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Thompson: Roland Fryer's "No Excuses" Excuses

FryerThe Houston Chronicle's Erika Mellon, in Funder Puts Hold on $3 Million Donation to HISD, reports that the Houston Endowment notified the Houston school system that its last contribution to its expensive "Apollo 20" project has been put on hold. 

The endowment seeks a meeting with the district and Harvard University researcher Roland Fryer in regard to Fryer's delay in providing an evaluation of the controversial experiment's outcomes.

Fryer issued a heated reply which, in effect, said, Scientist at Work: Do Not Disturb. The MacArthur Foundation "Genius" said that the most important thing for him, professionally, is his academic reputation. Fryer said he doesn't yet have the data required for "real Science." 

If the data is not good enough for an academic publication, he sniffed, then its not good enough to show a funder. "Perhaps my standards are too high," Fryer wrote, "but I am not going to lower them for HISD."

He agreed with the suggestion that a third party might evaluate Apollo 20, "if you can find a firm or an academic willing to use the current data and put their name behind that, perhaps the right thing to do is to hire them and insist they turn around a report quickly for you."

The Houston experiment with the mass removal of teachers and extending a "No Excuses" pedagogy to traditional public schools has not gone well.  Apollo 20's first year gains - modest as they were - were based on the scores of students who were tested in the spring of 2011. Second year results seemed to be even more disappointing, but Fryer did not publish a formal report on them.

Fryer protests too much. Social scientists usually are transparent in reporting the size and demographics of their original sample, as well as openly reporting the size of the sample that persisted through the full experiment. After all, it was the results of final test takers that the only formal evaluation was based on.

It takes a search of the Houston web site to find a definitive statement that the 7385 secondary students who began Apollo 20 were 86% low income.  It takes a similar search to understand Fryer's arcane definition of "attrition."  Ordinarily, the word "attrition" indicates the number of students who left before the end of the year testing, but Fryer's definition was based on how much Apollo 20's attrition exceeded the deplorable attrition rate of comparable high-poverty schools.   

The low income rate of the test takers in 2011 was down to 61%. 

As Fryer continues to try to track down students who completed their years at Apollo's "No Excuses" high schools and attended college, the HISD could seek an objective third party evaluation of the students who did not stick it out. It could read the data in Julian V. Heilig's Cloaking Inequality or look at PBS's Dropout Nation, a documentary on one of the project's high schools, Sharpstown.  Although Fyer reported an Apollo 20 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, and reports of students who left the country seemed to be similarly questionable.

It is good that Houstonians, who leaped  into a $61 million gamble and fired the majority of teachers in these low-performing schools before looking at the evidence, are now seeking to evaluate Apollo 20's data.  But, if the outcomes were good, wouldn't Fryer have already presented the report(s) he promised?

-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.


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This seems to be a pattern of behaviour for Mr. Fryer. He was to produce a study of Capital Gains, a pay for grades scheme concocted by Michelle Rhee while chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools.
Officials have said the program's creator and funding partner, Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer, is crunching the numbers and will be ready to say something when he's, well, ready.

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