We all need refreshers on current grammar and writing rules and expectations. The last time many of us had a writing course may have been college or earlier. After years of composing documents for business it is easy to get caught in a rut doing things the same way or doing things the wrong way.
The Improve Group staff relies on clear, well-executed documents in every aspect of our work. We write proposals, strategic plans, reports, social media content, and language for surveys and many other pieces that have to reach a myriad of audiences. So, recently a few of us refreshed our skills by attending a 2-day SkillPath Seminar, Business Writing and Grammar Made Easy and Fun!, presented by Richard Kronick. The course followed an 8-step business process:
- Get to know your readers and their needs
- Define your purpose
- Gather background information
- For larger documents, create a mind map
- Write a topic outline
- Free-write your first draft (then take a break from it)
- Edit and format to create your second draft
- Proofread to arrive at your final draft
The presenter of the seminar confirmed that writing well is a lifelong process. Meeting deadlines can make it a challenge. Here are some tips that may help: Have others in your organization edit and proof what you write (these are separate processes and should be done in separate passes through the document). Keep books or online resources for grammar and spelling handy. One new idea from the writing course was to create an editing checklist. You write down a list of challenges or common mistakes you make when writing. For example, your list can include things like: using sentence fragments, weak verbs, confusing words, or improper use of quotations or commas. Then spend time before publishing or sharing to check specifically for the items on your list.
Now tell us: How do you keep your work fresh and flawless? Do you have tricks that help you to remember common grammar or spelling mistakes? Is there a reference material you would recommend to read or add to our writing library?
Posted: May 7th, 2012 | Author: igmain | Filed under: Around the office, Knowledge exchange, Staff Activities | Tags: business writing, Eric Wong, grammar, Improve Group, Jessica Olson, professional development, professional writing, Richard Kronick, SkillPath, Susan Murphy, writing skills | Comments Off
In the spirit of accomplishment, fun and sentimentality the team from the Improve Group who worked on the 6-year Home and Community-Based Waiver Review project for the Minnesota Department of Human Services got together to reflect on their journey. Leah, Liz, Eric, Danielle, Stacy and Susan remembered their experiences with great people from public health, their excitement at seeing so much of Minnesota, the good food found along the way, and even the weather challenges in getting to some of the counties. Leah tested us on our knowledge of Minnesota in a special trivia contest to see what we learned outside of the project work. Of course Eric, who made it to all 87 counties, won that contest.
Many others added their talents and time to the project including several graduate interns who worked along with us on site visits and helped input and analyze data for reporting back to counties. Thanks to everyone involved and especially to Bob and Jean at the MN DHS who were an integral part of the team – they established the vision for the initiative, kept the process focused on being constructive and helpful to counties, and talked to hundreds of county directors and case managers.
Posted: March 7th, 2012 | Author: igmain | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Danielle Dryke, Eric Wong, HCBS, Improve Group, Leah Goldstein Moses, Liz Radel Freeman, MN DHS, Stacy Johnson, Susan Murphy, thanks, Waiver Review | 1 Comment »
An interesting piece of news I learned through the Connecting to Markets: Neighborhoods and Housing Markets symposium I attended is that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is actively incentivizing collaborative regional planning efforts through Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants (SCRG). According to Raphael Bostic, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research at HUD and a panelist at the symposium, the goal of SCRG is to “facilitate and incentivize regional planning and more coordinated development of housing that is more sustainable, more walkable, closer to jobs and helps to make living easier, which should translate into real health benefits.”A priority for the program is to create nontraditional partnerships (e.g., arts and culture, recreation, public health, food systems, regional planning agencies and public education entities) to develop and implement strategies for planning and reinvestment in local communities. Using an approach like the Improve Group’s recent work in opportunity mapping to assess local nutrition needs and gaps could help in establishing partnerships and priorities. The process allows stakeholders to describe and learn about the resources and identify opportunities to enhance their local communities. Opportunity mapping offers a transparent process that enhances collaboration and provides for innovative solutions that can be beneficial to achieving the goals of SCRG.
Posted: February 3rd, 2012 | Author: igmain | Filed under: Knowledge exchange, Learning opportunities | Tags: Connecting to Markets Symposium, Eric Wong, housing, HUD, Improve Group, neighborhoods, opportunity mapping, Raphael Bostic, sustainable communities regional planning grants | Comments Off
Recently I attended a symposium titled Connecting to Markets: Neighborhoods and Housing Markets at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The focus of the symposium was to discuss current challenges in community development due to the difficult times in the housing market. Since the inner economist in me was curious about the causes of the depressed housing market and how the public, private and nonprofit sectors are attempting to revive the housing market, I was excited to attend this event.
The symposium was split between two different panel discussions, one conducted nationally via webcast and another discussion conducted locally with local leaders in community development, including the Metropolitan Council. The topics and ideas discussed during the symposium were enlightening. Here are a couple things that were covered:
- The uniqueness of the current housing market: according to Robert Weissbourd, an expert on urban issues at the Brookings Institution, the current conditions of the housing market are not part of the expected cyclical trend, but a fundamental shift to a housing market that puts greater emphasis on connecting knowledge and innovations to economic opportunities in the local area;
- The disconnection between stakeholders: the struggle in collaborating between neighborhoods, cities and regions due to the asymmetric understanding of available resources (economic, legal, institutional, etc.) and political control over community development decisions; and
- The ineffectiveness of current policy: current policies such as tax credits for development of affordable housing in cities have limited or no effect in the current economic environment due to the inability of developers to make a profit. Combined with the decreasing availability of public resources at the federal, state and local level, it is clear that the policy tools that have worked in past housing downturns are ineffective in the current housing market.
Despite the difficulties that were discussed during the symposium, I see great opportunities where nonprofits, community development corporations (CDCs), government and private sector can work together to address many difficulties in housing and community development. For example, public-private partnerships are a concept worth exploring due to the lack of resources available for separate entities in the nonprofit, public and private sector. Other opportunities worth exploring include CDCs working with private and public partners to assess available assets and opportunities available in a specific neighborhood to create a common understanding of the tools they have available for policy-making and resource allocation.
Posted: January 31st, 2012 | Author: igmain | Filed under: Knowledge exchange, Learning opportunities | Tags: Brookings Institution, community development, Connecting to Markets Symposium, Eric Wong, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, housing, housing market, Improve Group, Robert Weissbourd | Comments Off
A Webinar of the Unbanked to Assets: The Finanacial Needs of Low-Income Minnesotans Presentation with featured speakers Anne Johnson, Financial Services Manager with AccountAbility Minnesota; Leah Goldstein Moses, President of the Improve Group; and Eric Wong, Senior Analyst with the Improve Group has been posted at:
Employing a mixed-method study using surveys, focus groups, program records, and financial records, the financial practices and needs of low-income Minnesotans were examined to determine 1) Their financial planning, practices, experiences, and service needs; 2) The strengths and gaps of existing financial products and services of mainstream institutions compared to those provided through Alternative Financial Services; and 3) The strategies, tactics and/or services most likely to improve their financial well-being and long-term asset accumulation.
Thanks to the Wilder Foundation for providing Webinar space for TCRG presentations. TCRG stands for Twin Cities Research Group, which a local network of professionals in research, analysis and applied social sciences. Many of them work in the academic and public sector. They are known for holding Brown Bag lunches to allow local researchers talk about their work.
To view the recorded webinar you will need to enter your email and name. The webinar will be posted temporarily while space is available on the GoToMeeting site, so enjoy!
Posted: August 25th, 2011 | Author: igmain | Filed under: About evaluation, Knowledge exchange, Learning opportunities | Tags: AccountAbility MN, Anne Johnson, banking, Eric Wong, evaluation, Improve Group, Leah Goldstein Moses, low-income, nonprofits, TCRG, Twin Cities Research Group, Unbanked to Assets, Webinar | Comments Off
The Twin Cities Research Group Brown Bag Speaker Series for Wed., August 10 will feature a discussion on the report Unbanked to Assets: The Financial Needs of Low-Income Minnesotans. This comprehensive report was developed forAccountAbility Minnesota (AAM) through the assistance of the Improve Group. AAM has been serving Minnesotans for 39 years by helping them to move out of poverty through providing pathways to increase income, building assets and becoming financially secure, and by advocating for change that breaks down barriers to financial success
Wednesday’s presentation will be give by Anne Johnson, Financial Services Manager with AccountAbility Minnesota; Leah Goldstein Moses, President of the Improve Group; and Eric Wong, Senior Analyst with the Improve Group.
About the topic: “Employing a mixed-method study using surveys, focus groups, program records, and financial records, the financial practices and needs of low-income Minnesotans were examined to determine 1) Their financial planning, practices, experiences, and service needs; 2) The strengths and gaps of existing financial products and services of mainstream institutions compared to those provided through Alternative Financial Services; and 3) The strategies, tactics and/or services most likely to improve their financial well-being and long-term asset accumulation. Our speakers will describe their research design, the successes and challenges in the chosen design, key findings, program implications, and their forthcoming analysis.”
The discussion is free and will take place from Noon to 1:00 pm at the Wilder Foundation, Room 2610, 451 Lexington Parkway (at University Ave), Saint Paul, MN 55104.
Two-page Report Summary: Summary of evaluation and findings
Posted: August 4th, 2011 | Author: igmain | Filed under: About evaluation, Learning opportunities | Tags: AccountAbility MN, Anne Johnson, Eric Wong, evaluation, event, financial stability, Improve Group, Improve Group client, Leah Goldstein Moses, low income Minnesotans, presentation, report, TCRG, Twin Cities Research Group, Wilder Foundation | Comments Off
A new series of bills, proposed by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) proposes to offer significantly more leeway to states and districts in distributing education funds. In other words, instead of directing states to spend money on certain programs, such as Title I grants for disadvantaged students, districts could spend the money on English Language Acquisition Grants or Teacher Quality State Grants.
More specifically, states would be allowed to shift money out of the following programs: School Improvement Grants (state administration); Title I administrative funds; Migrant Education; Neglect and Delinquent programs; Teacher Quality State Grants; English Language Acquisition Grants; 21st Century Community Learning Centers; and the Education Jobs Fund.
And school districts could transfer funds from Title I grants for disadvantaged kids; Migrant Education; Neglected and Delinquent programs; Teacher Quality State Grants; English Language Acquisition Grants; Indian Education; and the Education Jobs Fund.
These funds could be transferred to the following programs: School Improvement Grant program; Title I grants to districts; Reading First; Migrant Education; Neglect and Delinquent Programs; Teacher Quality State Grants; Math and Science Partnerships; English Language Acquisition Grants; 21 Century Community Learning Centers; Innovative Programs; Grants for State Assessments; Rural Education; Indian Education; and services for early intervention under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Under the new ESEA (which is currently known as No Child Left Behind), districts would be held accountable to tell the states ahead of time how they will use the funds and states would be held accountable to inform the Department of Education of its spending plans. Districts and states would be required to fulfill all the reporting requirements for all the programs, even if they shift all the money out of them. However, states and districts would not have to fulfill an application and approval process to distribute the funds.
The proposed ESEA has prompted strong reactions from supporters and critics. Supporters such as the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) laud the measure for empowering school administrators with additional flexibility in school decision-making. Critics include Education Secretary Arne Duncan and civil rights organizations such as Council of the Great City Schools, which represents urban districts, argue that the bill will have adverse impacts on minority and disadvantaged children.
Regardless of the political arguments, education policymakers generally agree that accountability is essential to assess the effectiveness of any education measures. Therefore, evaluators and policymakers should have great interest in how these policies are developed and implemented for it informs how they can develop the accountability measures to assess if the policies are achieving their goals. I am hopeful that great attention continues to be placed on the importance of evaluation in significant policy debates such as those in education.
Posted: July 20th, 2011 | Author: igmain | Filed under: Knowledge exchange | Tags: education, Eric Wong, House Education and the Workforce Committee, Improve Group, New Education Bill, No Child Left Behind | Comments Off
According to a recent study, teacher performance based pay based on the progress of entire schools, not the progress of individual students, lead teachers to exert more effort and raise student achievement. Professors Thomas Ahn of the University of Kentucky and Jacob Viglor of Duke found that North Carolina’s teacher incentive program, which rewards teachers based on school-wide performance, found that school wide performance incentives have a stronger effect on increasing teacher time in the classroom and improving student standardized test scores than individual teacher incentives. The study also concludes that school-wide incentives also are four times more cost effective than education reforms such as reducing class size.
However, the results of this study do differ from other studies on the effects of performance-based pay for teachers, on student performance and teacher effort. However, with increasing emphasis on accountability for academic improvement at both the federal and state level, the debate appears to have shifted from whether or not teachers should be paid for performance to how they should be should be paid for performance. Therefore, more research should be expected in the area of incentive-based pay in education. A key to evaluating these and upcoming studies will be examining the differences in methodology in conducting the studies. More rigor should be emphasized in both the evaluators designing these studies and the policymakers and stakeholders critiquing them.
Posted: July 11th, 2011 | Author: igmain | Filed under: About evaluation | Tags: education, Eric Wong, Improve Group, Jacob Viglor of Duke, North Carolina, pay for performance, Professors Thomas Ahn, teacher incentives, teachers | Comments Off
According to a recent EdWeek article, in the first annual reports filed by states to account for spending $44 billion of one-time education aid to support education budgets during the recent recession, notable progress was made in improving school data systems and more equitably distributing highly qualified teachers across all schools.
The economic stimulus package, also known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, poured nearly $100 billion dollars into education. The largest portion allocated to the $48.6 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, which required states to show improvement in four specific areas: low-performing schools, data systems, teacher effectiveness and standards and assessments.
While the U.S. Department of Education requests some specific questions, such as whether a state’s data system meets certain criteria, other questions were more open-ended. Despite the differences in reporting criteria, a clear trend emerged that State Fiscal Stabilization Funds clearly improved school data systems and improved equity in the distribution of highly qualified teachers in the following ways:
- Thirteen states reported that their longitudinal-data systems feature all 12 elements outlined in the America Competes Act, a law that focuses on strengthening the nation’s economic competitiveness. The data includes tracking student progress from pre-school through college and monitoring student-level transcript information.
- All states have noted progress or have solved the challenge of equitably distributing highly qualified teachers across all schools, including schools that primarily serve poor and minority students.
- Seventeen states report they did not analyze the appropriateness and effectiveness of testing accommodation to English language learners and special education students.
While it is encouraging news that the stimulus funds had notable impacts in these areas, questions remain on how to use the data. In evaluation discussion, a common analysis method is called “What? So What? What Now?” It appears that these recent developments provide the “What,” the information we found out. But more discussion and analysis needs to be done on the “So What?”- the implications of the new information and the “What Now? – next steps to consider based on the implications we found out. So as the story goes – Stay tuned.
Posted: June 1st, 2011 | Author: igmain | Filed under: About evaluation, Reflections from Wong’s Cube | Tags: America Competes Act, American recovery and reinvestment act, education, education goals, EdWeek, Eric Wong, evaluation, Improve Group, Improve Group blog, progress, Stimulus | Comments Off
This is the second of a series of informational interviews on the five pro bono projects the Improve Group is working on in 2010.* These clients have a wide range of locations, missions and needs. We had several goals for our pro bono work:
- Give back to the community in a way that honors our decade of service
- Gain additional depth in the fields we’ve worked in most frequently by working with small or new organizations in those fields
- Have the opportunity to try out new methods and approaches that wouldn’t be considered in funder-driven work
We hope our other clients and our readers who share similar issues may gain some insight on how to approach their project needs through our experiences with pro bono clients.
This interview is with Eric Wong, Senior Research Analyst at Improve Group.
Which organization are you partnered with?
(Eric:) I am working with Genesis II for Families. Their mission is to “promote social change by strengthening families and the community through programs that encourage self-determination, self-sufficiency, and healthy family lifestyles.”
What issues did they need assistance with?
They were looking for a feasibility study on providing a fee-for-service option for some of their parenting services. They do collect fees on some of their services but this is a pretty new process for them.
Why were you interested in working with this pro bono project?
I was interested in this project because it matched well with some of the work I have done in the past on fee studies. It also gives the Improve Group an opportunity to involve one of our collaborating partners, Jay Kiedrowski, a senior fellow with the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. One of Jay’s classes is on financial management and he is a strong fit for helping with Genesis’ needs.
What are the beginning approaches or tools you are using to help your client?
The Improve Group started working with Genesis II for Families in June of this year. First, we held a kick-off meeting to help focus in on the specific services they needed. We examined the groups they served and Genesis decided on targeting the adult parenting services for the feasibility study. We have agreed upon a series of focus groups as the primary data collection method to see if there is a demand that would support the fee process.
The Improve Group will help Genesis develop the tools, recruit the people and do analysis of the results of the focus groups. Genesis will be guided in who and how to recruit, and how to collect data; the Improve Group will conduct the focus groups and help in data analysis.
Our collaborator, Jay Kiedrowski, will offer insights and perspectives on how to approach the results from the data we collect to make it more helpful for Genesis in their strategic planning and other decisions they need to make. Jay has been in the position of looking at revenue streams and what info will be helpful to both the nonprofits and the public sector. His perspective will help the Improve Group frame our tools to be most helpful to Genesis.
What are the next steps for this pro bono partnership?
I am just starting to develop the tools that will help Genesis recruit the teens and adults they need for the focus groups. They will have a month to recruit about 30 people and I will facilitate the focus groups in the fall.
What are you learning from this process?
I can get a little more in depth in my knowledge of the feasibility process. Genesis has a good sized staff and I am enjoying learning about their infrastructure. It is exciting to take on something new.
*To read our previous interview on the San Francisco Opera project, click here.
Posted: August 18th, 2010 | Author: igmain | Filed under: Improve Groove Newsletter | Tags: Eric Wong, families, Human Services, IG Newsletter, Improve Group, parenting, pro bono, Susan Murphy | Comments Off