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New MacArthur fellow hopes to bridge U.S. racial-achievement gap

Roland Fryer.

Bob Moon: They have come to be known as "genius grants." But the MacArthur Foundation prefers to avoid that term, pointing out that its prestigious award doesn't just recognize "intellectual prowess."

Today, this year's winners were announced. Out of the blue, each of those 22 recipients will be getting half-a-million dollars -- no strings attached. Roland Fryer is is one of the winners this year. He teaches economics at Harvard University. Dr. Fryer, welcome to the program.

Roland Fryer: Thank you for having me.

Moon: The MacArthur Fellowship is described as an investment in a person's originality, insight and potential. So Dr. Fryer, we'd appreciate you sharing some of that insight with us. You study race and economic achievement, can you flesh that out for us? What do you look at and how?

Fryer: I'm interested in racial inequality broadly and it turns out that if you look at educational achievement of, say an eight grader, it's very predictive of their income later, their probability of being incarcerated, their health, etc. So what I do is try to figure out how can we develop scalable solutions that allow all kids to reach their potential in terms of educational achievement.

Moon: Why -- when you're looking at inequality -- are you specializing in education? Is that where you think things start?

Fryer: Well what really plays a big role is how well you do in school. I mean the Civil Rights issue -- part of the Civil Rights battle -- was the battle for access to quality public education. Now we have lots of access, but the real 21st century civil rights issue it seems to me is the battle for quality public schools in every neighborhood. There is a 34 percent difference in income in this country between full-time workers who are black and full-time workers who are white. However, if you just account for eight-grade test scores -- how they do on these standardized tests in eighth grade -- that 34 percent difference goes down to about 5 percent. So it doesn't wipe it out all away, there's still room for anti-discriminatory policies, etc. However, if you were going to focus on one thing, it would be trying to figure out how we can give kids of every zip code and color the access to the same quality education. So that's why I've pursued that avenue because I think that it will explain a lot.

Moon: One of the things you've done is paid kids for good grades, where a student gets $50 for an A in class. What did you find in those cases?

Fryer: When we paid kids for doing particular behaviors -- like we paid them to read books or we paid them to come to class and behave -- those showed statistically significant effects. But when we paid kids for just getting good test scores and getting good grades, they were excited, but frankly didn't know what to do. They didn't think to themselves, 'Hey, now that I'm getting money for a test, I should read a book.' They didn't think that second step. So what we've found is that if you design the incentives right, they can be powerful motivators to increase achievement.

Moon: And what are you working on now?

Fryer: What we're doing now is trying to figure out how we can take the most promising education innovations -- like the Harlem Children's Zone, KIPP Academy, YES Prep, some of the really successful charter schools -- and boil their success down to a form that can be transplanted into traditional public schools. You'll remember that part of the promise of charter schools was to be an incubator for best practices and good ideas for the public schools. That's where my work is now. It's trying to figure out -- it's a real quest for a scalable solution to solve the racial-achievement gap in America.

Moon: Well you have some new financial will. Are you going to use that $500,000 cash prize that comes with this grant to pursue your work?

Fryer: I absolutely am. I am going to use it. With this MacArthur Fellowship, one of the real beauties of it is that if there's a project that I really want and we can't find funding for it, MacArthur has already given it to me for the next five years. That's a really, really great feeling.

Moon: Roland Fryer teaches economics at Harvard University. Congratulations, sir.

Fryer: Thank you very much.

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