While growing up in Daytona Beach, Fla., Roland Fryer understood the benefits of becoming the best basketball player or the fastest track athlete in the school. Those individuals could hope to one day compete in the NBA and the Olympics. But what Fryer did not understand at the time were the benefits of becoming a good student, and he suspects many other students in cities across the nation now are just as unaware as he was then.
To help these largely poor, minority students comprehend the value of working hard in class, Fryer has partnered with administrators in three urban school districts to offer students money in return for their classroom achievement. Students of randomly selected elementary, middle, and high schools in Chicago, Washington, and New York City can earn hundreds or thousands of dollars in a single school year just for being good students. Fryer hopes these short-term rewards can convince these kids of the long-term benefits of academic success.
Fryer is a professor of economics at Harvard University and in January of this year became the youngest African-American to receive tenure at the nation's top institution for higher education. He also serves as CEO and lead researcher for the Education Innovation Laboratory (EdLabs), a $44 million, three-year research and development institute that focuses on fostering innovation and collecting objective measurements of the effectiveness of urban K-12 school district programs and practices.
"Four to five percent of revenue from any given business is set aside for research and development, and in the medical field that proportion is even higher," Fryer says. "But in education, there is no research and development. That's why we are using private funding from the Broad Foundation and others to offset the costs of implementing these pilot programs. We want to figure out what works, not risk burdening school districts with costs of programs that don't work."
Though he has unfortunately been labeled the "incentives guy," Fryer says there is no silver bullet that will single-handedly close the achievement gap and improve academic performance among minority students in urban school systems, incentives included. For this reason, EdLabs will research a variety of strategies that might help bolster student achievement. Incentives just happened to be the first model Fryer tested. If the program works, Fryer says it is scalable and can be publicly funded, and if it doesn't work, then he will not continue it.
In Chicago, Fryer helped public schools CEO Arne Duncan implement an incentive program for about 3,750 high school freshmen in 20 schools because Duncan expressed concern about the high rate of students who drop out in ninth or 10th grade. At the end of every five-week marking period, Green for Grades participants can earn $50 for every A, $35 for every B, and $20 for each C they receive in English, math, science, social studies, and physical education. But for Duncan, Freyer's incentive program is just one piece of a multifaceted effort to keep high school students in the classroom. Duncan also had 16,000 freshmen voluntarily return to school one month early to receive mentoring and academic support, and he has been working to improve the rigor of the curriculum taught in all of Chicago's public schools.
It is too soon to tell whether Chicago's incentive program will have lasting effects on academic achievement and student retention, but from what Duncan has seen so far, he feels "very, very, very encouraged" that the program will succeed. "The kids who are working hard are now the heroes of the school. They are the popular kids," Duncan says.
But Duncan also knows what he is competing with to keep students in school at all, let alone keep them in school and have them succeed academically. Duncan says up to 85 percent of students in Chicago's public schools live below the poverty line and that he is in constant competition both with gang members who encourage kids to drop out and sell drugs and with parents who urge their children to drop out, get a job, and help support the family. "People in the outside world have no understanding of what our students deal with on a day-to-day basis and the unbelievable obstacles and hurdles they overcome to be successful," Duncan says, adding that one boy told him he planned to use his money to help his mother pay their electricity bill.
In Washington, the graduation rate is "extraordinarily low," says schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and drops as low as 30 percent in some schools. Research and data show that middle school is the time when students rate education's importance in their lives and often crystallize their plans to drop out once they reach high school. For this reason, Rhee requested that D.C.'s incentive program target the 3,700 middle school students in 14 middle schools, where it has been in operation since September.
Rhee says students she has spoken with directly seem enthusiastic about Capital Gains, adding that she has heard the same of students in the District's high-need schools. Students can earn up to $100 every two weeks for academic success, controlling their behavior in class, and arriving to class on time among other achievements. Though Rhee says she understands critics who dislike the concept of paying students to do what they should already be doing in school, she says she has not heard such criticism from a single parent of a child participating in the program.
Rhee hopes Capital Gains will get middle school students excited about succeeding academically in high school and even in college, but she understands why these students have a hard time imagining that hard work now will pay off later. "Many of these kids do not have access to adults who have graduated from college, and they don't necessarily understand the value of education," Rhee says. "Expecting students to do well in middle school is asking them to make a calculation on skills that will help them graduate from high school and succeed in college, ideas that to them are foreign and very far away."
Though they are not the norm, Rhee says she has encountered some sixth-grade Capital Gains participants who have held back urges to spend their money on clothes or cellphone accessories. These students, Rhee says, are already saving their earnings for college.