Apollo 20 Figures Out How To Improve Math Scores, But Reading Remains an Unsolved Equation

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier and Harvard professor Roland Fryer review the latest Apollo 20 data
HISD Superintendent Terry Grier and Harvard professor Roland Fryer review the latest Apollo 20 data
Photo by Margaret Downing

Hire tutors, lengthen the school day, use data to check and double-check how your instruction is going and if you're talking about the three-year-old Apollo 20 project in Houston ISD, you'll be rewarded with significant improvements in math scores among elementary and secondary school students.

In fact, using the math instruction techniques could "eliminate the racial achievement gap in Houston elementary schools in three years," according to Roland Fryer, the Harvard economics guru who conducted the Apollo 20 study involving 20 of the lowest-performing schools in the district.

But improving reading skills? Not so much. Even Fryer had to concede Wednesday that they still don't have much of a clue as to how to help kids catch up in reading.

They do know, as HISD Superintendent Terry Grier made clear, that getting to kids at a younger age in teaching them to read is crucial to success and in fact, might mean, that intensive intervention programs like Apollo wouldn't be needed so much in the higher grades.

But right now, they're looking at a lot of students who despite three years of work, really haven't acquired many of the reading skills that would put them on a path to success. According to Fryer the challenge of teaching reading "is not unique to Houston" but is reflected in other schools across the country.

"It's a struggle more complicated to do than math," Fryer told a small group of educators, trustees and people who've funded Apollo with millions of dollars. Now it's up to the school district to pick up the gap in costs between federal funding and the actual cost of the program.

One surprise to him, Fryer said, was that Hispanic students in secondary schools in Apollo made more progress than African American kids. "There is evidence that Hispanic students gained significantly more than black students," he wrote in his summary. Also students who were economically disadvantaged gained more than those who were not.   Although Fryer did not release the contents of a power point entitled The Almost Final Apollo Report he presented to the room at the Hattie Mae White Administration Building, he did furnish an executive summary in which he said the achievement gap between minority and white students "in Houston elementary schools is .. roughly 8 months of school behind ...and ...in secondary schools...10 months behind." (Fryer said he will release all the data soon).

In the Apollo project 19 out 0f 20 principals were removed in Houston before the project stated. All fourth, sixth and ninth graders got a math tutor and students who were below standard in math and reading got extra help, Fryer wrote in his summary.

Fryer also wrote that there are many theories as to why it's tougher to catch up in reading. One theory that he called "consistent with our findings: is that "if students speak non-standard English at home and in their communities, increasing reading scores might be especially difficult." If that is true, he explained, that "could explain why students at an urban boarding school make similar progress on ELA and math."


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