Former Apollo 20 Head Researcher Roland Fryer Faces Harassment Accusations

Former Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier with Roland Fryer in 2013 at the height of the Apollo 20 experiment.
Former Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier with Roland Fryer in 2013 at the height of the Apollo 20 experiment. Photo by Margaret Downing

Interesting story tucked inside the Houston Chronicle on Sunday. On page A-41, the paper carried a New York Times story stating that Dr. Roland Fryer, a prestigious Harvard professor, has been accused of fostering "a work environment hostile to women, one filled with sexual talk and bullying."

Nowhere in the article was there any mention of Fryer's strong ties to Houston and while the New York Times might not have known or cared about the work Fryer did here, it seems curious that there wasn't a mention especially since the Chronicle and other publications including this one devoted reams of space to Fyer's pet project here: Apollo 20.

More recently, Fryer was the author of a controversial national study in 2016 that Houston Police Department records were part of β€” a study that concluded that someone who is black or Hispanic is not any more likely to be shot by police officers than whites are. The study did find that officers were more likely to use force against minorities. 

Apollo 20 was a three-year project in the Houston school district aimed at eliminating the racial achievement gap by targeting some of the lowest-performing schools in HISD. Fryer led the experiment for his company EdLabs. Then superintendent Terry Grier enlisted the help of all manner of private funding to pay for the program which cost millions of dollars. The first year the program was in four high schools and five middle schools. Eleven elementary schools joined in year two.

During the three years Fryer would come to Houston and appear with Grier to deliver the latest analysis of test scores. Low key and eloquent, Fryer had to conclude that by its end that they hadn't made strides in reading improvement which he said remained a tough nut to crack across the country.

Critics said the money could be better used for all students and many decried the massive overhaul of staff that occurred as part of the program (19 of 20 principals were removed before and during the project).Many parents and educators at the selected schools weren't that happy at the honor, declaring that it stigmatized their students.

Despite longer school days, double periods of math and extra tutors, results were mixed. While there were gains seen in math scores on standardized tests, reading scores were static. And there was no certainty that the improvement in math scores would last. After ending after the 2012-13 school year, the program left behind a reduced tutor program and some "best practices" adopted at some of the schools. Again critics said it shouldn't have taken millions of dollars to determine that extra tutoring would help kids in school.

The roster of schools in Apollo 20 included Jones, Sharpstown, Kashmere and Lee high schools; Ryan, Attucks, Dowling, Fondren and Key middle schools; and Highland Heights, Kelso, Robinson, Scarborough, Tinsley, Walnut Bend, Young, Blackshear, Davila, Frost and Isaacs elementary schools.

Successes listed at the conclusion of the program in 2013 included the fact that two thirds of Apollo secondary schools came off the Academically Unacceptable list. The number of students who applied to college from Apollo schools went from 62.3 percent in 2011 to 91.3 percent in 2013. But, not all the schools thrived since then, even with the extra financial and tutoring help. Case in point: five years later, Highland Heights Elementary and Kashmere High School are among the four long-standing Improvement Required schools at risk of being closed by the Texas Education Agency.

According to The New York Times story,  Fryer is one of the highest paid faculty members and has brought $33.6 million in grants to Harvard. The Times reported: "Dr. Fryer told a Harvard investigator that any sexual banter in his office was related to his research and β€œin the spirit of academic freedom.” He wrote in his response to the complaint that 'certainly no one ever brought to my attention that I ever said anything that made any employee uncomfortable.'"
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing