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

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
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
Special Education Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table - Special Education: Proven Interventions for Academic Success
Special education should be a launchpad, not a label. Join the conversation on how schools can better support ALL students.
Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.

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: May 29, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 8, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 17, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 20, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read