The (New) New Einsteins: Roland Fryer

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In the current issue of mental_floss magazine, Erik Vance profiled nine "New Einsteins"—visionaries who are discovering how to grow organs, peer into black holes, levitate food, cure plagues, and let blind men see. This week, Mr. Vance will be anointing five additional New Einsteins here on mentalfloss.com, one per day. Today, it's Roland Fryer's turn.

Who He Is: Roland Fryer, professor of economics at Harvard

What He Did: Fryer is one of a small group of academics playing around with something called conditional cash transfer, which tries to tie welfare funds to specific performance. Take education. Fryer initiated an experiment program that paid third graders' families $10 per good test score, and $20 for seventh graders. Critics say he is bribing academic performance (not a new concept to many parents). But supporters say he is creating incentives. And those supporters are on both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives like that he is using the free market to promote achievement and liberals like that he is bringing money to the schools.

Today, Fryer is one of the key architects of Opportunity NYC, which pays parents for things like maintaining health insurance, keeping a job, and taking their kid to the dentist "“ in addition to good test scores and grades. He is also associate director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard (named after his personal hero) and the principle investigator for the American Inequity Lab.

Why You Should Start Idolizing Him Immediately:

Where do you start? Fryer's not some idealistic kid from the suburbs. As a child he didn't know his mother, his cousins sold crack, and at 13 he regularly carried a handgun. At 15 he had to bail his father (who would eventually get convicted of sexual assault) out of jail. In spite of this, he managed to go to the University of Texas on a sports scholarship and graduate magna cum laude after just two and a half years (while holding down a job to pay his dad's bail bondsman). Then he got a PhD four years later and by 27 he was a Harvard professor.

In his short academic career, Fryer has tackled some of society's most baffling questions. He has written on the effect of crack cocaine on urban communities, the stigmas around African American names and colleges in the workplace, and "acting white." He is also one of the few researchers who has looked at whether genetics might play a role in black underperformance in school. It's a dicey subject for anyone to broach (Fryer himself is African American), but it's one that he says needs to be considered along with all the other factors that might contribute to economic disparities. This is characteristic of Fryer's unapologetic style of data-focused economics. He told the New York Times that his goal is to figure out "where blacks went wrong" in an analytical way, looking for mechanisms for why things like test scores, pay rates, and life expectancy are so low in African American communities, in order to pull people away from the kind of emotional, anecdotal evidence that he feels frames the political debate on things like affirmative action.

Previous (New) New Einsteins: Marin Soljačić

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November 18, 2008 - 4:30am
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