Are the criticisms about randomized controlled trials in education correct? (Best Evidence in Brief)

There is a new best evidence in brief and in the new edition there is a bit of a meta-subject as it’s not about research but about research about research (you’ll have to read that twice, I guess).

The use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in education research has increased over the last 15 years. However, the use of RCTs has also been subject to criticism, with four key criticisms being that it is not possible to carry out RCTs in education; the research design of RCTs ignores context and experience; RCTs tend to generate simplistic universal laws of “cause and effect”; and that they are descriptive and contribute little to theory.
To assess these four key criticisms, Paul Connolly and colleagues conducted a systematic review of RCTs in education research between 1980 and 2016 in order to consider the evidence in relation to the use of RCTs in education practice.
The systematic review found a total of 1,017 RCTs completed and reported between 1980 and 2016, of which just over three-quarters have been produced in the last 10 years. Just over half of all RCTs were conducted in North America and just under a third in Europe. This finding addresses the first criticism, and demonstrates that, overall, it is possible to conduct RCTs in education research.
While the researchers also find evidence to oppose the other key criticisms, the review suggests that some progress remains to be made. The article concludes by outlining some key challenges for researchers undertaking RCTs in education.
I want to add this abstract too:

Background: The use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in education has increased significantly over the last 15 years. However, their use has also been subject to sustained and rather trenchant criticism from significant sections of the education research community. Key criticisms have included the claims that: it is not possible to undertake RCTs in education; RCTs are blunt research designs that ignore context and experience; RCTs tend to generate simplistic universal laws of ‘cause and effect’; and that they are inherently descriptive and contribute little to theory.

Purpose: This article seeks to assess the above four criticisms of RCTs by considering the actual evidence in relation to the use of RCTs in education in practice.

Design and methods: The article is based upon a systematic review that has sought to identify and describe all RCTs conducted in educational settings and including a focus on educational outcomes between 1980 and 2016. The search is limited to articles and reports published in English.

Results: The systematic review found a total of 1017 unique RCTs that have been completed and reported between 1980 and 2016. Just over three quarters of these have been produced over the last 10 years, reflecting the significant increase in the use of RCTs in recent years. Overall, just over half of all RCTs identified were conducted in North America and a little under a third in Europe. The RCTs cover a wide range of educational settings and focus on an equally wide range of educational interventions and outcomes. The findings not only disprove the claim that it is not possible to do RCTs in education but also provide some supporting evidence to challenge the other three key criticisms outlined earlier.

Conclusions: While providing evidence to counter the four criticisms outlined earlier, the article suggests that there remains significant progress to be made. The article concludes by outlining some key challenges for researchers undertaking RCTs in education.

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