Quantitative and Qualitative Data

States will input and extract both quantitative and qualitative data from their continuous quality improvement (CQI) systems, in order to have a more complete understanding of issues being evaluated and addressed. Quantitative data are those that are expressed by numbers and/or frequencies rather than by meaning and observation/experience. In other words, quantitative data are numerical measurements of an object or event (e.g., how many, how much, or how often), while qualitative data are descriptive of characteristics or attributes, representing what someone observes or otherwise gleans. Qualitative data and research help agencies understand action and experience as a whole and in context.

Some common sources of quantitative data are questionnaires, case record reviews, and extractions from institutional databases, while obtaining qualitative information can be achieved from activities such as focus groups, review of case files, and case-related interviews. Because qualitative data are descriptive, they may be more challenging to analyze than quantitative data. Each type of data has positive attributes, and combining both can result in gaining a more comprehensive picture of agency functioning, as both types enable deeper understanding of various phenomena and provide new knowledge.

The following chart shows the difference in qualitative and quantitative elements for the same group, youth age 17 about to age out of foster care in a region of a State:

Aging Out Youth - Qualitative Data Aging Out Youth - Quantitative Data
Employment readiness 173 youth
Relationship with birth families 83 girls, 90 boys
Support systems with caring adults 62% (107) graduating from high school
Preparedness to live unsupervised 48 youth college-bound

To augment their case review systems or to delve further into specific issues, States may want to administer surveys, conduct interviews, or hold focus groups with staff, external stakeholders, or consumers to obtain more qualitative information. Collecting this additional information will go far to provide a more complete picture of overall agency strengths, needs, and functioning in terms of outcomes for children and families, and may be particularly helpful in evaluating systemic factors, such as adequacy of services in the community and training of staff and resource parents. For example, if foster parent retention is a challenge for the agency, it may choose to interview foster parents who dropped out of the program in the past year, or conduct a focus group with current foster parents, to gain valuable qualitative data about changes needed in the program in order to increase retention.

In general, internal stakeholders who would typically be interviewed or included in focus groups include caseworkers (investigation, foster care, and in-home), supervisors, foster home finders, adoption staff, information technology staff, and the local child welfare director. External stakeholders could include organizations and individuals who are representative of entities who participated in the development of the State’s Child and Family Services Plan. Likely participants would be the courts, guardians and attorneys ad litem, directors and staff of community agencies who serve agency consumers, Tribal representatives, law enforcement personnel, and agency attorneys. Foster and adoptive parents and consumers, such as youth served by the agency, would also be included.

To assist in the process, the State’s CQI oversight division might develop a set of core and follow-up questions for the various groups to be used as guidelines in interviewing and facilitating focus group discussions across the State. However, if specific issues are being targeted, then questions may need to be added to reflect local/regional concerns. The interviews/focus group meetings should be standardized as much as possible to help ensure more consistency in information/data that are obtained throughout the State. It will be important to remind group participants that their responses should reflect current agency information, or within the past year or two, rather than anecdotes or information (whether positive or negative) from several years in the past.