By JAVIER C. HERNANDEZ
Roland G. Fryer Jr., a Harvard economist, has often complained that while pharmaceutical companies have poured billions of dollars each year into studying new drugs and Boeing devoted $3 billion to develop the 777 jet, there has been little spent on efforts to scientifically test educational theories.
Now Dr. Fryer has quit his part-time post as chief equality officer of the New York City public schools to lead a $44 million effort, called the Educational Innovation Laboratory, to bring the rigor of research and development to education. The initiative will team economists, marketers and others interested in turning around struggling schools with educators in New York, Washington and Chicago.
Backed by the Broad Foundation, founded by the billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, and other private groups, the research is intended to infuse education with the data-driven approach that is common in science and business, Dr. Fryer said. He compared the current methods of educational research to the prescriptions of an ineffective doctor.
“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,” Dr. Fryer said. “Somehow, in education, that approach is O.K.”
In its first year, the research group plans to focus on incentive programs, including controversial ideas like giving students cash for good test scores, an approach that Dr. Fryer has tested in New York since June 2007.
Each of the three school districts working with the institute will use a different plan to encourage high achievement, with researchers tracking the effect of each on student performance.
New York schools plan to continue Dr. Fryer’s experiment of paying students in the fourth and seventh grades up to $500 a year for doing well on reading and math tests. A separate Fryer initiative, which rewarded 3,000 New York middle school students with cellphone minutes for academic performance and classroom behavior, was discontinued because the city did not raise enough money from private donors to pay for it this fall.
Conclusive evidence about the effectiveness of such programs has been scant, and Dr. Fryer said officials are still examining the data on last year’s cash incentives. He said he hoped that the cellphone idea would gain traction in other cities.
Dr. Fryer said the new institute would be able to identify what works so that educators across the country could prioritize their spending.
“We will have the willingness to try new things and be wrong — the type of humbleness to say, ‘I have no idea whether this will work, but I’m going to try,’ ” he said.