Sunday, September 04, 2011

A School District Mimics Charters, Hoping Success Will Follow

Speaking of spreading best practices, this is a very important article about a very important experiment – kudos to both Roland Fryer, who continues to do pioneering, innovative research, and reform-minded Houston Superintendent Terry Grier:

Classrooms are festooned with college pennants. Hallway placards proclaim: "No Excuses!" Students win prizes for attendance, and pore over math problems with newly hired tutors. They start classes earlier and end later than their neighbors; some return to school on Saturdays.

If these new mores at Lee High School, long one of Houston's most troubled campuses, make it seem like one of those intense charter schools, that's no accident. 

In the first experiment of its kind in the country, the Houston public schools are testing whether techniques proven successful in high-performing urban charters like those in the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, a national charter chain, can also help raise achievement in regular public schools.  Working with Roland G. Fryer, a researcher at Harvard who studies the racial achievement gap, Houston officials last year embraced five key tenets of such charters at nine district secondary schools; this fall, they are expanding the program to 11 elementary schools. A similar effort is beginning in Denver.

"We can't sit idly by and let parents think that only the quality charter schools can educate poor kids well," said Terry Grier, Houston's hard-charging superintendent. "If you see something good, why not try to replicate it?" 

…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.

Dr. Fryer, who has made 17 trips to Houston over the past year, is watching not only the Apollo schools but a parallel control group of other Houston schools with similar demographics and prior test results, to rigorously analyze the effectiveness of the three-year experiment.

Even without the formal study, Dr. Grier knows that the mimicking of charter practices is, at best, partial. The nine Apollo secondary schools started Aug. 15, a week ahead of the rest of the district — and the same day as KIPP. But even with Apollo's lengthened days, KIPP students had still more instructional hours last year: about 1,735, compared with about 1,435 at Lee High School.

"We got close, but we didn't get there completely," Dr. Grier said.


A School District Mimics Charters, Hoping Success Will Follow

Michael Stravato for The New York Times

Published: September 2, 2011

 Subscribe in a reader