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A complex adaptive system approach to evaluation: application to a pay-for-performance program in the USA


Evaluators frequently confront situations in which local programs struggle to meet the expectations and requirements specified by the external program funder. How can evaluators meaningfully evaluate programs (for both the funder and grantee) in situations in which the external program logic clashes with local complexities? This paper discusses complex adaptive system (CAS) evaluations as one method that addresses this question. To exemplify a CAS evaluation approach, we use the case of a pay-for-performance program, the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) program, a United States federal program implemented in numerous jurisdictions. Evaluation findings generated through a complex adaptive system approach have the potential to inform policy as well as assist the local program with ongoing improvements.

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  1. 1.

    In other disciplines, causal diagrams refer to apriori-specified diagrams that inform quantitative analyses. The “causal diagram” term used in this paper refers to an evaluation tool that changes as a result of a program’s evolution. Despite differences in defining causal diagrams, both interpretations of causal diagrams are means of reflecting on complexity.

  2. 2.

    Value-added scores are a way to link student test scores to teacher/school effectiveness. The term refers to student growth or academic gain attributed to a teacher or school, as opposed to using unadjusted mean levels of achievement or percent of proficient students.


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Correspondence to Rick Mintrop.



Table 2 Main codes for each complex

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Mintrop, R., Pryor, L. & Ordenes, M. A complex adaptive system approach to evaluation: application to a pay-for-performance program in the USA. Educ Asse Eval Acc 30, 285–312 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11092-018-9276-6

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  • Complex adaptive system evaluation
  • Evaluation method
  • Pay for performance
  • Teaching evaluations
  • Formative evaluation
  • Summative evaluation
  • Accountability
  • Performance management