Houston Chronicle - Calaway: Education initiatives take time to develop

February 28, 2014


By James D. Calaway

HISD must continue to refine its plans for transforming schools.

The task of educating the urban poor is a tall order.

Taking on habitually failing or near-failing schools that serve those children and turning them into beacons of hope requires the commitment of the entire community.

Serving as Houston Independent School District Foundation board chairman during the development and funding of the Apollo Initiative has taught me how hard and contentious it is to transform urban schools. But it has also taught me that the difficulty must be met in the firm belief that every child, in every classroom, no matter his or her race or socioeconomic background, deserves a real chance, to the best of their ability, to become the learner and productive citizen our society demands.

In 2010, HISD, in partnership with Harvard University Professor Roland Fryer of Harvard EdLabs and supported by generous private funders across Houston, implemented the bold Apollo 20 Initiative. This initiative took what were believed to be the five most promising strategies of successful charter schools and applied them to our lowest-performing schools.

Some of the strategies showed greater impact than others; some were, by their very nature, harder to quantify in their impact. But we now know that the fundamental nature of the schools changed with Apollo. The Apollo culture demanded excellence. Low-performing staff were either removed or put on performance-enhancing programs, more time was devoted to work through longer school days and longer school years, and intensive tutoring was implemented to provide low-income children a chance to become proficient in math. And much was learned.

We learned that intensive, in-school tutoring made possible by added resources and longer days moved the needle in a statistically significant way. We learned that kids responded to the high-expectation culture at the Apollo schools, and that we, like most urban schools, have a serious challenge in literacy that needs the kind of intensive focus that Apollo brought to math.

It is important to know that the challenge of literacy is found across America. It is a scourge that must be addressed.

The results of the Apollo Initiative have shed a very bright light on this matter, and a significant overhaul of the literacy program across HISD is now underway.

When a community undertakes a bold reform initiative such as Apollo, there are always critics. Those critics have many types of concerns. Some are concerned about the adult interests that are being threatened by the change. They are often quite vocal even without real knowledge of the effort underway.

There are those who want all children to have the same assistance and resent the targeting of so many public and private dollars, even if by following their concern the very initiative being implemented would simply be impossible to undertake during the testing phase. And there are those who simply seek to be sure that the results, both good and bad, are presented in clear and compelling ways, so that we can learn what to expand, what to cut and what to reconfigure.

Last week, the Houston Education Research Consortium released its own independent review of Fryer's December 2013 report on the Apollo Initiative. They clearly did a deep analysis of Fryer's report, and their ideas will contribute to HISD's commitment to transparency and to adapting its practices based upon data and learning.

It is reassuring to see that Fryer's published work has been largely substantiated by the consortium's analysis. While the reports do differ in their details, and some aspects of the initiative received criticism as would be expected, the fundamental lesson learned is that the Apollo tenets of intensive tutoring, increased instructional time and a culture of high expectations have been demonstrated to be effective. Armed with this information, it's my hope that HISD takes the lessons learned, utilizes the consortium's report, and expands that which has worked across the district.

I am particularly pleased to see HISD expanding the best practice of tutoring not only for math, but for literacy, as both Harvard and the research consortium agree that it was the programmatic offering which statistically correlated most strongly with gains in student achievement.

Partnering together, HISD and funders across Houston tried something different in order to make a difference in our low-performing schools.

Change is difficult, new ideas are scrutinized and there are always those who support the status quo. But the task that HISD has been entrusted with is too big, too important, to proceed without constant reflection and change.

Calaway, president and CEO of Calaway Interests, is a past chairman of the Houston Independent School District Foundation board of directors.