Will better education come through RCTs or from informed people?

“Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) are a shiny rock that only has value because people with a vested interest say so,”

begins a recent blog from #ICT Works. The debate is not new, but their comprehensive counter-argument is helpful in its breadth and brevity. On Education, I couldn’t help noticing how their summary of RCTs mirrors my own experiences with computer education in African schools about a decade back, the subject of my latest book, Computer Curious. They write:

RCTs in education: a successful failure

The Education For All idea is not complex, and it pre-dates the push for results-based management, outcomes/impact. EFA could I suppose be considered one of the prior programs that led to the emergence of an enabling environment for RCTs.

Let’s say we decide to increase participation in schooling by increasing access (build schools, provide transportation, hire more teachers, support free and compulsory basic education, and so on) while letting issues of education quality hang fire. Get ‘em in there, learning is good and they will learn.

What are the observed outcomes?

  • Very large classes guided by teachers who lack skills, education and certification.
  • Kids who complete primary school but can’t read or add.
  • Older kids who complete secondary school but need to move back to their villages or out of the country because there are no jobs.
  • Increasing numbers of low-cost private schools (mostly attended by boys),
  • SDG Goal 4—increasing the emphasis on the quality of education, as opposed to the quantity of children served.

My experience

In my travels through Senegal, Gambia, and Ghana in 2003-2004 and my subsequent visits in Kenya and Uganda (where “school fee” was the number one most used phrase on our massive community storytelling project), I too witnessed both a push to enroll everybody and a lot of poor teaching in oversized classrooms. Parents cared about getting a kid in school, but had not yet received the vital information on the quality of that education, which clearly declined as access improved. It’s another example of where the information is power concept could really fix things in ways that RCTs wouldn’t be able to study (difficult to randomize “access to public knowledge” meant for everyone).

You can read about these observed outcomes from past education RCTs in narrative long form in my book. I believe that stories are the more effective way to change attitudes on education, and that evidence and RCTs only strengthen the narrative; they don’t replace it.

We need more ways for the people affected by poor quality schools to be able to speak up and be heard as individuals, not just part of a standard deviation in some else’s hypothesis.


Computer Curious retells my 2003-2004 adventures of exotic discomfort on the open road (in Gambia, Senegal, Ghana), ill-conceived conceits to bring Internet to remote villages, launching rocket yams in the name of science, wandering through a refugee camp as a letter courier, hobnobbing with power mongers of the digital era in African capitols, and – more generally – the journey to understand how education fosters creativity.kindle_logo

Aside from my book, the storytelling search page has hundreds of first hand accounts. Here is the first of many such stories with the phrase “better education.” This person illustrates what policymakers can often miss with a myopic RCT:


On one of my holidays which was two years ago, i decided to visit my grandmother who stayed at our farm house back in the village. I arrived well, and was warmly received. After a short while i joined a nearby local government school to start my holiday tuition which my father had said that should attend. When i went to the school on the first day i was astonished to find pupils as old as my elder sister still in primary school since i was the third born in my family the shock grew when i heard the kind of English that our English teacher talked during the lesson. It was he was mixing English with a vernacular language. After doing some research i found out that it has been so for a long time and this has been due to poor education lack of enough and appropriate learning equipments and teachers who lacked skills. When i returned to the city i informed my father about this and he immediately informed the necessary authorities action was taken and from that day learning has been taking place smoothly.

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