Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

Randomized Trials: A Way To Stop ‘Spinning Wheels’

September 15, 2009 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

To the Editor:

Although we support Lisbeth B. Schorr’s call for a variety of evaluation methods to identify promising social programs (“Innovative Reforms Require Innovative Scorekeeping,” Aug. 26, 2009.), we respectfully disagree with her rejection of a central role for randomized controlled trials.

Our reasoning—to quote a recent National Academy of Sciences recommendation—is that evidence of effectiveness generally cannot be considered definitive without ultimate confirmation in well-conducted randomized trials, “even if based on the next strongest designs.” In fact, the history of social policy and medicine is replete with interventions that appeared highly promising in preliminary studies, but were subsequently found ineffective or even harmful in well-conducted trials.

Ms. Schorr’s advocacy of innovative programs without definitive evaluations is the approach U.S. social policy has largely followed, with little to show. New programs, introduced with fanfare as able to produce dramatic gains, have come and gone, with no one knowing for sure which were effective, and minimal progress being made. The National Assessment of Educational Progress’ long-term-trend data, for example, show little improvement in K-12 education achievement since the 1970s. Similarly, the official U.S. poverty rate, 12.5 percent, is slightly higher than it was in 1973.

Randomized trials offer a way to end this spinning of wheels.

Contrary to Ms. Schorr’s statement that they cannot evaluate “complex social programs … with multiple components,” a number of trials have done just that, producing valid, actionable evidence. For example, there have been randomized evaluations of comprehensive school reforms (such as those of the Success For All Foundation and the Comer School Development Program); communitywide underage-drinking prevention (Project Northland); countywide prevention of child maltreatment (Triple P); and multicomponent antipoverty strategies (PROGRESA).

In fact, PROGRESA—evaluated in 500 Mexican communities—showed sizable improvements in child education and health, was therefore implemented nationwide, and spawned replications in the United States and elsewhere accompanied by randomized evaluations. It illustrates how evidence-based policy can spark true progress.

Jon Baron

President

Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy

Washington, D.C.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Randomized Trials: A Way To Stop ‘Spinning Wheels’

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: January 18, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Letter to the Editor EdWeek's Most-Read Letters of 2022
Here are this year’s top five Letters to the Editor.
1 min read
Education Week opinion letters submissions
Gwen Keraval for Education Week
Education In Their Own Words Withstanding Trauma, Leading With Honesty, and More: The Education Stories That Stuck With Us
Our journalists highlight why stories on the impact of trauma on schooling and the fallout of the political discourse on race matter to the field.
4 min read
Kladys Castellón prays during a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
Kladys Castellón prays during a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
Billy Calzada/The San Antonio Express-News via AP
Education In Their Own Words Masking, Miscarriages, and Mental Health: The Education Stories That Stuck With Us
Our reporters share the stories they wrote that rose above the fray—and why.
5 min read
Crystal Curtis and her son, Jordan Curtis, outside their home in Plano, Texas. Crystal, a healthcare professional whose son attends school in Plano talks about the challenges of ensuring quality schooling, her discomfort with the state and district’s rollback of mandatory masking, and the complications of raising a Black child in a suburban district as policies shift.
Crystal Curtis and her son, Jordan Curtis, outside their home in Plano, Texas. Crystal, a healthcare professional whose son attends school in Plano talks about the challenges of ensuring quality schooling, her discomfort with the state and district’s rollback of mandatory masking, and the complications of raising a Black child in a suburban district as policies shift.
Allison V. Smith for Education Week