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Originally published October 10, 2012 at 7:48 PM | Page modified October 11, 2012 at 5:57 AM

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Can Harvard economist's data fix our schools? It's a fact

Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who is helping schools improve through his EdLabs project, spoke at Lakeside School in Seattle.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The academic star Roland Fryer has been crisscrossing the country preaching his data-based gospel of educational reform.

In Seattle last week, he was asked how he would vote on Initiative 1240, the ballot measure that would allow charter schools in Washington.

He said he couldn't say, but that fighting over charter schools is a distraction. Some do poorly, some have great results, but on average their performance is about the same as it is for traditional public schools. The more relevant question would be how to take what the best of them do and apply it to the other public schools, so that all students could benefit.

That's what he's working on through the Education Innovation Laboratory (EdLabs) at Harvard University.

As an economist, Fryer, 35, is all about getting to the core of problems using hard data.

He's trying to address the persistent gaps in performance and outcome between black and Latino students and other students, to erase the connection between ZIP code and achievement.

Speaking at Lakeside School in Seattle last week, Fryer said Americans don't score well when compared with students in much of the world. You get a clearer picture of what's going on when you look at separate schools.

Students in Concord, Mass., where he lives, score at the top internationally, while students in Harlem score near the bottom. Inequality drags down the country's overall scores.

Fryer started looking for solutions with a project to pay students to do better. Sometimes that works well, but not when students don't have a clue where to start.

So, Fryer took a different course. He looked at successful programs around the country, such as the Harlem Children's Zone, and the KIPP charter schools, that get high performance in some of the country's lowest-income areas.

His teams studied everything they did in detail, gathering data analyzing strategies that could explain their success and allow it to be replicated. Fryer took what they'd learned and distilled it into five keys to success:

• Give teachers frequent feedback.

• Use data-driven instruction. (Test frequently and adjust instruction accordingly.)

• Tutor a lot.

• Maintain high expectations.

• Provide sufficient instructional time.

Then he set out to test his model, but said he was turned down by several districts where students desperately needed help.

Finally, the superintendent of Houston's school system let Fryer's EdLabs remake nine low-performing schools — four high schools and five middle schools. (Last year they added 11 elementary schools.)

EdLabs started by rooting out the culture that allowed failure. Fryer said that when he asks teachers what it would take to have a successful school, and they tell him better students, there's a problem.

The program replaced 53 percent of the teachers and replaced all of the principals. EdLabs added an hour to the school day and 10 days to the school year and hired 400 tutors.

By the end of year one, according to a chart Fryer displayed, there was significant improvement in math performance. The program is in its third year in Houston and is spreading to other districts. Language skills are more of a challenge, not so straightforward as math. The students do better under Fryer's program, but there is much more to accomplish. With language there is, so far, no proven substitute for starting as early as possible in a child's life.

In the test schools, teen pregnancy has dropped by a factor of five, and the incarceration rate for boys is four times less than before the makeover. The cost is $2,000 more per student, but that's a lot less than jail or other social costs that are being avoided.

Fryer is driven to close the academic gap by his own life story. He was raised shuttling between his father in Texas and his grandmother in Florida, until his father was sent to prison.

Fryer said most of the people he grew up with didn't make it out of a dangerous environment, but Fryer went to college on an athletic scholarship. Once he got there, however, he decided not to play, but to study instead and graduated magnum cum laude in less than three years.

He was made a full professor at Harvard at only 30, and last year was named a MacArthur Fellow.

"People say to me, 'It's great that you beat the odds,' " Fryer said, but "I say, let's change the odds."

We could use more of that attitude.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @jerrylarge.

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