Thompson: The Story Behind Sharpstown High (& "Apollo 20")
PBS Frontline's Dropout Nation reported that Houston Superintendent Terry Grier had just been on the job for a few monthswhen he heard that four of the district's high schools were failing. He heard about Roland Fryer’s ideas on school improvement and got in touch with him. Frontline reported that, "After a long phone conversation, Grier gathered a team and headed to Boston to hammer out a plan." It did not report on any effort by Grier to look into evidence for Fryer's hypothesis.
Eventually, Grier gambled $61 million on his "Apollo 20" reforms. The first year he spent $6 million replacing 310 teachers and the principals of nine schools. The school featured by PBS, Sharpstown, was not one of the worst of the Apollo 20 high schools, but 39 of the school's 78 teachers were replaced. Based on Frontline and other coverage, however, it appears that the school benefitted from some of the best of the administrative hires. None of my complaints with Grier's quick-triggered judgment should be taken as a criticism of Sharpstowns' dedicated educators.
Grier still maintains his facile claim about the toughest schools - that we "know what to do with them." But, his administrators at Sharpstown openly acknowledged their inability to overcome the worst legacies of trauma and generational poverty. While Grier's spin was consistent with the cherry-picking of Roland Fryer in featuring the experiment's successes, the school administrators' candor was consistent with the data buried in the tables of Fryer's evaluation of Apollo 20. And, as PBS reported, the second year academic results were even more modest.
The most successful aspects of the experiment were the hundreds of highly-recruited math tutors and the counseling efforts of educators outside the classroom. Each tutor taught two students. As with similar reforms, the first year brought significant increases in math performance, but meager results in reading. By the end of the second year, 79% of Sharpstown students scored Satisfactory or above on a math test. By contrast, pass rates for reading and writing were 44% and 28%. Moreover, the number of students tested in those subjects was nearly 25% less than those tested in math.
The district and Fryer have been remarkably opaque in the number of students that were served in the experiment. An interim report issued in January 2011 reported that Apollo 20 served 7,385 students who were 86.6% low income. The math results that Fryer showcased were based on 6,097 test takers. But, the test-taking sample after the first year was 61% low income, raising questions about which students were unable to make it through the longer school year, with additional Saturday school, and the "No Excuses" culture.
Similarly, Fryer used arcane language to estimate that Apollo 20 had an "attrition rate " of less than 4%. Frontline used plain English to explain how Sharpstown typically started with about 450 freshmen and graduated 275. Also, of Sharpstown's 166 school leavers, 32 supposedly left for private schools. It's reports of students who left the country seem to be similarly questionable.
This lack of transparency is doubly troubling because Houston's experiment was like so many other "reforms" where non-educators leap before they look at evidence. Now is the time to analyze what would be necessary to improve outcomes for the students who were not reached by Apollo 20. Helping the kids who are most at risk of dropping out will require an equally comprehensive effort to coordinate the interventions that really show promise. That will require us to wrestle with the same hard facts that "Dropout Nation" illuminated.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.