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Performance-Enhancing Databases

Performance-Enhancing Databases

All this talk of guacamole being the next victim of climate change got us thinking about MDC’s foray into training for “green” industries. As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, MDC was one of eight national and 30 local organizations to receive $150 million in USDOL Employment and Training Administration Pathways Out of Poverty grants to support programs that help low-income and disadvantaged populations attain economic self-sufficiency through good jobs in energy efficiency and renewable energy industries. In Career Pathways for a Green South, MDC worked with four community colleges in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. We learned a lot from these institutions about how community colleges respond to economic crisis; key to that learning was tracking performance measures over the course of the initiative.

Performance management can seem like an overwhelming task and concerns about how funders perceive results may cause anxiety. However, capturing detailed information about the services provided, outputs, and outcomes can actually help organizations more effectively describe their work and learning. Organizations can use performance management systems to illustrate the journey of a program from beginning to end. Moreover, measuring progress toward goals and documenting quantitative and qualitative outcomes can improve collaboration and resource management. At the beginning of Career Pathways for a Green South, we were asked, along with our subgrantees, to use a USDOL participant tracking tool, the Recovery Act Database (RAD), to record progress toward program goals.

RAD is an administrative records database that tracked an individual from enrollment in a green training program through to employment. The measures collected in the database were one way to show the connection between the money spent on training and employment outcomes. The RAD helped MDC and its subgrantees look at trends among those being served, measure progress toward goal outcomes, assess resources needed to fulfill the grant requirements, and document accomplishments.

RAD also strengthened communication about performance across multiple organizations and helped us share success stories. MDC and partner colleges used RAD data to describe aggregate and individual progress toward the ultimate goal of getting individuals trained for and employed in the green sector. While the system was a mandated tracking instrument, these data were also used to inform program improvements. For example:

  • Colleges documented participants’ demographic characteristics to ensure that everyone receiving services met eligibility requirements. The detailed demographic data on enrollees helped grantees anticipate the types of supportive services the participants would need in order to stay in school and complete a training program.
  • Colleges often used the notes feature in RAD to record student success stories not revealed in the numbers. This made it possible to document and share success stories like additional credentials earned and decisions to embark on new educational opportunities—neither were formal grant outcomes, but both contributed to the real purpose of the grant to improve the lives of those often left behind by economic crisis.

While the system wasn’t perfect, RAD allowed our multisite team to track each individual’s journey through a green training program to credentialing and employment while documenting some key milestones along the way. To read more about how Career Pathways for a Green South used RAD to reinforce the importance of data-informed design and decision making in community college programs, download our learning paper, Using Performance Measurement to Inform: A Look at the Recovery Act Data System.