School & District Management

Education Economist Among MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grantees

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 20, 2011 3 min read
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Education economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr., known for his work in tracing the potential causes and educational results of the achievement gaps for minority students, has been named one of 22 new fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

As founder and director of Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Fryer has been at the forefront of research on the achievement gap. Among some of his studies:

• In 2004, his analysis of the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found, contrary to previous research, that black and white students entered kindergarten without an achievement gap, but that black students lost substantial ground during the first two years of school, in part due to differences in the quality of schools they attend compared to students of other races.

• In 2005, he addressed the debate over black students “acting white” with an analysis of adolescent social networks to highlight the differences in how black and white students related popularity to academic achievement. While he found a handicap for high-performing black students in public schools with more racial diversity, he did not find such pressure in predominantly black schools or private schools.

• Fryer also has conducted several evaluations of New York City education reforms, including the Harlem Children’s Zone and teacher merit-pay plans.

Most recently, in a series of randomized trials at more than 250 schools in 2010, Fryer found no benefit to using output-based financial incentives for students to improve academic achievement. The studies built on his previous research that found no benefit to using financial incentives for teachers to improve student achievement.

Fryer told me these experiments have fundamentally changed the way he thinks about the incentive structure in education.

“Economists always assume people know how to produce something. Incentives work if you are lazy, not if you don’t know how to do something,” he said. In the studies, he found teachers got excited about merit pay but still asked for professional development; students got excited about grade incentives but still called for tutors. “So that’s spawned some new theoretical ideas for me. What if people don’t know how to produce something? What do optimal incentives look like in that environment?”

Fryer’s now working on a forthcoming paper on a project that tried to use teacher, student and parent incentives simultaneously. “I don’t want to give too much away, but the effect is quite powerful when you put parents into the mix,” he said.

The MacArthur fellowship, known informally as the “genius grants,” comes with $500,000 over the next five years, and unlike most grants, it includes no restrictions on how Fryer uses the money.

“In education research a lot of times the direction is driven by the funders,” he said, “so this is a rare chance to do what we think is important here in the lab. I don’t know the specifics, but I do know every dollar will be used to try to find a scalable solution to the racial achievement gap.”

The other MacArthur fellows hail from a wide variety of fields, several with links to education, including:

Kevin Guskiewiczan, a sports science professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who studies sports-related brain trauma;
Matthew Nock, a clinical psychologist at Harvard who studies suicide and self-injury among adolescents; and
Francisco Núñez, the founder of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, which works with more than 1,000 inner-city chorus students via satellite choruses.

“This has been a year of great change and extraordinary challenge, and we are once again reminded of the potential individuals have to make a difference in the world and shape our future,” said Robert Gallucci, president of the Chicago-based foundation, in a statement. “The MacArthur Fellows exemplify how individual creativity and talent can spark new insights and ideas in every imaginable field of human endeavor.”

Photo: Roland Fryer, 34, a Harvard University economics professor who studies causes and consequences of economic disparity due to race and inequality, is one of 22 recipients of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.” (Jodi Hilton/John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation/AP)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.