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Q & A with Jonathan Tunik, M.P.A., Senior Research Associate

How long have you been working for MI and what is your current role?

I guess that depends on how you count – actually a fairly unusual story.  I worked for Magi for three years, from 1990 to 1992.  While I had remained in touch with several former employees, most notably Marilyn Musumeci, in the years to follow, I had little or no interaction with the company afterwards.  Decades later, I received an invitation to Ron’s retirement party, at which I met Tom Kelsh, and was thinking, “This seems like a place I might consider returning to at some point.”  I filed that idea in the back of my head but, gainfully employed, did not give it much further thought.  Then I met someone on a hike, and after talking about our respective careers, she said, “I know someone who does something I think sounds similar to what you do.”  Indeed.  Not only that, but it turns out she worked at that company that used to be Magi.

An interview with Sara Silver and a few months consulting work for Tom later, I was hired as a Senior Research Associate in April 2016.  I am currently working as Project Director for two statewide projects: the New York State 21st Century Community Learning Centers, and evaluations of several statewide Categorical Bilingual Education programs under the NYS Education Department’s Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages.



Why did you get into this work?  Was there a particular person or event that inspired you? 


My parents raised my two brothers and me with a strong emphasis on social justice.  While I remember them telling me at times, as a child, “life isn’t fair,” it was always clear from their words and their own actions, that they believed that each of us is individually responsible for creating justice, tolerance and equality in the world.  These messages, in combination with those of the progressive synagogue from which I received my religious education, and my parents’ open-mindedness (and, dare I say, that of many of the congregants, and possibly even our rabbi) about the relative importance of living a moral and ethical life, over that of a theocentric life, became an indelible part of my personality.

At the same time, my father – a biology professor, who was always more passionate about education than about publishing – would bring drafts of homework assignments and exams home, engaging us in family discussions around the dinner table about whether the questions were fair, whether the tests were designed well, whether they were really assessing what mattered.  Probably not your typical family dinner conversation.  By the time I graduated college, I knew that I had a passion for science, education and social welfare.  While I did try my hand as an educator, applying the methods of the social sciences to improving public education through evaluation soon became the clear path that linked these passions.



How would you describe your approach to evaluation or TA/PD projects? 


My first question on how to approach any project is, how will this benefit students?  I am a little saddened that, as I have advanced in my career to more senior positions, I find myself spending less time in classrooms.  But the consciousness that my work can have real impact on real people – youngsters who, too often, are disadvantaged in very real ways because of their race, or the zip code into which they were born -- has never faded. 

Of course, these values are necessarily tempered by the reality of the resources available for the evaluation, and for the school system.  Making the greatest possible impact with limited resources has, for me, always been the greatest personal challenge – and the most important goal -- of my career.

Methodologically, my number one rule has always been that evaluation should be done with clients, not to them.  This philosophy of participatory evaluation has effectively been codified by the AEA’s Program Evaluation Standards for evaluation, including standards related to the purposes of the evaluation, relevance and responsiveness to stakeholders, and the need for explicit programmatic context.  While there have been highly regarded evaluators who advocate a “black box” approach to evaluation, I do not believe it possible to do justice to assessing the value of any program without the benefit of understanding exactly how the program intends to achieve its goals, and assessing how successfully it is being implemented.  Otherwise, you cannot really know what it is that you are evaluating.  This understanding cannot be achieved without the insights of the people running the program, as well as those who may be impacted by it. 

Very often, however, educational programs are conceived, developed and implemented through a considerable amount of seat of the pants intuition and instinct. In such cases, it is often the preliminary role of the evaluator to help a program define itself – i.e., to establish a model of fidelity.  This can be a highly productive process, helping program staff articulate their conception of the program. Often, this process can result in realizations that not all players had the same vision – and surface the need to resolve those different perspectives.  As Lewis Carroll said (or was it the Cheshire Cat?), “If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.”  

In many cases in the context of educational program evaluation, however, it is necessary to consider the changeability and complexity of the social context in which programs operate.  Even when there is a clearly defined model, circumstances may necessitate adaptations and modifications.  In such situations, a more “developmental” approach to evaluation is needed, one that supports innovation and adaptation (within the restrictions of previously established contracts); utilizes and promotes evaluators working as an internal, integrated team; allows for adaptation and tracking mechanisms to be modified in response to changing circumstances; and strives for real-time, user-friendly feedback.  Our recent experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic underscore how important responsiveness to such volatility and complexity can be.



What do you enjoy most about your job? 


People!  The personal growth that I experience on a daily basis from collaborating – not competing – with coworkers, clients, program staff and students.  Finding common ground, and solving challenges together.  Seeing that “aha” moment in a student’s work.



Can you share with us an important lesson you’ve learned through your work?


When you work together towards a common goal, and have the humility to recognize that there is no one – no one ­– on this earth from whom you cannot learn something, then you realize that your resources really are limitless. 



Of the books you’ve read in the past year, which made the biggest impression on you, and why? 


I’ll go back more than a year.  Kozol’s Savage Inequalities landed like a gut punch, even though it did not say anything I did not already know.  But to see these realities laid out so clearly, and so eloquently, gave me the recharge that I occasionally need to keep up this battle. I still return to it on occasion when I have been out of the classroom for too long.

But on a larger scale, Roth’s historical fiction, The Plot Against America unnerved me with its too-plausible depiction of the crumbling of democracy and the rise of fascism.  I believe that too many of us feel complacent in the strength of our 250 year old democracy and its founding principles.  Even though we have seen systems of government rise and fall throughout history, like many crises, it is often harder to believe that it can happen here.  For me, this book was a turning point in my commitment to constantly re-evaluate what I can do personally to help defend our democracy.



We all have “life goals” - things we’d like to accomplish someday. What is one of yours? 


To retire comfortably and see Polynesia.

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