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 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.

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