“In some sense, I am an anomaly,” said Dr. Fryer, who grew up poor and rose to become an assistant professor of economics at Harvard before he was 30. But he quickly corrected himself and added, “I am not sure.”
The way he sees it, there are thousands of students in New York’s schools who have the potential to be as successful as he is. His job as the system’s “chief equality officer,” he said, is to find, in his research, the keys to motivating them.
An affable man with a tendency to be self-deprecating, Dr. Fryer seems comfortable mocking his new job title, with its acronym of C.E.O.
“I didn’t come up with it,” he said in an hourlong interview on Tuesday at the Tweed Courthouse, the headquarters of the city Education Department. Looking across the table at one of the chancellor’s press assistants, he laughed and pleaded for some help. “This is your part.”
Next year, Dr. Fryer will work for the department three days a week, without a salary, while commuting from Boston, where he will teach two classes at Harvard. For the 2008-9 school year, he will work here full time. City officials said his salary had not been determined but would be between $170,000 and $195,000.
As befits an academic, Dr. Fryer said it was impossible for him to begin his new job with a set of definite plans. In the interview, he said four times that he was “still figuring out the questions” he wanted to answer.
His first job, though, he said, will be to mine data — from graduation rates to test scores to demographic information — to find out why there are wide gulfs between schools. Why, for example, does one school in Bedford-Stuyvesant do so much better than a school just down the block? And he will monitor the pilot program to pay fourth- and seventh-grade students as much as $500 for doing well on a series of standardized tests. That program will begin in 40 schools this fall. He hopes to find other ways to motivate students.
“I don’t know what it is, but I will tell you what it can’t be,” Dr. Fryer said. “It can’t be what happened when I was in schools, you know, people come and say, you know, ‘Go to school and get a good job.’ ”
Words like that, he said, were not enough, because “this dream that we are all talking about is less tangible to people who have not actually seen someone making the dream real.”
Most of Dr. Fryer’s work until now has been theoretical. He has published studies of how, by the time they are in second grade, black children are months behind their white counterparts. In another paper, he looked at the ways that high-achieving black students in racially integrated schools are less popular with their black peers and are accused of “acting white.”
In 2005, Dr. Fryer’s work gained widespread attention when it was extensively highlighted in “Freakonomics,” a best seller by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt.
Dr. Fryer, 30, was born in Daytona Beach, Fla. His mother left him when he was young, leaving him with his father, who later became an alcoholic. During the school year, Dr. Fryer lived with his father near Dallas, and spent the summers in Daytona with his grandmother, a schoolteacher.
She motivated him, Dr. Fryer said, by telling him she would race to see who could make the beds faster. And if he was really well behaved, he would have a chance to sell the cans she had collected throughout the year — a small fortune of about $13 for a 10-year-old.
(These days, Dr. Fryer said, when he talks to his grandmother about his research, she exclaims, “They pay you for that?”)
Chancellor Klein said Dr. Fryer’s ideas acknowledge that children are motivated in different ways.
“We know that children are in different environments, with different passions and fears and consequences,” he said in an interview. “We have to figure out what gets them to learn. How many kids got an extra dollar or two in their allowance for getting A’s?”
Chancellor Klein has long supported Dr. Fryer’s ideas for incentives for schoolchildren, inviting him to try them out in several city schools in 2004. That effort was rejected by several schools, but tried in others on a small scale.
Mr. Klein met Dr. Fryer at a dinner party given by Lawrence H. Summers, then the president of Harvard.
“Roland is an evidence-driven guy rather than prejudice, instinct or tradition, and that’s clearly what is needed now,” Dr. Summers said in an interview yesterday. “So much of the research in education has been decades behind — it has consisted more of platitudes and rhetoric than serious rigor and challenges.”
Dr. Fryer is not lacking in ambition — he once said he aspires to be someone akin to W. E. B. DuBois — and said he was interested only in pursuing “path-breaking” plans in New York’s schools.
But he will face hurdles in the labyrinth of the system. Teachers and have already raised questions about the effectiveness of paying students for high test scores. Other academics are privately saying his inexperience may be manifested in naïveté.
But Dr. Fryer does not seem to be a man with doubts. The moment he knew he wanted to work directly in schools came two years ago, when a principal in Queens asked him to talk a fifth grader out of joining a gang. A few hours later, he was at a seminar at Harvard, arguing over the third decimal point in an equation.
“I didn’t know if I had done anything for that kid, really,” he said, “but all I could think was, ‘Today has shown me a lot.’ ”