Roland Fryer’s research informed by his own life story

Award-winning economist first studied racial differences in educational performance

Roland Fryer’s research helps us to better understand the problems faced by disadvantaged children, especially African-American children in the US. Photograph: Getty

Roland Fryer’s research helps us to better understand the problems faced by disadvantaged children, especially African-American children in the US. Photograph: Getty

 

Each year the American Economic Associations awards its John Bates Clark medal to the best economist in America who is under 40. Since it was first awarded in 1947, 40 per cent of the winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, so the association has a pretty good track record in picking notable achievers.

In the first 50 years of the award all of the winners were men, but in recent years three women have been honoured.

The prolific research by the most recent winner of the prize, Roland Fryer, has helped us to better understand the problems faced by disadvantaged children, especially African-American children in the US, and how they can be addressed.

A lengthy interview with the 27-year-old Fryer in the New York Times in 2005 described how, after his mother left when he was four, he was raised partly by his father, who subsequently served a jail sentence, and partly by his grandmother, a Florida school teacher.

His uncle and cousins, to whom he was close, were involved in the manufacture and sale of crack cocaine.

By 2005, eight of 10 of his close relatives had either died young or done time in jail.

Young Roland himself dabbled in cannabis dealing as a teenager. An athletics scholarship to college gave him his break, and as soon as he started in college he discovered an aptitude and an enthusiasm for learning.

Rather than playing for the college basketball team, he took up economics. Basketball’s loss was economics’ gain.

So Fryer’s research on disadvantage in black America is informed by his own life story. On completion of his PhD, he was spotted as a rising star and has since developed a brilliant academic career.

One of the first topics Fryer studied was racial differences in educational performance. Using the US equivalent to the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal survey of children, he established that there was little difference in achievement scores between black and white children at 12 months.

However, by the time they were two years old African-American children had begun to fall behind and the gap became much larger when they started school.

Real insights

Fryer wanted to understand why this was happening and what could be done about it. In Ireland, as in the US, tracking the progress of individual children over time can give real insights into the factors that influence success.

Fryer described his initial approach: “as befits an arrogant economist, my first thought was this will be easy: we just have to change the incentives”.

So, with the help of school authorities he tried a controlled experiment of providing financial incentives to pupils, teachers and parents, and comparing the results with the experience without incentives. The results, however, showed that financial incentives were not very successful in turning the tide of disadvantage. A key finding, though, was that school quality made a big difference, a finding echoed in research in Ireland and elsewhere.

Having established the importance of school quality, Fryer then went on to research how the experience of good schools could be replicated in poor performing schools.

His findings suggested that class size and spending per pupil did not of themselves make a difference.

However, he found that frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring and increased instructional time did make a difference as to how well children did at school.

He then persuaded the authorities in Houston, Texas, to experiment with such a package. The Houston study showed that such changes made a significant difference to achievement in maths but not in reading. This research agenda is continuing.

Student achievement

Another key area he has explored, in a paper entitled An Economic Analysis of Acting White, is the negative effects of peer group pressure on student achievement.

Fryer’s work is important because educational underperformance of a whole social group, and how to tackle it, is an issue not only for the black community in the US, but for disadvantaged subgroups across all societies.

It is also important because of the innovative nature of his research methods and because he has succeeded in bringing together insights across a range of disciplines.

His ability to work and benefit from researchers in psychology, sociology, education as well as economics has been crucial to his success.

He also stands out because of the commitment he brings to his work, and the way he is inspired by the experience of his own upbringing.

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