Economist Roland Fryer worried about the fate of students in America’s inner-city schools, and he had a crazy idea- could monetary incentives affect student, teacher, and parent behavior? A natural enough question to be posed by an economist, but Fryer was shocked at how many people found financial incentives in education repulsive. What gives, he asked? Don’t middle class parents do this all the time???

Fryer and a dedicated team set out to see how they might improve outcomes for some of the nation’s most vulnerable students, and in this episode, he discusses what they did and what they found with EconTalk host Russ Roberts.

Over the course of his research, Fryer has identified the five characteristics of successful schools- what he calls “the basic physics of education. These include 1) more time in school, 2) changed human capital strategy, 3) using data to inform instruction, 4) high dosage tutoring in small groups, and 5) a culture of high expectations. On of the most charming parts of the conversation is when Fryer describes his grandmother’s reaction to his findings. As she exclaimed, “Why aren’t they [all] doing it? Why is this revolutionary?” Do you think this is revolutionary? Can it be replicated? Why isn’t every school doing it? Let’s hear your thoughts. Use the prompts below to reply in the comments, or start your own conversation offline.



1- Fryer and his colleagues found that generally, paying students for output didn’t work, but paying for inputs did. What does this mean in practice? How were Fryer and his colleagues able to measure the price elasticity of the incentives they offered students? Again, what does this mean in practice? And perhaps most importantly, why did these results make Fryer less concerned about fostering “a love of learning” among these students? How do you feel about this claim?


2- Though Roberts reminds us all that implementing findings such as Fryer’s is never simple, why can’t we create a McDonalds-like template (or a “popcorn” button) for education reform? Or in other words, how would you answer Fryer’s Grandma?


3- Roberts asks Fryer what is the ONE thing he would suggest to the principal of a failing school? What is the “one-two punch” Fryer suggests, and to what extent do you find this a reasonable suggestion?


4- Fryer notes the tremendous variance in charter school success, which makes them interesting research subjects. That is, while on average charter schools perform only marginally better than traditional public schools, some fare much better, and others much worse. Roberts askes Fryer, should charter schools be expanded? How would you evaluate Fryer’s answer? How would you answer?


5- Both Roberts and Fryer admit to frustration in the way we typically talk about parents and schooling in poorer neighborhoods. What sort of inherent prejudices do such conversations reveal? What does Fryer mean when he says what we observe about the way poorer parents make choices about schools is more an information problem than a preference problem? How might changing the way we vies such decisions change the way we approach education reform?