Some thoughts on Taylor and Watson’s (2015) RCT on the impact of study guides on school-leaving results in South Africa

Since 2010 most of my time spent on academic research has focused on two particular areas:

  1. The use of randomised control trials (RCTs) to support inappropriate, or overly strong, policy claims or recommendations
  2. Empirical examples of how this has manifested in the economics of education.

I was therefore somewhat frustrated when I attended a presentation at the Economic Society of South Africa conference in 2013 to find some rather strong policy claims being made on the basis of what is very weak evidence (even by the standards of practitioners favouring RCTs). I raised my concerns with the relevant author, but I see that the recently-published working paper contains the same problems.

It therefore seems appropriate to summarise my concerns with this work: partly so that interested parties can understand its flaws, but mainly to provide an illustration of how the new fad for RCT-based policy is often oversold.[1] That’s important, because despite seemingly ample evidence I often get economists saying: “Oh but no-one really uses RCT results in that way”.

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First post

The purpose of this blog is to provide an outlet for some thoughts on economics (as a discipline and profession) and some reflections on academia, based on my experience of both. I take a particular interest in methodological issues in economics, which I investigate in some of my intellectual/academic work.

I’m also interested in the dynamics of academia and higher education institutions. I have previously written a number of newspaper articles focused on issues relating to South African higher education, but there is much also to be said about what happens internationally.

Given my current work at the time of writing this first post, I unfortunately can’t write much on issues relating to public finance, economic policy or politics – particularly in South Africa. I do have a strong interest in such issues and will probably write about them at some point in the future.

P.s. If you’re an editor and want to syndicate anything, please get my permission first. And always note that I write in my personal capacity.