Is Jamie Oliver right to emphasise healthy school meals? Run a trial. Should young offenders be sent to boot camp, or to meet victims of crime? Run a trial. What can we do to persuade households to use less electricity? Run a trial...
When the UK government recently introduced the “synthetic phonics” method of teaching young children to read, they were told by Carole Torgerson, an evaluation expert at the University of York, that they could easily bolster the slim evidence base by randomising which schools joined the programme first. They didn’t. (More encouragingly, Ms Torgerson has been commissioned to evaluate maths teaching.)
Some people feel queasy at talk of “experimentation” in the classroom, prison or benefit office – but politicians experiment on us all the time with their latest policy wheezes. We learn little or nothing because the experiments are badly designed.
What is missing is the political demand for tests of what really works. Too many policies on education, welfare and criminal justice are just so much homeopathy: cute-sounding stories about what works leaning more on faith than on evidence. Politicians and civil servants, faced with some fancy new idea, should get into the habit of asking for a proper randomised trial. And we, as citizens, should be equally demanding....
Trial registers also feed into systematic review bodies such as the Cochrane Collaboration, which is an international offshoot of a National Health Service initiative. In less than two decades, the Cochrane Collaboration has published 4,000 systematic reviews of medical treatments, digging up data from unpublished trials, and providing the information to save many lives. A parallel body for social policy has far fewer trials to evaluate
For Discussion: What are typical training programs on randomised trials for policy makers?
There is a smarter way to cut public spending
Executive Training: Evaluating Social Programs