The field of evaluation, like any field, has a lot of jargon. Jargon provides a short-hand for people in the field to talk about complex things without having to use a lot of words or background explanation, but for the same reason, it’s confusing to people outside the field. A couple of phrases that we get frequent questions about are “best practices” and “evidence-based programs”.
“Evidence-based programs” are those that have been found by a rigorous evaluation to result in statistically significant outcomes for the participants. Similarly, “best practices” are evidence-based programs or aspects of evidence-based programs that have been demonstrated through rigorous evaluation to result in the best outcomes for participants. Sometimes, however, “best practices” is used as umbrella term to refer to a continuum of practices with varying degrees of support, where the label “best practices” anchors the high end of the continuum. For example, the continuum may include the subcategory of “promising practices,” which typically refer to program components that have some initial support, such as a weakly significant statistical finding, that suggest those practices may help to achieve meaningful outcomes. Those practices may or may not hold up to further study, but they may be seen as good candidates for additional study.
Does following “best practices” mean your program is guaranteed to have an impact on your participants? No, it does not. Similarly, does using the curriculum and following the program manual for an evidence-based program ensure that your program will have an impact on your participants? Again, no. Following best practices and using evidence-based programs may improve your chances of achieving measurable results for your participants, but if your participants differ demographically (i.e., are older or younger, higher or lower SES, etc.) from the participants in the original study, or if your implementation fidelity does not match the original study, the program/practices may not have the same impact as they did in the original study. (Further, the original study may have been a type 1 error, but that’s a topic for another day.) That is why granting agencies ask you to evaluate your program even when you are using an evidence-based program.
To know whether you are making the difference you think you’re making, you need to evaluate the impact of your efforts on your participants. If you are using an evidence-based program with a different group of people than have been studied previously, you will be contributing to the knowledge base for everyone about whether that program may also work for participants like yours. And if you want your program to be considered evidence-based, a rigorous evaluation must be conducted that meets established criteria by a certifying organization like the Blueprints program at the University of Colorado Boulder, Institute of Behavioral Science, Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP).
So, it is a best practice to use evidence-based programs and practices that have been proven to work through rigorous, empirical study, but doing so doesn’t guarantee success on its own. Continued evaluation is still needed.