Few people in education carry a more interesting backstory — or pack a more interesting punch — than Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer. Young, black and heralded, he’s having as much impact on education as anyone in America today. Abandoned by his mother and abused by his father, he made his way back into the game through a series of second chances. Now he is determined to make sure that his own good luck becomes the norm.
Fryer is betting that he can get private school-type education results for poor kids without starting a new school.
A native Texan who won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2011, Fryer has been looking for big ideas in education for several years now, including student incentives (some call them bribes for grades). But his latest gambit with Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory (EdLabs) is undeniably bold. Rather than build more charter schools and work outside the system, he is trying to change the system from within.
Starting in Houston and Denver, home to two of the country’s largest school systems, Fryer took over several dozen schools with the approval of the cities’ superintendents and teachers’ unions. In the first year, they saw significant gains in student performance, and other districts are beginning to pay attention.
Fryer is betting that he can get private school-type education results for poor kids — without starting a new school (i.e., a charter school) or enrolling select kids in an elite program (e.g., A Better Chance). Instead, his plan involves literally taking over low-performing public schools and within 24 months turning them into top performers, where the vast majority of kids graduate, read and write proficiently, and go to college. How is he doing this? By following five simple — OK, not so simple — steps.
1. Expand teaching time — longer school days plus shorter summer and holiday breaks.
2. Provide high-dose tutoring.
3. Create a culture of high expectations.
4. Use data-driven lesson planning: test often and adjust instruction accordingly.
5. Give teachers frequent feedback and cash bonuses for succeeding.
For Fryer, who overcame a wayward youth and completed college at the University of Texas in Arlington in less than three years (while holding down a full-time job), one’s education should never be determined by the accident of birth. “We all have a moral responsibility,” he argues, “to come together and put our anecdotal stories, our personal histories, to the side and do whatever it takes to educate kids of all colors.”
The jury is still out on whether Fryer’s experiment will work. But if it does — and this poster child of second chances proves you can take upside-down schools and turn them into upstanding college prep institutions inside of two years — then there is a real reason to hope that America’s education system can also right itself. After all, charter schools, which Fryer deems “a distraction,” can only grow so fast. Today there are still only 100 high-performing schools after 10 years of real focus. Just imagine if Fryer’s scheme succeeds in turning around even a fraction of the 43,000 failing public schools in America over the next 10 years. Then something truly miraculous can happen for poor kids across the country.
Fryer puts it best: “People say to me, ‘It’s great that you beat the odds.’ I say, ‘Let’s change the odds.’”
Why you should care
Because when a man goes from full-fledged gangster to the youngest African American to earn tenure at Harvard, you listen.