Randomized control trials in education (RCTs): What is their contribution to education theory about teaching?

Keywords: RCTs; quantitative evaluations; large-scale interventions; educational knowledge, teacher knowledge


Random Controlled Trials (RCTs) have become one of the most sought-after approaches to impact evaluations of large-scale educational interventions in developing countries. This paper examines various claims to knowledge made by RCT scholars and evaluators of specific interventions conducted in India, Kenya and South Africa. It argues that, although these studies contribute a large set of empirical evidence about the impact of system-wide change on learners’ outcomes, they have limited contribution to building educational knowledge on learning and teaching for teacher education and development. Led mainly by development economists, RCT evaluation studies do not refer to nor attempt to engage explicitly with a theory of learning and teaching embedded in these interventions, or with the social and economic conditions that may constrain teachers’ work. Studies tend to simplify educational ideas and do not go beyond a brief description of the mechanisms included in systematic instruction. Teachers or teacher educators cannot learn much from these descriptions on how this kind of instruction improves teaching of poorly performing learners in specific settings. Only an engagement with conceptual and empirical research or with educational theory more broadly will assist in building professional knowledge about learning and teaching and about teacher change. 


Author Biography

Yael Shalem, University of the Witwatersrand

Yael Shalem is an associate professor of education at the Wits School of Education. Her research interests include professional knowledge, curriculum, teacher education and teacher work. She is one of two editors (Yael Shalem and Shirley Pendlebury) of Retrieving Teaching: Critical Issues in Curriculum Pedagogy and Learning, which was written in memory of Wally Morrow, the founder of educational theory in South Africa. Her recent book is Knowledge, Curriculum, and Preparation for Work, co-edited with Stephanie Allais (Brill Sense, 2018).

Research Articles