Fryer Hopes to Institute Pay for Performance Plan

Econ professor proposes incentivized test-taking for adolescents

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M. AIDAN Kelly

Money in exchange for high test scores? Assistant Professor of Economics Roland G. Fryer thinks it's a winning trade, and he will test his program in New York's public school system this fall.

When the idea of a good career fails to provide enough encouragement for students to do well in school, will money do the trick? Assistant Professor of Economics Roland G. Fryer certainly thinks so, and that idea forms the basis for an incentive-based program he will test in New York City public schools in the upcoming school year.

“One can argue philosophically about whether incentives are a good thing,” Fryer said. “But the fact is that the average black 17-year-old reads at the same level as the average white 13-year-old. This problem is beyond philosophy, and we have to do something.”

The program would provide cash to fourth and seventh graders for taking standardized tests and then provide a bonus incentive to those who perform well on the tests.

While Fryer admits that his proposals have been “beaten up a little bit” by critics, he has seen more and more elementary and middle school principals willing to give his ideas a chance.

“It’s such a joy for me to see the recent market response,” said Fryer, who has been meeting with school officials every day for the past three weeks to drum up support for his idea, He will roll out the first stage of the proposal in 20 elementary schools and 20 middle schools beginning in the fall.

Though some critics worry about the implications of incorporating monetary incentives as a standard practice in childhood education, Fryer hopes that taking an economical approach to a social problem will yield positive results.

“Economists are always interested when we have limited resources in figuring how best do we use them,” Fryer said.

One of the primary selling points of this proposal is its simplicity.

“If it works,” Fryer said, “it’s very easy in principle to scale it up.”

But Pedro A. Noguera, an urban sociologist and professor at New York University, is not so certain Fryer’s plan will work.

“I don’t think it will do any harm, but I do think it’s based on some flawed assumptions,” said Noguero, who also sees the “scale” as one of the proposal’s primary flaws.

“What it would cost to do this on a city-wide basis is prohibitive,” he said. “How would we possibly replicate the program for one million kids?”

While admitting that maybe a little cash could push “borderline” kids over the edge into greater scholastic success, Noguera worries that this plan would leave the students who really need help even farther behind.

“It deludes us into thinking we don’t have to address the significant issue,” Noguera said. “In New York City, we assign the least experienced teachers to the students with the highest needs.”

But Fryer remains convinced that his idea at least deserves to be tested before detractors label it as unsuccessful.

“If this doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to argue against continuing it,” Fryer said. “I’m not vested in this particular solution, just in finding a solution. This is a national crisis.”

The program received its initial funding through the Broad Foundation and has since received money from New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s fund, which will pay poor adults for activities such as going to parent-teacher conferences and seeking more medical aid.

Fryer concedes that his proposal is unlikely to completely close the achievement gap, but he hopes to see some improvement come next spring.

“If we can boost scores by five or ten percent,” Fryer said, “I’ll be a very happy person.”

—Staff writer Nathan C. Strauss can be reached at strauss@fas.harvard.edu.