Roland Fryer on The Colbert Report

I’m a bit late getting to this, but I just saw that my friend Roland Fryer appeared on The Colbert Report on Monday. He was — officially — talking about his current experiments with providing incentives for kids to get better grades.

While it is pretty hard to look good next to Colbert, Roland pulled it off. And it takes a special kind of economist to begin by offering Colbert a performance incentive — a crisp $10 bill if he asked good questions.

See the clip below (or here):

Slightly related: Who knew that Joe Stiglitz is now also working in film? Around the world with Joseph Stiglitz was just released. But talk about a limited release — its only U.S. showing was earlier this week.

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  1. sarahCMS says:

    I think this might work, I mean money has always worked as an incentive for anyone. Also it is common that children who drop out of school, is to get money elsewhere, either working or becoming drug dealers. So, if they get rewarded at school, most likely they won’t drop out of school.
    But, in my opinion then perhaps teachers should get incentives as well. Because with “incentivized” teachers, these students will be able to receive a better education. Perhaps the government must invest more money in education.

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  2. Teresa says:

    As somebody who went to high school in a district that paid $100 for every AP exam score above a 3 (in addition to highly subsidizing the cost of the test), I have to say that incentives programs can work, although they seemed more likely to motivate students who were on the cusp between moderate and high achieving than anybody who was low achieving. That seems natural for something like AP scores, and I have to wonder how it will pan out for more general subject matter. Also–won’t this encourage moderately bright kids to avoid more difficult classes, since they receive cash for an ‘A’ whether they’re in the regular, honors, or AP course?

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  3. Victor says:

    “It’s not racism. It’s reality. See, the achievement gap in this country is our biggest civil rights concern. We’ve got 15 million kids in the United States that can’t read at grade level. These are facts and reality.”

    If Fryer recognizes that there is an underlying problem of illiteracy, then why does his incentive program focus on 9th graders who are expected to know how to read to earn their “carrot”? Why offer cash to students instead of something specific they can use to further their education like books?

    It’s the same problem with food stamps. We see food as a social good, and the government intervenes by offering a specific incentive to buy food and nothing else. While some food stamps do get traded for other things, people are still better off because the food stamps reduce the cost of food creating a substitution effect. If we recognize education as a social good, then why wouldn’t we offer a specific incentive to reduce the costs of education and promote lifelong learning?

    To close the achievement gap, we need to start giving incentives for learning at a much younger age. I think programs like A Book for Every Child would have better results in the long run:

    The real question is what do we, as a people, love? Do we love money to fulfill our desires? Is “getting” an education just a means to satisfy a lust for riches? Or do we love learning for the sake of wisdom, justice, and domestic peace? Why aren’t we living out the meaning of our nation’s preamble?

    “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

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  4. achilles3 says:

    He KILLED it!
    great stuff

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  5. Stephen says:


    The issue with not starting at a younger age, is dropout rates of gradeschool are not the same level that dropout rates of highschool. Yes the real issue is to try to perpetuate further learning, but part of that is actually being there. As a highschool teacher I had once said to my class “Even if you copy homework off someone else, at least you might pick something up while copying off them. Its better than not doing it at all” (and here I am in graduate school).

    There have been reading incentives in place for over 20 years now, its just that people don’t always respond to the incentives. Summer reading programs in my area often gave free baseball tickets if you did 5 book reports each month during the summer (for a total of 3 games if you did 15 reports). But even back then there were other kids my age who said “I don’t like baseball” (mind you, we had a horrid team at the time might have been part of it).

    Its hard to find incentives that “nearly all” young children value. At a very young age (perhaps when reading needs to be enforced greater) most children don’t even know what price tags are. By the age of highschool, teenagers have developed at least an idea of the value of money and face opportunities where they have to trade staying in school for money. The idea is to make school potentially as profitable as working (50 dollars per A per month x 6 classes = $300).

    When you can find me one thing that 1,000 6 year olds chosen at random all value that doesn’t have immediate diminishing returns (if you give every literate kid as many cookies as they want, you’re going to have less of a literacy problem and a greater obesity problem) that’s enough motivation to make them not want to just watch TV and play video games, feel free to post it. If its that good that it makes me look foolish, someone reading this will recommend it to be implimented and you can help society/

    (Also on the “A Book for Every Child” program, access to books is relatively easy in the United States. Yes, children who grow up with books in their household tend to do better in school, but public libraries lend out books for free. Households where books are a commonplace often reflect parents who put more effort into helping their children learn. Putting a book in a house isn’t going to pass some magic knowledge through the pages into the children’s mind while they sleep, its about motivating the parents to take a more active role in the child’s life)

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  6. griff says:


    We may be able to test whether this works in the UK as this school year 100,000 pupils are still waiting to be paid their money due to failures on the part of the private company the government has brought in to administer this.

    If the numbers in school fall (or don’t!) it may show how much influence this payment has.

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  7. Foote says:

    My high school actually did something similar to this, although it was an opt-in program. If you opened a bank account with the public credit union attached to my school, you would get something like $10 for every A and $5 for every B. Here is the rub: the money was held until graduation. As soon as you graduated, the money was deposited into your account. This seems to be a great structure to me (to be honest though, the incentives were not too high). Another way to improve it would be automatic enrollment (I never enrolled because I didn’t have the time, my sister will be walking away with well over $500 when she graduates soon). But overall, the release at graduation makes the most sense. I love the idea though. Incentives work.

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  8. sourcreamus says:

    This reminds me of the chapter in the book about teachers cheating on standardized tests in that it creates an incentive for grade inflation.
    I also worry about the effectiveness of the reinforcement schedule being five weeks.

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