages, if available.
  • Use program gatekeepers to encourage participation. These gatekeepers might include the migrant education program staff, parent liaisons, and migrant students themselves, all of whom can help establish trust with the evaluation team and communicate the value of participating in the needs assessment.

4.    Assign Culturally Informed Staff

When assigning staff to collect data about migrant education programs, evaluators should be strategic in considering how best to staff the project. Some strategies include assigning staff who speak the language used in the community to lead interviews and focus groups, partnering with local program staff to translate interviews, and hiring cultural “navigators” to support the research team as they enter unfamiliar cultural community contexts. Evaluators should think not only about the languages spoken by staff but also about their life experiences and how the latter might enhance the collection, analysis, and reporting stages of the needs assessment.

5.    Recognize Power Dynamics

One of the key challenges of conducting a needs assessment is recognizing inherent power dynamics between the evaluator and the interviewee or community stakeholder. While it is not easy to balance these power dynamics, there are strategies to minimize their potential to get in the way of the assessment. First, evaluators should maintain humility throughout the process. Evaluators bring prior experience and expertise in evaluation to the needs assessment; however, it is crucial that this expertise complement, rather than override, the data being collected. We recommend that the interviews be semi-structured, to allow interview respondents to lead the conversation when appropriate.

6.    Be Flexible and Adaptable

In conducting a needs assessment, it is essential that evaluators be flexible and adaptable, moving and changing course when the unexpected occurs. We suggest that evaluators keep in mind these points:

  • Be flexible in response to stakeholders’ schedules and personal situations. To ensure a large number of respondents in interviews and focus groups, evaluators should adjust their schedules to be as accommodating as possible. This might require holding meetings during nontraditional hours (e.g., before school, or during weekend or evening events). Parents may bring small children to focus groups or input sessions. These circumstances require that evaluators be respectful of stakeholders’ time.
  • Be adaptable to the unexpected. Over the course of a project, change is almost guaranteed—program staff may no longer be available to be interviewed, data may not be as available or as complete as expected, or tools that worked in similar projects may turn out not to be well suited to the current project. Moving with these changes, rather than against them, can keep the assessment on track and has the potential to unearth unintended and innovative results.

7.    Communicate Findings in Real Time and Using Alternative Methods

Findings from the needs assessments should be communicated to key stakeholders in real time and in a broad variety of formats, not only in traditional written reports. This is essential to ensure that the right people with interest in the program can act on the results from the needs assessment. The following are strategies for sharing findings from the needs assessments:

  • Create multiple types of products for different audiences, such as one-page summaries in English and in the language(s) most used in the community for community distribution, a slide deck to share with community leaders and/or funders, and a blog post summarizing key findings from the needs assessment for the public and other evaluators.
  • Create a webinar that can be broadly distributed to multiple stakeholders.
  • Create a short video highlighting the results of the needs assessment, using the voices of students and parents as well as school officials to provide feedback on the program.
  • Assemble groups of parents, school staff, and program staff to share results of the needs assessment, and allow them to reflect on the findings and seek input on how to collectively address needs.