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Broad Taps Fryer To Lead New Ed Center

Education prof says economist shows ‘disdain’ for work done in field

By Alexandra perloff-giles, Crimson Staff Writer

A new center for education research, backed by philanthropist Eli Broad and led by economics professor Roland G. Fryer Jr., will open soon at Harvard, the Broad Foundation announced yesterday at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York.

The $44-million effort, called the Education Innovation Laboratory (or “EdLabs”), will bring together economists and educators to study strategies for improving K-12 public school education. Research will focus on three test cities, New York, Washington, and Chicago.

Different schemes will be implemented in each city, allowing researchers to test controversial programs like compensating students for high test scores, a practice Fryer has tried to test in New York City since 2007.

Fryer compared the way in which educational research is being conducted now to a doctor prescribing medication on a whim.

“If the doctor said to you, ‘You have a cold; here are three pills my buddy in Charlotte uses and he says they work,’ you would run out and find another doctor,” Fryer said in an interview with The New York Times. “Somehow, in education, that approach is O.K.”

But at least one scholar in the field, Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, questioned Fryer’s failure to acknowledge existing education research efforts.

“What worries me about some of the public statements by Prof. Fryer is the kind of sloppy over-generalizations, lack of attentiveness to other research, and confidence that he can understand the core of all problems better than anyone else because he understands the magic of the market and the equations economists use to describe it,” said Orfield, a renowned expert on civil rights and education who left Harvard in 2006. “Arrogance combined with disdain for other knowledge and experience do not work well.”

Still, other scholars—particularly those with a more economic bent—came to Fryer’s defense yesterday.

Former University President Lawrence H. Summers called EdLabs “one of the most important initiatives that Harvard will launch in this decade.”

“The quality of education is a hugely important issue for a great university like Harvard whose strength ultimately depends on the quality of the primary and secondary education its students receive,” Summers said yesterday.

Summers, who introduced Broad to Fryer, will serve as chairman of EdLabs’ Stakeholder’s Committee.

He said that the superintendents of the three cities had already expressed interest in participating in the project.

Paul E. Peterson, a government professor and director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, expressed enthusiasm about the idea of a laboratory for quantitative educational research.

“I think something like this is very badly needed, and I think Roland Fryer will be a terrific leader for such an enterprise,” Peterson said. “It could make Harvard a leader in education reform.”

Peterson said he hoped EdLabs researchers will conduct randomized field trials—similar to medical research—that will “generate knowledge that is more solidly based than the kind of knowledge we have in education today.”

Currently, educational research receives much less attention on the national stage than scientific research.

In a press release, Broad pointed to the National Institute of Health and the Defense Adanced Research Projects Agency as examples of engines of medical and technological innovation.

“But K-12 education has had no R&D agency that identifies and researches the most effective innovations in our public schools,” Broad said.

Stephen W. Raudenbush ’68, chairman of the Committee on Education at the University of Chicago, which has its own major institute devoted to studying urban education, said there was some truth to Fryer and Broad’s sentiments about the lack of rigorous research in education policy. But he added that recent years have witnessed major research breakthroughs.

“Understanding what works in education is a very challenging research enterprise,” said Raudenbush, who graduated from the Graduate School of Education in 1984. “There have been, however, some major advances in the last six to eight years in rasing the quality of scientific evaluation of educational innovations.”

Over the next three years, EdLabs, which will fall under Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS), plans to implement pilot strategies in the test cities, accumulate data on student performance, and circulate findings among policy-makers and educators, according to a press release.

—Staff writer Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at aperloff@fas.harvard.

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