Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What is the EAA? Part 2, management and finances

The Education Achievement Authority (EAA) is a state takeover district currently running 15 Detroit schools.  As we discussed, the EAA has been controversial, it's instructional methods focus on use of a one-size-fits-all computer program in place of teacher autonomy, and it's results have been difficult to measure at best.  What is the EAA? Part 1, methods and results, Okemos Parents for Schools, December 11, 2013. The EAA has also faced management and financial challenges despite having access to revenues not available to public schools.  While the state is dissolving public schools with financial difficulties, the EAA has been propped up with special deals. 

by Detroit Free Press
The Chancellor of the EAA, John Covington, came to the EAA after heading up a public school district in Kansas City. One Michigan blogger wrote that Covington "faked a conflict with his former employer to get out of his contract" in Kansas City and "could make as much as $1.4 million in four years" at the EAA.  New Education Achievement Authority leader’s former school district loses its accreditation, Eclectablog, September 21, 2011.  Covington's tenure in Kansas City was a rocky one.  Covington oversaw closure of nearly half the schools in the Kansas City district.  Board strips Kansas City schools' accreditation, MSNBCNews.com, September 20, 2011.  As he was leaving, the district he oversaw was flailing on almost all measures of performance, "the district met only three of the 14 standards in the state's annual performance report, down from four in 2010."  Id. Less than a month after Covington left, the Missouri state board of education voted to strip the schools of its accreditation.  Id.  Recently, the EAA board "voted to hire Interactive Learning Systems LLC of Columbia, S.C., as an 'executive coach' for" Covington.  EAA collapsing, The Michigan Citizen, December 12, 2013.

Over the past year our state government has been extremely strict with public schools which have financial difficulties.  After K-12 funding was slashed in the beginning of the Snyder administration, many districts felt the financial squeeze.  Saginaw Buena Vista had trouble making its payroll and was ultimately dissolved.  Buena Vista School District is no more; students to attend Saginaw, Bridgeport-Spaulding, Frankenmuth schools, MLive.com, July 31, 2013.  Next the Inkster Public School district was dissolved.  Inkster schools first to be dissolved; students split across 4 districts, MLive.com, July 26, 2013.  Pontiac Public Schools were on the verge of being dissolved, but ended up entering into a consent agreement with the state.  In all, 50 school districts ended the year with deficits, but haven't been given special funds by the state.  50 Michigan school districts ended 2012-2013 fiscal year in deficit, MLive.com, December 12, 2013.

Conversely, from its inception the EAA has had access to multiple unconventional revenue sources, most not available to public districts.  The EAA took over buildings paid for by the public school districts they were taken from.  The EAA funneled $12 million in loans from the state through the Detroit Public School district which is itself experiencing financial difficulties.  Snyder transformation manager defends financing, mission of Education Achievement Authority, Crains, May 22, 2013. The EAA Board did not approve this massive borrowing, and in fact was not even notified.  Id. The state also outright spent $10 million on improvements to EAA schools.  Id. The EAA also has a special charitable foundation soliciting funds to run the school.  Id. The EAA won't disclose who its private donors are, or how much they give.  The EAA also requested another $2 million loan from the state.  Education Achievement Authority requests $2M advance to fix online glitches, Detroit Free Press, January 11, 2013.  Initially, the EAA claimed this was for technology upgrades, but "Emails also reveal that when DPS called in part of the loan, the EAA couldn’t pay and had to ask for an advance on state aid, which it received."  FOIA documents reveal financial troubles, loans for Education Achievement Authority, Michigan Radio, April 26, 2013.  No public school in the state has been given aid of this kind.  The EAA also pays teachers lower wages and does not contribute to the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System for current employees, and does not have any legacy costs.

Nonetheless, the EAA has continued to struggle financially, and it's prospects are dim going forward.  The EAA, like public schools in Michigan, receives the core of its funding on a per pupil basis from the state.  However, students are fleeing the EAA in droves.

Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority has lost nearly a quarter of its students in the past year, a dramatic dip in its second year of operating 15 low-performing schools in Detroit.
The EAA, a statewide district formed by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 to take over failing schools, enrolled 7,589 students in K-12 at its 15 schools — 2,369 fewer than last fall, when it had 9,958 students across 12 direct-run schools and three charter schools. That’s a drop of 23.6 percent.
. . .
The state gives the EAA $7,246 for each student, which means the district is expected to get about $17 million less in state aid than it did a year ago.
In June, the district adopted a $92.3 million budget for 2013-14, based on a projected enrollment of 8,919 — 1,330 more students than it enrolled this fall, according to the state. The EAA said it had 9,521 students at the end of the past school year.
The loss of students raises questions about the EAA’s future. The district was designed to take over dozens of failing schools statewide but has not gone outside the buildings it took over from Detroit Public Schools. Several lawmakers have concerns about the EAA, how it educates children and what they call a lack of transparency with public tax dollars. [Michigan's EAA sees 24% drop in students, Detroit News, November 23, 2013.]
As students leave, revenue leaves as well.  Contrastingly, the Detroit Public School district is seeing students surging into the district.  DPS enrollment surges after years of decline, Detroit News, November 1, 2013.

Our next post will cover the statewide opposition to the EAA.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What is the EAA? Part 1, methods and results

Of all the experiments being carried out on Michigan's public school system, the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) might be the most controversial.  The Legislature passed a bill today which will uncap and expand the EAA statewide.  Unfortunately we haven't devoted much space to the EAA.  This is a big topic, so we'll tackle it in multiple posts.  In light of today's development, it's worth taking a step back to explain exactly what the EAA is, and what goes on in an EAA school. This post will focus just on the creation of the EAA, what instruction is like in the EAA, and what the results have been.

The EAA was created in 2011 by an interlocal agreement between the Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools, Roy Roberts, and Eastern Michigan University.  An "interlocal agreement" is one of the methods of creating a charter school.  See What are "charter schools?", Okemos Parents for Schools, June 28, 2013.  The EAA is essentially a charter district. Originally, the EAA was tasked with taking over 15 schools from the Detroit Public School district.  Before the EAA had even finished one year of operation its proponents were trying to expand it statewide with a measure which would allow the EAA to capture 5 percent of Michigan's public schools every year, with no mechanism to return them to local control.  Letters and Wish Lists, The Ann Arbor Chronicle, December 6, 2012

From its inception, the controversial methods employed in the EAA were criticized for providing poor quality education.  The EAA's tagline for it's method is "child-centered learning," which sounds pretty good.  But, it's not.

In reality, "child-centered learning" as implemented in the EAA means sitting kids down in front of a computer program called "Buzz" and letting them click through modules:
But the EAA is in love with digital child-centered learning. This seems to hinge on the “Buzz” software built on Agilix Lab’s BrainHoney platform. This is a commercial product from a private software company which doesn’t yet seem to have pulled together any case studies demonstrating the efficacy of their approach. My brief research using Archive.org indicates that they’ve been billing themselves as a “worldwide leader in distributed learning solutions” since at least 2007; you’d think they’d have collected some data over the course of half a decade . . .
Anyway, this testimony from Brooke Harris, an English teacher at Mumford High School in Detroit, describes Buzz-assisted EAA-style “child-centered” learning in action:
Buzz is composed of “one size fits all” purchased curriculum. Instead of differentiated activities and lessons being created by their teacher – a certified professional who lives and works in the city of the students, who has taken the time to get to know each of them on a personal level – the limited activities and lessons have already been mapped out without any knowledge or regard to the student’s background, culture, needs, strengths, or interests.
That doesn’t sound super “child-centered.” In fact, if you read the entire testimony – it’s just two pages, a transcript of Harris’s testimony before the House Education Committee on Nov 19, 2012 – Buzz sounds like yet another poorly designed, ill-tested, and likely overpriced software package dumped into the lucrative “education market.” [Letters and Wish Lists, The Ann Arbor Chronicle, December 6, 2012]
In one radio interview, Representative Ellen Cogen Lipton described her visit to an EAA school and her discussion with a student learning about John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." The student showed Rep. Lipton the Buzz module he was studying and how he would click through modules which would talk about the book, and video pop-ups would have talking heads discussing the book ... but the student was not actually going to read the book.  Lipton asked if he could check out the book from the school's library, and he said there were no books available through the library any more. Rep. Lipton describes another student in another interview:
"They said, 'Buzz is a joke, it's not challenging, it's demeaning.' I asked them if they liked their school better now or before and they said, 'Before.' When I asked why, one student said, 'Look around this room. Do you see any books? I really miss my books,'" Cogen Lipton said. [EAA progress report: how 15 failing Detroit schools fared this year, Michigan Radio, May 8, 2013.]
 Rep. Lipton's observations echoed the testimony of EAA teacher Brooke Harris, quoted in the Ann Arbor Chronicle story above, and further here:
Buzz is labeled  individualized, another misnomer,  least at the high school level. Buzz does not meet students Where they are; it is not tailored to their needs. All of my students are placed in 10th grade Online courses, despite that fact that many of them read far below the 10th grade reading level and the fact that the EAA’s full inclusion model places special education students in classrooms Without adequate support from an illegally overworked special education department*
Many, if not most, of my students cannot access the material on Buzz without significant scaffolding and accommodations. Scaffolding and accommodations that are not provided by “the professor” who narrates the informative Videos that predominate. the learning activities in Buzz. Instead of being taught by a real, live instructor who can gauge students’ reactions and be flexible and adaptive to their needs, students are being taught by videos on a computer screen. That is not student centered. Students are not being placed at the center of instruction, a curriculum is. [Brooke Harris testimony]
Unsurprisingly, the Buzz computer program has proved to be unsuccessful at replacing teachers.  Although conditions in the EAA have made measuring student learning difficult.  Chaotic conditions have resulted in what data there is skewed toward false indications of improvement.  When the EAA opened, the schools were universally in disarray.  Thomas Pedroni, an associate professor of curriculum studies at Wayne State University, explained in a piece in the Detroit Free Press:
First, hundreds of e-mails attest to significant disruptions during the baseline administration of the assessment, in the fall. Headsets needed for audio were not available; weak wireless signals could not accommodate the large online testing load; many students were unable to log in, and when they did log in, many were dumped from the system. [Thomas Pedroni: Education Achievement Authority has plenty of issues - transparency, trust among them, Detroit Free Press, May 2, 2013]
Because the assessments were delivered on computers, and the computers did not work, the baseline from which progress was measured was set artificially, and colossally, low.  The next time the assessment was administered, the technology had been fixed, so a score increase was built in without any learning actually occurring.  Nonetheless, as of May, "57% of students in math and 52% in reading are not on track to make expected gains."  Id.

There were more problems as well:
While 91% of students took a reading test in the fall, only 72% did so in the winter.
And while in the fall 14% of students in grades 2 through 9 took a modified reading foundations test, less than 1% did in the winter.
The modified test is intended for K-1 students and supplies non-readers with audio. Sue Newell, Scantron’s EAA consultant explained in a phone interview that the modified and regular test icons are side-by-side on the login screen. Many older students “took the foundations incorrectly” in the fall.
By the winter administration, they knew better.
Newell also explained a category of test-takers identified in the winter but not the fall — invalids. These were students whose test scores showed considerable decline since the baseline. Scantron assumes, probably correctly, that these students did not take the winter test seriously. [Id.]
There is plenty else to discuss about the EAA - lack of transparency, spike in student misconduct, student protests, protests from educators across the state - and we'll try and get all of it to you soon.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The bills to flunk third graders and change school rating system are slowing, but still moving

As we reported a month ago, a bill has been introduced in the state House which would require third graders to be held back, or flunked, if they fail to hit a benchmark on a standardized reading test. House bill would require schools to flunk third graders, Okemos Parents for Schools, November 9, 2013. We also discussed in a recent Action Alert a bill to change Michigan's school rating system to an A-F scheme. These bills have moved out of committee but their progress is apparently slowing in response to strong state-wide opposition.

HB 5111, the read or flunk bill, passed out of committee on a vote of 10-3 with Representatives David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights), Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods) and Theresa Abed (D-Grand Ledge) voting against. Provisions have been added to allow limited exceptions for third graders failing the test.  But despite adding components of the kind of decision making that now goes on a the local level, the core of the bill remains the same, removing this quintessential local decision away from those best situated to make it in favor of a state-wide law.

HB 5112, the school rating bill, passed out of committee on a vote of 11-4 with Representatives Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills)Tom Hooker (R-Byron Center) Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods) and Theresa Abed (D-Grand Ledge) voting against. Sometime after our Action Alert we learned about a troubling new aspect of this bill - it also contains a provision to begin feeding schools into the Education Achievement Authority.
Lawmakers in the Michigan House are slowing down on plans to change the state's school accountability system and create a literacy requirement for third-grade students after opposition from teachers and administrators.  
"We listened to educators, and we have some more homework to do," House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) said Thursday. "We want to make sure this is an 'A' grade when we're done, so we're going to continue to work on the issue."  
The House Education Committee approved revised versions of both proposals Wednesday after hearing extended testimony from teachers, parents and school administrators, some of whom expressed concerns about how the proposals would work. [3rd grade reading guarantee, school grading bills on pause in Michigan House, MLive.com, December 5, 2013.]
We brought you a Q and A with Deputy Superintendent Patricia Trelstad explaining why the read or flunk bill is quite simply terrible policy which demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of both how kids learn to read and how they are taught in Michigan schools today. Q and A: OPS Deputy Superintendent Patricia Trelstad, Okemos Parents for Schools, November 16, 2013. The strategy has been tried in other states and is failing:
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have instituted some form of read-or-flunk policy for third graders. “More and more of our governors are turning to this,” said Susan Neuman, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan and an expert on early literacy. “They like the get-tough policy. But it’s a terrible strategy. It’s blaming children when you should be blaming the system.”
Neuman agrees that third grade can be a turning point for students, but said that retaining kids can do more harm than good. Making children repeat third grade because of struggles with reading is treating the symptom rather than the cause, and is “an expensive intervention that leads to middle school malaise and high school dropout.” [Newly-proposed 'read-or-flunk' law for 3rd graders would have held back more than 39,000 students last year, MLive.com, December 5, 2013.]
Maybe even more troubling is the hidden provision in HB 5112 to feed schools into the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA).  As we discussed in our Action Alert, even without this provision HB 5112 was a problematic bill that ensures the majority of Michigan schools will be labeled as failing or mediocre.  A wide range of non-partisan groups which advocate for public education came out in opposition to the bill including the Michigan Department of Education, the Michigan Association of School Boards, Michigan Parents for Schools, the Michigan Association of School Administrators and the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.  Groups supporting the bill include Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school lobbying arm, the Michigan chapter of StudentsFirst, a corporate education advocacy group, and Americans for Prosperity, the anti-tax group affiliated with the Tea Party.  But, besides rating schools, the HB 5112 also contains a provision which funnels schools into the EAA:
The legislation mandates that schools with an “F” letter grade under the new system with low test scores twice in three years be placed under control of the state school reform office.
That office has the contractual power to place failing schools under the control of the EAA, a fledgling school system that operates 15 schools formerly part of Detroit Public Schools under an agreement with DPS and Eastern Michigan University.
Critics of the EAA say the letter grade legislation is a “Trojan horse” for expanding the EAA, which has seen its enrollment plummet by 24 percent after one year and faces questions about its long-term financial viability.  
The EAA’s operations have been heavily subsidized by private donations raised by supporters of Gov. Rick Snyder.
“This is a back-door way of getting schools into the EAA without passing the EAA legislation,” said state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods. [Critics rip school grading bill, Detroit News, December 6, 2013.]
We will try to take a comprehensive look at the EAA soon, but suffice it to say the takeover district has been plagued with problems. So much so that faculty at Eastern Michigan University has petitioned the university to end its relationship with the EAA. Faculty wants EMU to drop out of Education Achievement Authority state reform district, The Detroit Free Press, November 18, 2013. The EAA, as a kind of charter district, uses EMU as a "authorizer" though, as the faculty has said, the faculty has no real role in the EAA.  Additionally, public schools are beginning to boycott education students from EMU in protest of the university's involvement with the EAA. Union calls for boycott of Eastern Michigan University student teachers, cites EAA partnership, MLive.com, October 23, 2013.

We'll keep you apprised of developments with this legislation.