TheGrio's 100: Roland Fryer, translating education into money

TheGrio's 100 - Roland Fryer "Beat the odds", but don't tell him that. This former hustler turned Harvard professor now helps change the odds for poor and minority kids...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

As an economist, Roland Fryer talks money. It’s a language he learned growing up in the projects of Daytona Beach, Fla., where several of his family members were fluent in fast money – by way of selling crack-cocaine.

Early on, Fryer, too, was selling out of the trunk of his 1984 Monte Carlo. He carried not crack, but counterfeit purses, before he was legally old enough to drive. Those days, he was also selling weed and carried a .357 Magnum. When he was 15, he had to bail his own abusive father out of jail. The same year, some of his friends staged a burglary that he was supposed to be a part of; Fryer backed out at the last minute, and his friends wound up in jail. After this near-miss, Fryer cleaned up his act, rededicating himself to sports, where he’d long excelled in basketball and football.

He scored a football scholarship to the University of Texas at Arlington, where a professor noticed he had an even greater gift with statistics, and persuaded him to play with numbers instead of a football.

Fryer finished college after just two and half years, while holding a job to pay back his father’s bail bondsman. He later earned a Ph.D. in economics from Penn State University, and went directly into Harvard’s Society of Fellows, one of the most prestigious research positions in the world. Afterward, he became an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University.

In 2008, at age 30, he made history as the youngest African-American at Harvard to receive tenure. But for Fryer, beating the odds wasn’t enough.

“Everyone’s been telling me all my life, ‘Wow you beat the odds!” Fryer said in keynote speech for the 2009 Equality and Human Rights Commission in Britain. “To heck with that! Let’s change the odds for poor kids, kids of color around the world.”

Fryer hopes to do just that through the Education Innovation Laboratory he created at Harvard. The goal is to eliminate the racial achievement gap in America through experimentation. EdLabs’ first experiment is the Spark program, where kids are paid cash to achieve in school. In New York City, seventh grade students can earn up to $500 a school year by performing well on a series of math and reading tests. Fryer calls the controversial program a scientific method to education reform – noting that if the pharmaceutical industry spends $40 billion a year in research to find new solutions to medical problems, the same can also be done to cure the ills of urban education. “The frontier here is to try to find a vaccine for public education,” said Fryer, 32.

EdLabs, which also runs programs in Chicago and Washington, D.C., is still studying the results of these possible solutions. If they work, these educational experiments could prove money really is a universal language that can translate into success, even in the classroom.