Education Letter to the Editor

Support for ‘Strategic Use’ of Randomized Trials

September 22, 2009 1 min read

To the Editor:

At Innovations for Poverty Action, we disagree with Lisbeth B. Schorr’s assessment that rigorous evaluation methods will inhibit innovation in social policy. In fact, randomized trials offer the best chance to generate lessons on what works.

Ms. Schorr’s arguments in “Innovative Reforms Require Innovative Scorekeeping,” (Aug. 26, 2009) reflect some common misconceptions about randomized control trials. Contrary to her assertions, few would argue that these should be applied universally. Rather, advocates support their strategic use to provide evidence on whether and how to scale up programs with the potential to improve the lives of many. Read India, for example, a program developed through randomized evaluations, has positively affected 21 million children receiving remedial literacy tutoring.

Far from inhibiting innovation, randomized control trials allow policymakers to test out new ideas before making massive spending decisions. They can also provide proof that particular ideas get results without having to rely on fads or rhetoric.

Nor is the application of randomized control trials as restricted as Ms. Schorr implies. Researchers today are able to test complex packages of interventions and dynamic processes. One example of our research, in Ghana, will measure the effectiveness of an “epicenter strategy,” or a community-determined set of development programs. Randomized trials are well suited to this type of evaluation, and are particularly useful for identifying impacts from particular combinations of complementary interventions.

Many of Ms. Schorr’s arguments about the need for innovation seem to support the use of well-conducted randomized control trials, which are characterized by an in-depth understanding of a program. The replication of evaluations in multiple contexts is equally critical to helping local communities adapt successful programs to their context.

We support the increased use of evidence-based policies. Time and again, when people need accurate results, they turn to randomized trials.

Delia Welsh

Managing Director

Innovations for Poverty Action

New Haven, Conn.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Support for ‘Strategic Use’ Of Randomized Trials