As the federal government launches a multi-year, $36 million initiative regarding marijuana education, it’s instructive to look back on past anti-drug programs to see what we learned. Remember the DARE program? Drug Abuse Resistance Education was a drug education program targeted at American middle school children in which police officers went into schools to teach about the dangers of drug use. Evaluation guru Michael Patton reports on how thousands of local and national evaluations of DARE were conducted. Those evaluations showed consistently that the program was not effective. Patton states, “I know of no program that has been so thoroughly evaluated with such consistently negative results – and yet remains widely popular.”
It is the last part of that sentence that we should pay attention to. According to Patton, huge amounts of money are spent annually on DARE despite widely reported negative evaluations. Why? He argues that the program was popular politically, people liked the fact that something was being done about drug use, and people ignore evidence that contradicts their strongly held beliefs. There’s also a common failure to look at opportunity costs, but that’s a whole other blog post!
While this story can inform marijuana education efforts, it also informs the use of program evaluation. If you are going to invest in program evaluation, you want to ensure the evaluation findings are used – this is even more important in the non-profit sector where funding for evaluation is hard to come by. Patton has written an excellent book on this topic (Essentials of Utilization-Focussed Evaluation, 2012). Critical to evaluation use is assessing the readiness of the organization to undertake evaluation. For example, are people in the organization ready to have their reality tested? Are they prepared to find out their program does not work as intended or have the intended outcomes? A competent evaluator can and will assist with this assessment and then prepare your organization for evaluation before commencing the actual evaluation.
Let’s push the federal government to evaluate the outcomes of this initiative and dare to say no to ineffective programs.
P.S. According to their website, DARE remains the most comprehensive drug education curricula in the world, taught in more than 50 countries, including Canada.