19 of 20 principals were replaced, as were 45 percent of the teachers
The Houston school district’s Apollo program could more effectively improve struggling schools if it extended intensive tutoring sessions beyond math to include reading studies, an independent review concludes.
But even as Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium hailed 2010-2011 middle school math gains in the Apollo schools, which increased sharply over the previous school year, it noted that the test score increases were much smaller the following year. Middle school gains in reading were unimpressive in both school years, the review found.
“The reported effects on math gains are good but not sustained,” the report said, “and the reported effects on reading gains are negligible. These limited effects must be considered in light of the cost and the sustainability of the program.”
The Rice researchers examined an earlier Apollo study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who was involved in creating Apollo for the Houston Independent School District. Fryer’s conclusion that the gap between white and minority students in math achievement could be closed in three years is “problematic,” according to the Rice review.
The review also questioned the impact of restructuring faculty and administration in the 20 Apollo schools. Nineteen of 20 principals were replaced as were 45 percent of the teachers, the study said.
Some of the reported improvements, the study said, likely “were a result of the initial shock experienced by teachers and principals, both old and new. If some of the gains observed in Year 1 of the program were due to this initial shock, they are unlikely to be sustained in subsequent years.”
The school district spent $52 million, much of it from grants and donations, on Apollo during the program’s first three school years. Almost $15 million from the district’s budget has been allocated for the current school year – about half of it earmarked for math tutoring. Students receive about an hour’s instruction daily from a cadre of college-trained math tutors.
The Apollo program, Superintendent Terry Grier’s signature initiative, has drawn national attention for its ambition to turn around long-struggling schools. But skeptics have questioned its cost, its focus on a limited number of students and the lasting effects of any test score gains.
Grier said the Rice review was welcome.
“These additional insights will help guide HISD’s work to critically evaluate the effectiveness of intensive interventions at low performing schools,” Grier said through a spokeswoman. “As the research team at Rice noted, increased instructional time, intensive tutoring and using data to inform instruction have helped lead to gains in student test scores at Apollo schools.”
Added HISD board president Juliet Stipeche, “A lot of folks want the program to work. There’s been a positive impact in the tutoring aspect. In terms of the other ones, every program in HISD should be carefully scrutinized to determine if it’s having the positive impact on students that we expect.”
Stipeche said aspects of the program that are beneficial should be replicated; those that are not should be de-funded.
Former board president Anna Eastman, who favored an independent review of Fryer’s initial study, noted that funding for the program is limited.
While grants and donations aided the early efforts, she said, “Going forward it will be funded with taxpayers’ money.”
The study, she said, confirmed that targeted tutoring can achieve higher test results.
“We need to ask further questions about persistence (of the gains),” she said. “Is the tutoring building skills and knowledge that build stamina on tests or is it just targeted toward tests?”
School board member Manuel Rodriguez Jr. said he would favor adding reading programs.
“We have more than just the Apollo schools that could benefit from tutoring in math and literacy,” he said. “We can’t just throw money at one group of schools and say that fixes the problem across the board.”
By Allan Turner