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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Despite all the advertising, the cell phone experiment is a flop

Yesterday’s NY Times features an article about the new institute at Harvard run by Roland Fryer with Eli Broad’s money, which is going to evaluate the results of Fryer’s large scale experiments to pay students for good test scores, also backed with Broad money. For more on this shockingly conflicted enterprise, which appears to violate academic standards on research practices, see Paola De Kock's earlier entry here.

But the Times article also mentions in passing that Fryer’s cell phone experiment – in typical hyperbolic fashion, called “The Millions” -- has collapsed due to lack of funding:

"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."

This cell phone experiment got huge attention when it was first announced, and lots of people found it a ridiculous idea, given the fact that cell phones are officially banned in school through the fiat of Mayor Bloomberg. There was also much criticism about running ads by commercial vendors on these phones, that could lead to even more consumerism on the part of teenagers, as well as text messages from the likes of Jay-Z , urging students to work hard and stay in school -- especially given the fact that he was himself a high school dropout.

Yet I wonder if this is the whole story. Did the cell phone experiment collapse for lack of funding? Or was it canceled because the first year results were so poor? Clearly if this project had trouble getting second year funding, the results were probably dismal.

What’s amazing to me is that through the summer, even when Tweed must have known that the project was foundering, the PR office continued to put out one press release after another about it.

See this one released in June: DOE's Student Motivation Campaign Wins 2008 Cannes Lion Titanium Award:

The unprecedented initiative began operating in late February 2008 as a pilot program in seven City middle schools. Approximately 2,500 students received a free cell phone, known as the “Million” for the million-plus City students, that operates based on how well students perform academically. As the pilot expands, the phones will be used as a platform to communicate directly with students through a messaging campaign designed to “re-brand” achievement. Mentoring programs will cement core messages of the campaign while providing students with workplace experience, life coaching, and academic support. The Million concept was developed in collaboration with Droga5, with extensive input from students. The program is entirely privately funded.

But not, apparently, funded enough to continue.

Instead, the cell phone experiment turned out to be a flop -- falsely promoted as a great success.

Like his colleagues at Tweed, Fryer seems to be a terrific snake oil salesman --attracting attention and building support despite the fact that his there is no research to support his large-scale incentive experiments, which already have started, one by one, to fail.

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