HISD School Turnaround Effort Closing Math Achievement Gap

Dr. Roland Fryer

Students taking part in the Houston Independent School District’s three-year effort to turn around struggling schools have achieved academic gains similar to students enrolled in America’s highest-performing charter schools, according to Harvard University Economics Professor Roland Fryer’s research.

Dr. Fryer presented his research findings Wednesday to the HISD Board of Education and representatives from non-profit and business organizations. Launched in 2010-2011, the Apollo 20 program has received $16.8 million in donations to offset costs. Key findings from Dr. Fryer’s research include:

  • Annual math gains by Apollo 20 elementary school students are enough to close the racial achievement gap within three years.  For Apollo 20 students in secondary schools, annual math achievement gains are sufficient to cut the achievement gap in half within three years.
  • Math gains were even higher among Apollo 20 students in grade levels – fourth, sixth, and ninth grades – that received daily math tutoring.
  • The Apollo 20 impact on reading scores for all students was small, but positive.
  • While students from all racial and ethnic groups benefited from attending Apollo 20 schools, Hispanic students and those from low-income families made the strongest gains.
  • The return on investment for students in Apollo 20 schools is stronger than that produced by other popular school turnaround strategies, including those that reduce class size, paying bonuses to teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools, and early childhood programs.

“This is an investment in the future that pays off down the line,” Dr. Fyer said.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier sought out Dr. Fryer to partner on the Apollo 20 program after being notified by the Texas Education Agency that several schools with a history of poor academic performance were in danger of serious sanctions, including possible closure.  Dr. Grier and Dr. Fryer designed the program to infuse five key strategies into each participating school that have been shown to be effective in the nation’s best charter schools.  The participating schools included four high schools, five middle schools, and 11 elementary schools. The five key Apollo 20 strategies include:

  • Increased instructional time
    • The school day was lengthened one hour at all Apollo 20 secondary schools.
    • The school year was lengthened 10 days at all Apollo 20 secondary schools (years one and two only).
    • This resulted in a 21 percent more time in school than before, and roughly the same amount as time as top New York City charter schools.
  • A more rigorous approach to building human capital of teachers and administrators
    • Nineteen of 20 principals were replaced and teaching staffs were overhauled.
  • High-dosage tutoring
    • All fourth, sixth, and ninth graders received math tutoring.
    • Extra reading or math instruction was provided to students in other grades who had previously performed below grade level.
  • Frequent use of data to inform instruction
    • Schools administered interim assessments every three to four weeks.
    • Schools were provided three cumulative benchmark assessments, along with assistance in analyzing and presenting student performance on these assessments.
  • A culture of high expectations
    • Clear expectations were set for school leadership.
    • Schools were provided a rubric for the school and classroom environment.
    • School-parent-student contracts were implemented.
    • Student-specific performance goals were set for each school, and principals were held accountable and provided with financial incentives.

HISD is already applying lessons learned from the Apollo 20 program to benefit even more students across the district.

In June, the HISD Board of Education added $16 million to the general operations budget to fund the original schools included in this project and added six additional schools to receive funding to support extra time in the school day, three-on-one tutoring, using data to drive instruction, place quality teachers and principals in those schools, and to support a no excuses culture.  The budget also includes an additional $350 per student in 126 schools that are struggling the most in reading and math.  This money – $14 million – is being spent on Apollo 20-inspired tutors to work with students in math and reading.

Although Apollo 20 students have demonstrated significant achievement, Dr. Fryer emphasized that the program can still be improved.

“You’ve got to keep trying different things,” he said. “We’re not all the way there.”