Steve Chiotakis: The MacArthur Foundation has named the recipients of 22 “geniuses grants,” each worth $500,000. Among those new fellows is
Harvard University economics professor Roland Fryer. Fryer was the youngest African-American to ever receive tenure at Harvard. He did it by age 30 — that was only 4 years ago. His studies include economic disparity due to race and inequality.
Professor Fryer’s with us now from Cambridge to talk about it. Good morning and congratulations!
Roland Fryer: Thank you very much. It’s a good day.
Chiotakis: You’ve studied elementary school students and have found that even when black and white kids enter Kindergarten from similar backgrounds, their achievement gap widens as they progress through school. What might account for that?
Fryer: It could be a variety of factors. One of the things I’m looking at now is the role of school quality in explaining those gaps. Because when kids are in the same schools with the same teachers, the gaps are much smaller. The problem is that there’s a lot of segregation, frankly. Along income lines, along race lines, across schools. And so what my work focuses on is trying to decouple that correlation between the zip code you grow up in, and the quality of the school that you attend.
Chiotakis: What do you think economists tell us about this issue that researchers in other fields might not be able to?
Fryer: I’m not sure. I think that the social sciences have gotten just much broader in general, so that there’s very little areas that are unique to economists, or sociologists —
Chiotakis: But it is an economics issue, right?
Fryer: It is an economics issue because we spend 5 percent, or whatever, of our GDP on educational expenditures. So making those expenditures more efficient is really important for our economy. I mean the best stimulus package, frankly, is likely a really, really good K-12 education. And so, from an economics perspective, we have particular theoretical and statistical tools that make education a natural application for economic reason.
Chiotakis: What are you going to do with the money? That’s a lot of cash! Do you continue on with your work?
Fryer: I just continue on. I got up just like I did yesterday, and came to work at 6 am just like I did yesterday.
Chiotakis: Yeah, but you weren’t thinking about the same stuff today that you were thinking yesterday.
Fryer: That may well be true. But I am on a quest to find a scalable solution to fix America’s public schools. And these resources will allow me to be bigger and bolder in those claims, because I will be able to self-finance some of my own exploration, which is a wonderful thing.
Chiotakis: Professor Roland Fryer, congradulations to you. Thanks for speaking to us today.
Fryer: Thanks so much for having me.
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