Houston schools try charter ideas

Houston’s Apollo 20 experiment is trying to improve low-performing schools by  using successful charter schools’ tactics, reports the New York Times.

Five policies are common to successful charters, says Roland Fryer, an economist and head of Harvard’s EdLabs, who advised Houston.

. . . longer days and years; more rigorous and selective hiring of principals and teachers; frequent quizzes whose results determine what needs to be retaught; what he calls “high-dosage tutoring”; and a “no excuses” culture.

The Apollo schools have a longer school day and year, though not as long as KIPP schools.

Lee High School hired 50 full-time math tutors, who are paid $20,000 a year — under $14 an hour — plus benefits and possible bonuses if their students do well.

Lee High’s new principal, Xochitl Rodríguez-Dávila, described a torrent of challenges, including the exhaustive review of transcripts and test results to organize class schedules and tutoring for 1,600 students; persuading parents to sign KIPP-style contracts pledging that they will help raise achievement; and replacing about a third of Lee’s 100 teachers.

“Teachers by far have been the biggest struggle,” said Ms. Rodriguez-Davila, 39, who previously had been a middle school principal.

In faculty meetings, she said, some people insisted that Lee’s immigrant students would never master biology or physics. Other veterans, though, told the complainers to stop belly-aching and get on with the turnaround.

Lee High’s gains pushed the school into the “acceptable” category after years in “unacceptable.”  Overall, five of the nine Apollo schools moved up.


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  1. Roland Fryer forgot to mention the admissions processes that vigorously select for motivated and compliant students from motivated and compliant families; and the sky-high attrition rates that are common if not universal in the “it’s a miracle!” charter schools that are touted by the so-called “reformers.” Those things must have slipped his mind.

    • Or those “things” must exist only in your mind which lets Roland Fryer, and his memory, off the hook.

      By the way, feel free to document *any* charter school that “vigorously selects” for anything. As you know the only public schools that have that privilege are magnet schools which, as we all know, are district schools and not charter schools.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    But thankfully for all of us, they never slip yours.

  3. Well, Caroline, even if you’re right that some charter schools’ success is due to the factors that you decry here (and everywhere), won’t it be nice to see how well it works for regular public schools to have higher-quality teachers, more rigorous studies, and extra tutoring? You seem to think that those items wouldn’t work, but it’s not clear that you’re basing this on any theory of education beyond fervid hatred of certain charter chains.

  4. I don’t think that charter schools do have higher-quality teachers or more rigorous studies, Stuart. (I can’t really speak to extra tutoring.) They get a lot of hype from advocates who profess to believe that they have higher-quality teachers and more rigorous studies, though those advocates undoubtedly know that’s hooey. Here in SF, where I know pretty much about what’s going on in the schools, the claims that the charter schools have higher-quality teachers and more rigorous studies are made just as frequently, and are utter and total lies.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    We can’t all be Jaime Escalante. But starting out with the belief that it’s no use trying hard science with immigrant kids is a really, really bad attitude. If it happens to be true, let’s see it at the end of the year, not the beginning.

  6. Stuart Buck says:

    You don’t think KIPP spends more time on schoolwork and covers more math/reading while still having time for art, history, music, and the rest? That’s what I mean by more rigorous. It would be crazy to deny that that’s what KIPP does.

    Anyway, apart from your frantic vendetta against KIPP, why wouldn’t you think that Houston’s experiment could work? Here’s what they’re doing:

    “They start classes earlier and end later than their neighbors; some return to school on Saturdays. And they get to pore over math problems one-on-one with newly hired tutors, many of them former accountants and engineers.”

    Why wouldn’t that work? After all, if kids can’t learn more after getting more personalized attention and spending more time on their studies, then one of two things would have to be true: the teachers and schools are completely incompetent at conveying information and skills, or the kids are so dumb that they’re already learning the maximum that it’s possible for them to learn.

  7. It’s a good idea, but they forgot to control for the variable of an open enrollment district. That is, any student can enroll in any school, if the school accepts him/her.

    In the Houston ISD case, there is a decreasing population and each school will accept the students.

    Bottomline: The Apollo schools lose more students every year. Some in the last 2 years have lost 300 students per school.

    So, if a tree falls in the forest, does the experiment without students succeed???

  8. Did Apollo help or hurt Lee High School? Lee made much greater gains the year before Apollo arrived than in Apollo’s opening year – and would certainly have made “Acceptable” without the program.

    To learn more about how Apollo actually operated at Lee see this website:

    In particular, see this page for a recent history of Lee, up to and including Apollo’s first year: