Human tutors beat computers in Houston

Intensive tutoring — two kids to one adult — raised math achievement dramatically in Houston’s Apollo turnaround schools, while computer tutoring helped only modestly, writes Mike Goldstein of MATCH on Larry Cuban’s blog. MATCH helped hire and train the tutors.

Math tutoring for sixth and ninth graders raised achievement by the equivalent of five to nine months of extra schooling, concluded economist Roland Fryer in a study of Apollo’s results after one year.

In other grades, students who were behind took double math or reading, depending on the subject in which they needed help the most. Their classes used Carnegie Math’s  software featuring differentiated instruction based on previous student performance.

Computers are great for helping people learn what they want to learn. They’re not particularly good at getting someone to learn something they do not want to learn. For that, you need very skilled people (teachers and tutors) who can build relationships, use that to generate order and effort from kids, and then turn that effort into learning. A computer needs to start on “third base” — take effort and flip that into learning.

While the schools adopted a “no excuses” model, it was the intensive math tutoring that made the difference, writes Matt Di Carlo of the National Education Policy Center.

‘No excuses’ helps Houston public schools

Math scores rose significantly in the first year of Houston’s Apollo experiment, but reading scores did not. Emulating high-performing charter schools, the low-performing Apollo schools feature a longer school day and year, data analysis, “trying to hire the best teachers and principals and cultivating a ‘no excuses’ attitude,” reports the Houston Chronicle.

Students in sixth and ninth grades got daily tutoring in math from specially hired tutors, one of the program’s most expensive elements. Struggling upperclassmen took an extra computer-based class in reading or math.

(Harvard economist Roland) Fryer’s research found that the tutoring was extremely effective but that the double courses generally were not.

A “back-of-the-envelope calculation,” according to Fryer, showed that the Apollo program produced a 20 percent return on investment – which is higher than other educational reforms such as lowering class sizes and preschool.

Five of the nine schools improved enough to escape the “unacceptable” rating.

Fryer summarizes the first-year results in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper. The Houston results are “strikingly similar to reported impacts of attending the Harlem Children’s Zone and Knowledge is Power Program schools,” both no-excuses adherents, Fryer notes.

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.