Special Report
School Choice & Charters

Houston Schools Take a Page From Best Charters

By Christina A. Samuels — March 05, 2012 9 min read
Joshua Dawson, a new teacher at Key Middle School, works with students, while other pupils work with audiobooks on laptops. With seven new teachers, Key replaced relatively few teachers. Overall, the district’s Apollo 20 schools replaced more than half their teaching staffs as part of the turnaround effort.
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In the 2010-11 school year, four high schools and five middle schools in the 203,000-student Houston school district entered into a program intended to infuse them with the same qualities—and the same strong academic results, district leaders hoped—as those in some of the nation’s top-performing charter schools.

The schools, among the district’s lowest-performing, were a part of an effort called Apollo 20, after the space program that first landed Americans on the moon and the number of schools that would ultimately be a part of the project.

Working in partnership with Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, each school adopted five strategies believed by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer to correlate with successful charter schools that he studied in New York: increased instructional time, better teachers and administrators, data-driven instruction, high-dosage tutoring, and a “culture of high expectations.” In Mr. Fryer’s research, those measures were more closely tied to successful charter schools than other measures, such as the fraction of teachers with advanced degrees and per-pupil expenditure.

The program cost about $19.3 million to implement in the first year, including money from the district traditionally allocated to low-performing schools, federal School Improvement Grant funds, and $3.6 million raised from private donors.

Searching for innovations from charter schools was a natural fit for Houston: Two of the best-regarded charter networks, the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, and YES (Youth Engaged in Service) Prep, were founded in the city. And, because Texas is a right-to-work state, the district has more latitude than districts in some other parts of the country in shifting teachers’ workloads and instituting such controversial changes as performance pay.

A year into the three-year effort, the roughly 7,000 students in the Apollo middle and high schools have posted measurably higher results in mathematics on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, compared with their previous performance. In reading, the picture is more modest: A drop in scores at the middle school level was balanced by a slight increase in high schools. (Eleven elementary schools were added to Apollo 20 in the 2011-12 school year, and their test results are not yet available.)

But the program’s supporters say the tenets of the Apollo 20 program can be a starting point for improving other schools in the district and nationwide.

“These results prove the first proof point that charter school practices can be used systematically in previously failing traditional public schools to significantly increase student achievement in ways similar to the most successful charter schools,” wrote Mr. Fryer, who is the faculty director of Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory, in a January 2012 progress report on Apollo 20.

Houston Superintendent Terry B. Grier says the program has proved its worth, though it is still a work in progress.

Before Apollo, he said in a recent interview, what an observer saw in those schools “was the weak academic leadership that seemed to be focused much more on discipline than on high expectations.” Students wandered the halls in some schools, or would play dice and card games in others while teachers read the newspaper at their desks. Low-level worksheets replaced teaching, he said.

“We thought, could you take these charter school tenets and get the same kinds of results?” Mr. Grier said. “I think we’re doing that.”

Sixth graders work on a project in Angela Glover’s science class at Key. New to the school last school year, Ms. Glover says she tries to enrich the curriculum with hands-on activities.

Some Houston parents have criticized the financial resources poured into the Apollo schools. They believe the money could be better spent on districtwide reform initiatives.

Much of the money pays for extra instructional time. In the Apollo schools, the school year has been extended from 175 to 185 days, and in the middle and high schools, the school day was extended by an hour for four days a week. Sixth and 9th-graders at Apollo schools get 70 minutes a day of two-on-one math tutoring.

Another question is whether the Apollo 20 initiative is truly innovative, said Bruce D. Baker, a professor of education policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. He believes that other changes, such as smaller class sizes, would show similar results, but that certain school reform measures like intensive tutoring and extended school time are currently in vogue, even if they’re not really new, he said.

“The charter schools that show the most empirical success are doing mundane, common-sense things that work,” said Mr. Baker, who has critiqued Mr. Fryer’s research.

Visiting Key Middle School is one way to see how Apollo 20 functions in the real world. Set in the historically black Northside neighborhood of Kashmere Gardens, Key faced challenges even by the standards of the low-performing schools tapped for the program.

The school’s longtime principal had been accused of mismanaging school funds and overseeing cheating on state tests; she denied all the accusations and retired from the district in August 2010.

The school’s 500 students are 67 percent black and 30 percent Hispanic, and 90 percent are eligible for federally supported free or reduced-price lunches. The student-mobility rate is 30 percent.

Key has so far shown the strongest academic growth of all the Apollo schools. In math, passing rates on the TAKS for all grades at Key rose from 40 percent in 2009-10 to 66 percent in 2010-11. In reading and language arts, however, the passing rate showed just a slight change, from 70 percent to 71 percent. These math and reading results do not include the scores of students in special education who take a TAKS based on modified academic-achievement standards.

Staff members at Key give much of the credit for the change in the school’s atmosphere to Nicole Moore, a no-nonsense administrator brought in from a Houston elementary school that moved to “academically acceptable” to “recognized” to the top state rating of “exemplary” during her five years there.

A former middle school math teacher, even Ms. Moore had to think hard about whether she was ready for the intense effort needed to change the culture at Key Middle School. Her mother, also an educator, pushed her to take the job, suggesting that Ms. Moore, who is African-American, owed it to the children in the school and the neighborhood.

A college banner hangs in a 6th grade science classroom at Key Middle School in Houston. Such displays are one of the ways the school tries to instill high expectations in students.

For Ms. Moore, who started three days before summer school in 2010, the change to high expectations began when she told many of the school’s teachers that they could not return to the school to teach in the summer. Seventy-five percent of the students had been assigned to summer school.

“They’ve had them for two semesters and they couldn’t do it—how can you do it in four weeks?” Ms. Moore said. She started calling principals in schools that did not have such extensive summer programs, asking if they could recommend their best teachers.

Summer school started on time. Some Key staff members were upset they didn’t have teaching slots, she said, “but is it about them having a job for the summer, or is it about that child?”

Other hallmarks of the no-excuses policy, as practiced at Key: The halls are hung with college pennants, and students are encouraged to see college as the end goal. Ms. Moore instituted home visits and started tracking down habitually absent students, even finding one frequently absent student and her mother at the hospital.

“The expectation is, you have to be here,” she said. “If I get them here and I get the right teacher in front of them, I can reach them.”

And the changes have made a difference. “One of the biggest things I like is no fights,” said library specialist Jerome Hurt, who taught at Key before the Apollo 20 implementation. Fighting before school was common, and that aggression would spill over into the school’s halls, he said. And, there’s more attention to the student dress code. “The kids have to have their pants up,” Mr. Hurt said.

Getting the right teachers has been a difficult task for the Apollo 20 initiative. Key Middle School brought in relatively few new teachers; five resigned before the end of the first year, and eight were replaced at the end of that year. The Apollo 20 schools, overall, replaced more than half their teachers and all of their principals.

Julie F. Baker, the chief officer of major projects for the district, said the school system tried to weed out teachers who pointed to external factors, like a child’s poverty or home life, as a reason why their academic performance would be low.

The program was seeking teachers “with the rightset of values,” she said. Teachers without those values were shifted to other schools, or did not have their contracts renewed, she said.

See Also

Studies Find Charters Vary in Quality, Creativity

Mr. Fryer tracked teachers’ responses, Ms. Baker said, and he noted a correlation between teachers with high value-added scores and those who were named by other teachers as colleagues they would want to have in a school as it underwent improvement efforts.

Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said that moving teachers around led to some bad feelings. However, she said that because of state and federal law, those schools were going to have to be reconstituted, even if the Apollo program did not exist.

“In some of the schools there was poor leadership, and that rolls downhill,” she said. “In some schools we had fairly strong leadership and fairly good teachers, but the kids needed extra help—particularly at the high schools.”

Kori Keaton, a 7th grade math teacher who has been at Key for five years, said she can see the changes in the school. Before the Apollo program, there were no team meetings among teachers, no working together on lesson plans.

Now, “Ms. Moore is big on making sure everyone is working together,” Ms. Keaton said.

The school, like others in the Apollo program, brought in math tutors, paying them $20,000 each plus medical benefits. They are also eligible for up to $5,000 in bonus money.

LaKeysha Boleware, one of those tutors, said that the students she works with love the highly structured program, in which tutors get frequent assessments of their students’ problem areas. One of Ms. Boleware’s students, who had struggled with math all that school year, came to her after the state math exam last spring saying that she had finally passed the test. “She had tears in her eyes. I started crying along with her,” Ms. Boleware said.

At Key Middle School, teachers and administrators say the program has been worth the investment, though already some tutors are working with three or four students because there aren’t enough adults to sustain the low tutor-to-student ratios of the program’s first year.

In the meantime, Houston is working to ensure that the Apollo practices—whether they are considered innovations or just common-sense changes—have staying power. Ms. Baker, the district’s chief of major projects, would like to be able to support the program with some of the $22 million the district is now required to spend each year on outside supplemental service providers. But, as Mr. Fryer notes in his paper, whether the Apollo improvements can be sustained or scaled up to more schools are “open questions.”

Ms. Fallon, the union chief, said she supports many of Apollo 20’s tenets but, “some of the things we know that work are just not free.”

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Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Houston Schools Apply Lessons From Charters


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