The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture hosted Science for Social Change: Understanding the Racial Achievement Gap. Keynote speaker was Dr. Roland Fryer, the NYC Dept. of Education’s first Chief Equality Officer. Hired to advise Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein on achieving equity in education for all city students and narrow the racial achievement gap, Fryer boldly proposes financial incentives for students that achieve certain academic milestones.
Dr. Fryer asserts there should be “more facts, less politics in education.” Although these facts should be obtained through scientific studies, Fryer warns to beware of “methodology”. He points to studies such as “Ice Cream Causes Shark Attacks”, “Doctors Cause Yellow Fever” and “Culture causes Achievement Gaps”. Fryer believes we need an “FDA of Education”, contrasting how medicines are studied for safety and efficacy prior to approval for consumption with the implementation of education programs that have not been analyzed for effectiveness.
Fryer earnestly stated, “I need your help” to improve education outcomes for all NYC students. According to Fryer, it seems education “is a product for producers, not the consumers. Our children are the consumers. We as a community have to decide ‘No more’.”
Fryer believes education is the “fundamental civil right.” The “huge disparities in outcome” created a “crisis.” Fryer stated “giving kids incentives for doing well in school makes education tangible.” He explained some children cannot see the long-term benefits of education because they have little or no models of how education leads to a successful, positive life. You cannot ask children to “look down a path they have never seen anyone go down.” Children emulate what they see. (A handful of middle school young ladies have told more than one educator they “don’t need an education.” Their life goal is to “have babies and get a project apartment.” No one has told these children that taxpayers- Black, white, conservative, liberal- are not going to advocate for the building of more projects to house yet more single-parent welfare babies.) For Fryer, “short-term incentives bring long-term goals.” Fryer added, “Make no mistake, children on the Upper East Side have incentives for doing well in school.”
Dr. Fryer gave, by example, his incentive program currently being implemented in Dallas. Children are paid $2.00 a book as incentive to read. After reading the book, children take a test, and only after passing are they paid the $2.00. The Dallas program limits the $2.00 incentive to 20 books a semester. Dr. Fryer found some students read 36 books a semester; they were not paid for the additional 16. When Dr. Fryer asked one young man why he read the additional 16 books even though he would not be paid for them, the answer was, “I was not going to let my friend read more books than me.” Dr. Fryer smiled as he recalled this concrete way to develop an internalized love of learning.
Dr. Fryer believes cost-benefit analysis and focus on the economic motivations of humans also applies to children. During an assembly at a NYC school currently implementing Fryer’s financial incentive program, a young man shouted out, “Dr. Fryer, now this is a program I like.”
Dr. Fryer feels so strongly about incentives he suggested an expansion. Mayor Bloomberg has recently consented to a pilot program that would award cell phones, free minutes, sports and concert tickets to all students in NYC’s 4 Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools and 20 schools affiliated with New Visions for Public Schools starting in January. There is a planned expansion of the program into additional schools next fall. Although Bloomberg maintains his administration’s policy of not allowing cell phones in public schools will stand, the phones will be a powerful tool to motivate students.
Fryer intends to “brand” academic success, not just with the phones, but with motivational text messages that encourage attendance, promote study and congratulate for achievement. It is hoped that icons of popular culture, such as Chris Rock and LeBron James, will send text messages to students for academic success. These phones may well become the next “must-have” among middle-schoolers.
Dr. Fryer’s childhood experiences led him to question whether the condition of Black communities can be entirely blamed upon racism, or can individual behaviors contribute to the situation.
Kidnapped by his father and kept from his mother, Fryer grew up in a sometimes-violent household with an alcoholic father. Most immediate family members on his father’s side sold drugs, went to prison and experienced premature death. A couple of near-brushes with law enforcement convinced Fryer to concentrate on school. Fryer’s saving grace is his paternal grandmother – a schoolteacher and a strict old- school disciplinarian. His grandmother taught him many life skills including the ability to compete. A sports scholarship took him to college, where this high achiever found he had a natural affinity for math. He graduated from college magna cum laude in 2 1/2 years with a degree in economics; completed his dissertation in 3. Fryer is now at Harvard University, where he is assistant professor of economics and associate director of the DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research. Fryer’s academic acumen earned him many grants, fellowships and honors. Fryer knows first-hand the power of financial compensation coupled with good grades.
Considering where Fryer comes from, he can’t help being an “environmentalist”, believing that environmental factors contribute largely to the success or failure of Black students. Fryer boldly believes financial incentives awarded to minority students can produce better grades.
Fryer applies his knowledge of advanced economics to apply cost-benefit analysis to a wide variety of sociologic studies, mostly with racial implications. He is unafraid to test common myths and assumptions. Most of his topics of interest come from growing up Black and his intimate knowledge of some aberrant African-American lifestyles.
Fryer writes of the Black-white test score gap, the Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names, both economic and empirical analyses of “Acting White” and interracial marriage. With a mathematical eye, he parses segregation and affirmative action, political districting plans, the impact of crack cocaine on African-American communities and the Causes and Consequences of Attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Dr. Fryer’s Model of Social Interactions and Endogenous (originating within an organism or part) Poverty Traps explains what happens in a community when individuals 1) invest in and value group-specific knowledge (such as language and culture) at the expense of labor market success, 2) eschew immersion in group knowledge in favor of labor market success (by, for example, specializing in computer programming), or 3) either invest all of their energies into human capital, or they do not invest anything. Fryer’s model explains what happens when highly trained professionals in a group take advantage of desegregation, leaving pockets of poverty, as has happened with African-Americans, American Indians, Amish, Hispanics, West Indian immigrants, Sephardic Jews of Israel, Australian Aborigines and French Canadians, especially in Quebec and Montreal.
Information regarding Dr. Fryer’s financial incentive program is so tightly guarded, no information can be readily found on the NYC DOE website. Although privately funded, the program apparently has no name. Word is only schools with 80% or more Title l students (those entitled to free school lunch) are eligible to participate. Sadly, some schools with the requisite number of free-lunch eligible students did not qualify because not enough parents completed the school lunch forms. Published reports say the program awards $500.00 to 4th and 7th graders for satisfactory performance on standardized tests.
Those whose resistance-to-change in on automatic pilot tried to find logical reasons to reject financial incentives for children who strive for good grades, but they couldn’t. Teacher’s union members and a wide variety of community based groups tried to say ‘Children should acquire an education for education’s sake,’ but they don’t tell this to their own children, whose lives are programmed with test prep services, extra curricular activities, and ‘helicopter parents’- all with the goal of getting into the best colleges for recruitment into well paying jobs.
Dr. Roland Fryer is proof that an educated Black man is valuable. His financial incentive program for student academic success is guaranteed to produce many more.