Acting smart

As a child in Daytona Beach, Florida, Roland G. Fryer Jr. often visited his great-aunt and -uncle’s house, where pancakes were fried in the same pan in which the couple made crack out of water, baking soda and cocaine. Eight of his 10 closest childhood friends went to prison or died young, including a favorite cousin who was murdered.

A Harvard professor who studies race and education, Fryer has won what’s considered the “mini-Nobel” for young economists, reports the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

“How do you create structures so that people don’t just beat the odds, but so that you change the damn odds?” he said. “It’s not, like, a ‘them’ thing, for me. This is my family, dude.”
Roland G. Fryer, "Acting White," Education Next (2006).Fryer’s most controversial research has found that black and Latino achievers lose popularity if their grades rise too high. African-Americans with grade-point averages of at least 3.5 (B+/A-) had fewer black friends than students with B’s or lower. For Latino students, the cut-off was lower: The more their GPA “exceeded 2.5 (C+/B-), the less popular they were.”

The “acting white” phenomenon occurs in racially mixed schools, he found. “Social pressures could go a long way toward explaining the large racial and ethnic gaps in SAT scores, the underperformance of minorities in suburban schools, and the lack of adequate representation of blacks and Hispanics in elite colleges and universities,” Fryer wrote in Education Next.

Some challenge the theory, notes the Post. In support, Frayer cited an
experiment at Los Angeles high schools. Students — most were Latino — were offered a free SAT preparation class. Those told their classmates would know if they participated were significantly less likely to sign up.

“I didn’t realize I grew up poor until I got to Harvard,” says Fryer. Now he’s raising his own child in a very different environment. “My 2-year-old starts Mandarin immersion in the fall.”

Merit pay fizzles in Big Apple

New York City’s merit pay plan for teachers didn’t improve student achievement, concludes a new study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who compared merit-pay schools to schools that didn’t participate. But few merit-pay schools allocated the bonus money based on performance. More than 80 percent split the extra money equally among all or nearly all the teachers, writes Stephen Sawchuk on Teacher Beat.

 The program didn’t raise test scores at all and may have slightly depressed middle school scores in the participating schools. The impact of the incentives on student attendance, behavior, course grades, regents test scores, and high school graduation were negligible, Fryer writes. And it did not seem to affect teacher behavior either, as measured by retention rates in the school or the district; absenteeism; or teacher perception of the learning environment.

Fryer speculates the incentive scheme was “too ambiguous in its goals and complex in its means” to change teachers’ behavior.

New York City spent $75 million over three years on the bonuses. But it will cost taxpayers much more, notes Teacher Beat, because the district paid off the union to agree to the experiment.  For a minimal payment, teachers were allowed to retire with full benefits five years earlier.  “Performance pay is temporary, but a pension is pretty much forever,” writes Sawchuk.

Better grades, more gabbing

Some 1,500 Oklahoma City middle-school students have received free cell phones in hopes of motivating them to work harder in school.  

For nine months, the students will receive free phones and can earn minutes in exchange for academic success. Harvard economist Roland Fryer has conducted similar experiments in a handful of other urban school systems, using money instead of phones as the incentive.

If students do improve, will the gains last when the incentives go away?

Bribes-for-books scheme works

Bribing students can work — under some conditions — argues Amanda Ripley in Time. Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. raised private funds to run an experiment in Chicago, Dallas, Washington and New York. In each city, he ran a different reward model, with an unpaid control group.

The cheapest model was the biggest success: Dallas second graders earned $2 every time they read a book and showed their comprehension on a computerized quiz. The average student earned $14 for seven books per year. Reading scores soared “as if those kids had spent three extra months in school,” Ripley writes. Grades went up too. The effect was greater than far costlier ideas, such as lowering class size or enrolling children in preschool. The rewards stopped the next year, but students continued to do well.

Washington, D.C. middle schoolers were paid for “five different metrics, including attendance and good behavior.” Reading scores rose.

In Chicago, ninth graders got cash for good grades ($50 for an A, $35 for a B and $20 for a C), up to $2,000 a year. Students attended class more often and got better grades, but didn’t improve on end-of-the-year tests.

The New York experiment paid fourth graders and seventh graders to do well on tests. It had no effect.

Fryer thinks students responded more strongly when they understand how to earn rewards and felt they could control their earnings.

(D.C.) kids with a history of serious behavioral problems saw the biggest gains in test scores overall. Their reading scores shot up 0.4 standard deviations, which is roughly the equivalent of five additional months of schooling.

Kids may respond better to rewards for specific actions because there is less risk of failure. They can control their attendance; they cannot necessarily control their test scores.

The high-scoring KIPP charter schools reward students “for actions they can control — getting to school on time, participating in class and having a positive attitude,” Ripley writes. They use the “money” to pay for supplies at the school store.

Recognition, like punishment, works best if it happens quickly. So KIPP schools pay their kids every week. (Interestingly, the two places Fryer’s experiment worked best were the ones where kids got feedback fast — through biweekly paychecks in Washington and through passing computerized quizzes in Dallas.)

. . .  KIPP fifth-graders get a lot of prizes like pencils; high school kids can earn freedoms — like the privilege of listening to their iPods at lunch.

There’s some evidence that rewarding kids for doing the right thing erodes their motivation to do right without a reward. But if we can raise reading levels for $14 per kid . . . It’s tempting to bribe the little kids. They’re cheap.