Why randomised controlled trials matter in education

Year: 2018

Author: Miller, Andrew, Gore, Jennifer, Harris, Jess, Rodriguez, Elena-Prieto, Leanne, Fray

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Recent decades have seen a global intensification of calls for a strong evidence base to underpin the development of student and system level outcomes in the education sector. These calls have led to the growing popularity of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) within the field, with some systems establishing an independent evaluation model as the gold standard in evidence production. In other fields, such as medicine, there are four well-established phases to comprehensive programs of research that should underpin the dissemination of an intervention or program at broader scale: i) intervention/program development, ii) efficacy testing via RCT, iii), real world trial/s, and iv) dissemination. Due to the complexities of conducting research in education, it is commonplace for interventions/programs in education to omit one or more of these phases – usually efficacy testing – on the path to wider implementation within schools/systems. The efficacy testing phase, however, provides researchers with opportunities to collect critical information about processes that can assist with understanding how to effectively and consistently implement an intervention in real-world settings.
This paper addresses implications of taking an intervention to scale without efficacy testing. Drawing on case studies of RCTs, this paper provides evidence of why programmatic research offers important insights about educational interventions/programs that should be taken into consideration in the scaling up of initiatives. While engaging with debates about the applicability of RCTs in education, we argue that establishing preliminary efficacy, via RCT research designs, is important for both technical and ethical reasons. Such efficacy testing provides essential information about the effects of interventions/programs that can be compared with results from real world trials and dissemination efforts. We show that processes of investigating how programs can be modified, and developing effective and consistent strategies for implementation are critical to ensuring the best possible results for students and teachers.