Economics Ph.D. graduate leads innovative educational reform projects

December 27, 2011

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The national campaign to improve public schools and the quality of the education provided to young children, including minority children, is a key focus of groundbreaking research led by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, one of the most prominent Ph.D. graduates of Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts. He was selected this fall by the MacArthur Foundation, along with others in a select group, for its distinguished "genius" grant to continue and expand his research in racial inequality.

Fryer is a nationally acclaimed economist illuminating the causes and consequences of economic disparity due to race and inequality in American society. Through innovative empirical and theoretical investigations, the Penn State graduate has offered new insights on such issues as the cognitive underpinnings of racial discrimination, labor market inequalities and, in particular, the educational paths of minority children.

As a result, in 2009, Time magazine named Fryer to its list of “The World’s Most Influential People,” particularly for his pioneering work on the effects of financial incentives on student achievement in three major cities. In fall 2011, the MacArthur Foundation praised Fryer's propensity to “tackle difficult, often sensitive, social questions with scientific rigor” and that he is playing an influential role in ongoing discussions about the effects of racial differences in America.

Robert Marshall, head of the economics department in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, recalls, “Roland was an extraordinarily dedicated student. His current work flows from the foundation he established in his doctoral thesis at Penn State. If you want to understand what is going on with much of public education in this country, you can make a very real argument that Roland is attempting to save public education through his research and its implementation.”

Since his graduation from Penn State in 2002, Fryer has been in the national spotlight with his selection as a Harvard Junior Fellow, a prestigious honor, and then with his appointment as a tenured faculty member to the economics department. Today, he is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics, and founder and director of the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University, a research-and-development incubator dedicated to closing the achievement gap in schools. The laboratory has partnered with school districts in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, and with national educational advocacy organizations.

In a video produced by the MacArthur Foundation, Fryer noted, “What I do is to use a combination of math equations, experiments, whatever it takes to try to understand root causes of racial inequality in America … I wake up every day and try to go to work and understand how can we make it that everybody in America has a shot at the American dream?

“The question is how can we make sure that all sorts of children are achieving at the same level,” he added. “For years, it was the fight for access, now it’s the fight for quality. My research is trying to inform that fight.”

Fryer’s many collaborators include Steven Levitt of University of Chicago and co-author of the best-selling book Freakonomics, which includes Fryer’s research in their analysis of non-traditional examples of how economics affect people’s behaviors in the modern world through the study of incentives. The Freakonomics blog provides a regular update on Fryer’s collaborations and latest research including a new study on the specific successful habits of charter schools.

  • Roland Fryer

    IMAGE: MacArthur Foundation
Last Updated January 04, 2012