By Javier C. Hernandez
Roland G. Fryer Jr., a Harvard economist, has often complained that while pharmaceutical companies have poured billions of dollars each year into studying new drugs and Boeing devoted $3 billion to develop the 777 jet, there has been little spent on efforts to scientifically test educational theories.
Now Dr. Fryer has quit his part-time post as chief equality officer of the New York City public schools to lead a $44 million effort, called the Educational Innovation Laboratory, to bring the rigor of research and development to education. The initiative will team economists, marketers and others interested in turning around struggling schools with educators in New York, Washington and Chicago.
Backed by the Broad Foundation, founded by the billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, and other private groups, the research is intended to infuse education with the data-driven approach that is common in science and business, Dr. Fryer said. He compared the current methods of educational research to the prescriptions of an ineffective doctor.
“If the doctor said to you, ‘You have a cold; here are three pills my buddy in Charlotte uses and he says they work,’ you would run out and find another doctor,” Dr. Fryer said. “Somehow, in education, that approach is O.K.”
In its first year, the research group plans to focus on incentive programs, including controversial ideas like giving students cash for good test scores, an approach that Dr. Fryer has tested in New York since June 2007.
Each of the three school districts working with the institute will use a different plan to encourage high achievement, with researchers tracking the effect of each on student performance.
New York schools plan to continue Dr. Fryer’s experiment of paying students in the fourth and seventh grades up to $500 a year for doing well on reading and math tests. A separate Fryer initiative, which rewarded 3,000 New York middle school students with cellphone minutes for academic performance and classroom behavior, was discontinued because the city did not raise enough money from private donors to pay for it this fall.
Conclusive evidence about the effectiveness of such programs has been scant, and Dr. Fryer said officials are still examining the data on last year’s cash incentives. He said he hoped that the cellphone idea would gain traction in other cities.
Dr. Fryer said the new institute would be able to identify what works so that educators across the country could prioritize their spending.
“We will have the willingness to try new things and be wrong — the type of humbleness to say, ‘I have no idea whether this will work, but I’m going to try,’ ” he said.
The Broad Foundation, based in Los Angeles, has pledged $6 million to fund the institute for three years, and the school districts are expected to front half the cost of any projects they launch with the Education Innovation Laboratory. Organizers are seeking other foundation grants to cover additional costs.
Mr. Broad has been a generous and aggressive advocate of education issues, with mixed results. He has invested in charter schools, run training programs for urban school leaders, and he finances a prize that awards districts for narrowing the achievement gap among income and ethnic groups.
Mr. Broad’s collaboration with Dr. Fryer, 31, began on Christmas Eve when Mr. Broad called Dr. Fryer to congratulate him on earning tenure from Harvard, the youngest black professor to do so.
Mr. Broad asked Dr. Fryer to come up with “the next big idea” in education, and Dr. Fryer began consulting with companies that market to younger people. By summer, the idea for the Education Innovation Laboratory had been hatched.
“We’re looking for people that want to run an urban district that is not satisfied with the status quo, that recognizes that you need reform, you need change,” Mr. Broad said, “and recognizes how far America has fallen behind other nations in public education.”