NOTE: My reporting on the Education Achievement Authority involves multiple posts. You can read all of my coverage of the EAA by clicking HERE.
EAA Chancellor John Covington released a report of his personal investigation into the allegations in my reporting which you can read about HERE.
Over the past couple of years, Republicans and the Snyder administration have attempted to resolve the problem of urban school districts that are failing to provide even the bare basics of a good education for their students by grouping them all together into a single “school district for misfit schools” called the Education Achievement Authority or EAA. As has been well-documented (see my interview with State Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton HERE, for example), the EAA has been a catastrophic failure. Instead of providing these disadvantaged children with the resources and environment they so sorely lack, the EAA has attempted to educate them on the cheap. They have resorted to “teaching by computer” but, rather than providing the students with the cutting edge technology that you might expect a school district like this to have, instead there are too few computers for the students, the software was nonfunctional for much of the school year, and the system crashes regularly.
Worse yet, special needs students are woefully neglected, very possibly in violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Special plans for these students, called Individualized Education Plans or IEPs, are frequently not provided to the teachers which prevents them from making the accommodations needed for these students, accommodations required by law.
Over the past couple of months I have been reaching out EAA teachers to learn more about their experiences. Several of them agreed to speak to me on the condition that I protect their identity. This is critical since retribution against teachers that speak out by EAA administrators is common knowledge. For example, former EAA teacher Brooke Harris was fired after speaking out on behalf of the students at her school, something I have written about in the past.
I spoke with several teachers, some of whom came to the EAA through the Teach for America program. What follows documents the outrageous and frightening situation in the EAA schools. I am keeping the gender of the teachers, which schools they work in, and any other identifying information hidden so that these teachers will not be fired for speaking to me. Every quote and statement, however, are real and the teachers represent both elementary schools within the EAA as well as high schools.
While much of what I learned from these courageous teachers I had heard about at least in part before, the most shocking thing I discovered was that school administrators have been seen physically abusing problem students. In addition to this, the teachers themselves are put in danger by violent students that the administration appears unwilling or unable to deal with.
It is critically important that these stories be told now because Republicans, including Gov. Snyder, are determined to expand the EAA statewide. The failure of the current EAA “experiment” shows in vivid and frightening detail what a colossal mistake that would be. I encourage you to share this information and this post with others you know so that all of us can contact our legislators and encourage them to stop the failed experiment before it is expanded even further.
I asked the EAA teachers that I spoke with to tell me about their experience and why they were willing to speak out at this time. One teacher put it this way:
“It’s been really rough,” they said. “My first year there it was very chaotic and this year is just as bad. There’s been no consistent discipline structure. I honestly worry about my kids.”
“You’re actually worried about them not being educated well?”, I asked.
“It’s that,” they replied, “But it’s also that the culture of our school is detrimental to learning. We’ve changed our teaching model twice this year and we’re going to change again in February. Our discipline structure went from, before school started, ‘We will not suspend children, you must keep them in your classroom, write them up, and we’ll deal with them’ to me seeing kids coming out of the discipline office with bruises. I’m honestly worried.”
“So they’ve moved to a more stringent disciplinary approach then?” I asked.
“I’ve actually seen my discipline coach slap a kid across the face.”
These reports of physical abuse were echoed in a comment left by an EAA parent on Detroit Free Press article on the EAA (now archived and unavailable):
DPS was much better than the EAA. How can you take the lowest performing schools in a low performing district and hire uncertified teachers with five week of training and pass out computers and expect the student to teach themselves…I have witnessed the physical and verbal abuse of children and the ill-treatment of parents.
In addition to these disturbing reports regarding physical abuse of students, teachers also report a systemic lack of discipline and security at all school levels within the EAA.
“It’s dangerous for kids to come to school,” one teacher at an EAA elementary school told me. “We’ve found drugs in the school. We’ve found weapons in the school. We have a metal detector that doesn’t even work, nobody checks anyone on the way in.”
The security problems are exacerbated by ridiculously large classroom sizes, something that’s only getting worse due to teachers leaving in droves. According to one teacher I spoke with, the classroom they teach in is about to go to almost 50 students. This is despite the fact that a quarter of the students have left the EAA system, a dramatic drop that reflects the dissatisfaction of the students’ parents with the education their children are receiving.
“One of the things that really has pushed me to speak out is that I learned from another teacher recently that I’m about to get another ten students in my class which will take me to almost 50 kids,” the teacher said. “Another teacher quit and, instead of hiring someone to replace them, they are just redistributing their students to all the other teachers. So, it’s just me and all these kids with no help, no paraprofessionals. It’s just dangerous. Beyond being able to educate that many kids at once all by myself, I’m not confident I can keep them safe from each other. They don’t fit in the room, there aren’t enough chairs, it’s not okay. I have this knot in my stomach and I’m worried sick and stressed out because of it.”
Alone in a class of nearly 50 students with no student teachers, no paraprofessionals, and little support from school administrators when children act out violently. And many of these teachers are in their early twenties. The ones from Teach for America — roughly a quarter of the teachers in the EAA — had a scant five weeks of training before they were assigned to a classroom full of kids.
Another teacher confirms this assessment.
“The way that they’re treating the students is terrifying,” they said. “We’ve had multiple fights where no security has actually shown up. They’re not suspending students so I’ve been hit by a kid before and nothing has happened. Another teacher has been hit numerous times and nothing has happened to the child who did the hitting even though he was very clearly identified. He is still at school today.
“I’ve never felt this worried about going to school,” they continued. “I’m well aware that most of my kids would protect me and they have before, but they shouldn’t have to. That’s the role of discipline. But, at the same time, I afraid to report a kid because I’ve seen disciplinary officers hit them and I’ve reported it and nothing has happened from the state.
“I’m at my end where I can’t be part of this organization that is abusing children both educationally and physically.”
“This year is just as bad as last year,” one teacher told me. “Safety issues remain for the students and staff. There’s a lot of disrespectful and unruly behavior that’s never taken care of. I have personally had my hair ripped out. I’ve been cursed at. You name it, they’ve said it to me. One student actually threw me down and tried to strangle me and was still not expelled from the building.”
A common lament from the teachers I spoke with is the lack of consistency and constant upheaval in EAA schools. Not only has enrollment dropped this year, teachers themselves are leaving in large numbers — the teacher turnover rate is 20%. Last fall, they had to hire around 40 new teachers after the school year was already underway.
UPDATE: On Diane Ravitch’s blog, EAA spokesperson Terry Abbott claims the teacher turnover rate is 6.83% this year. The 20% figure comes from this piece by MIRS news service last September:
The turnover rate for classroom teachers at the EAA is about 20 percent.
“To be honest, we don’t really apologize for that,” said EAA Chief Officer of Accountability, Equity and Innovation Mary Esselman.
She said that they want the best teachers in front of kids.
“We’ve had eleven staff members leave this year. We lost our entire special ed department,” a teacher told me. “It’s been really rough on a lot of the kids.
“The main concern that I have for my kids is that they have substitute teachers who don’t know their content area. For example, we’ll have a rotating sub and we have two science teachers. This is for something like 1,000 kids. So they’re not learning science the way that they should. We lost a lot of our math teachers so they’re not learning math as they should. We need more teachers in just about all of our content areas and our classes are huge. So the students are not learning the best way that they can.”
The reason for the high turnover rate is related to the poor treatment of teachers including lack of support, unreasonable expectations from EAA administrators, and a reward/punishment system that seems designed to humiliate teachers.
“You mentioned that a lot of teachers have left,” I said to one teacher. “Is that mostly because they were let go or because they’re unhappy and leaving on their own?”
“They’re completely unhappy and leaving on their own,” they said. “Almost all of them have gone back to the Detroit Public Schools. We lost all of our guidance counselors. We lost all but two special ed teachers. We lost all of our science teachers except for two.”
I asked another of the teacher who I spoke with why they thought so many teachers were leaving.
“At the end of the day, my frustrations are the same as my colleagues who have been teaching for seven to thirty years,” they told me. “It has everything to do with the expectations our administration has for us and the expectations of higher-ups in the district.
“We had no common planning time with any experienced teachers, no instructional coaches, and only one professional development staff member. So, as far as supporting new teachers, those things just weren’t in place.
“There was a serious lack of support from the administration, too,” they continued. “We had an inexperienced principal who wasn’t even from Detroit. Our attendance clerk didn’t do their job so we lost a LOT of money for inaccurate record keeping. We had several teachers quit; the ones who were experienced and could get jobs elsewhere definitely left. We had some teachers that they had to get rid of because they lost all that money and I had class sizes of like 39 kids. And this is as a first-year teacher with no support and no curriculum resources.
“The bottom line is that the EAA is really bad for teachers and, more importantly, it’s really bad for students. The way they treat the teachers is causing them to leave. I would leave if…I’m almost there, to tell you the truth. The turnover rate is horrible for the kids. Any educator worth their salt knows that a lot of what you do every day and the success of it is dependent on the depth of the relationships that you form with your students and parents. And, for a lot of these students, school is the most stable thing in their life, especially in these high-risk, urban areas.
“So, when they constantly have instability at home and also instability at school with this revolving door of teachers…they’re in and they’re out because the district is treating them like crap. That’s horrible for kids. Not to mention the fact that class sizes are huge, the things that they feed them in the cafeteria are not nutritious, they have very minimal security.”
“So, you attribute the turnover mainly to the way teachers are treated by the administration?” I asked.
“Yeah. The lack of support, the top-down management style, the horrible contracts, the pressure to be there outside of your working hours, and the ‘ineffective’ ratings for not implementing teaching strategies that they haven’t given you the resources to implement. For example, I’m expected to upload all of my curriculum onto what is basically a public website and let my students access it from there. But, I have a class of nearly 40 students and I only have 20 working computers that are missing keys that will never be replaced because we don’t have an IT department. Yet, I will be rated ‘ineffective’ if I don’t have all my students logging onto these digital resources and working with them.”
This lack of resources is as astonishing as the idea that teachers will somehow be able to meet the expectations set for them by the EAA administration without them.
“These are kids many of whom don’t have computers at home, I’d imagine,” I said to one of the teachers I interviewed.
“Oh, definitely not,” they replied. “Definitely not. We have to give them homework so now we have to create two sets of everything we do; one that requires internet access and one that doesn’t for students who don’t have access at home. The whole idea at the end of the year last year was that every student would have their own laptop but that has not happened. We don’t even have enough laptops for an entire class to be on the computers at the same time.”
“So, the resources haven’t been provided but the expectations are still there.”
In addition to physical resources being unavailable to EAA teachers, a more sinister problem is that they are not being given the federally mandated resources to effectively accommodate special needs students in the class rooms, something that State House Representative Ellen Cogen Lipton has been pursuing with vigor. In my interview with her last fall, she told me that State Board of Education has refused to accept her complaint which has forced her into the position of having to actually sue them on behalf of the special needs kids in the EAA.
One of the teachers I spoke with talked at length about the problem they are facing meeting the needs of the special education students in their classroom.
“Another issue is that IEPs are not being followed,” they said. “IEPs are Individualized Education Plans for special needs students. This is a plan that is designed by a team of a special education teacher, a core teacher, the student, the parents, and the administration. They have a sit-down meeting at least once a year where they design specific accommodations for the student with special needs like extra time on tests or alternative locations, for example.
“Another reason why students are struggling is because their our schools are set up to be ‘all-inclusive’ so there are no classrooms in the building that are set up just for students in special ed. They’re all in regular classes with general ed students. These students are never pulled out to be supported in the ways that they should be. So, for example, we have severely autistic, aggressive, emotionally-disabled, cognitively-disabled students within the classroom that I’m responsible for educating and managing behavior-wise with no additional support. In a lot of cases, that is a huge violation of the plan — the IEP — that was laid out for them. Those are serious legal issues in a lot of situations that we’re getting ourselves into.
“The problem is that I often don’t even see most of these IEPs. Like last year, I didn’t even know which of my students had IEPs until February. Nothing was given to us.”
“But, by law, you were supposed to have been accommodating them according to their IEPs, right?” I asked.
Another teacher had a similar experience.
“I’ve written the state about our highly illegal practices with special education students. I’ve seen exactly four IEPs this year.”
“I assume you’ve got more than four kids who have IEPs?” I asked.
“I have at least 20% per class. And I have no paraprofessionals except for one hour a day. It’s horrendous. I have no idea how to modify my teaching plan if I haven’t seen their IEPs. For example, I might need to read the test to them or modify things for math only. I have no idea without seeing the IEP. So, of course these kids are doing poorly because I’m not able to modify my teaching in the way that their IEP specifies.
“Worse yet, if I don’t do it and they fail, they have to pass the kid because their teaching plan wasn’t modified as it should have been. But, I didn’t know! So, kids are being passed on.”
“Why aren’t you seeing the IEPs?” I asked.
“Because they don’t send them to us and I have no idea where to go to get them because we keep losing special ed teachers and guidance counselors. We don’t even know which kids are on whose caseload anymore because so many have left. We’ve had special educators who have only taught for a week and then they left again.”
The computerized teaching program used by the EAA is called Buzz and it was uniformly despised by all the teachers I spoke with.
“I’ve almost refused to teach with Buzz, their online teaching platform,” one told me. “It doesn’t work half the time. But we’re required to use it or we’ll be given an ‘ineffective’ score even if the data shows that we ARE being effective.”
“So much for “data-driven” teaching methods,” I observed.
“I’m not opposed to data-driven teaching up to a point,” they replied. “I think it’s helpful. But, at a certain point, the way that they’re requiring us to use things is not good for our students and it’s taking away our individual teaching style. If they could, I would not be in my classroom. If it were their model, I would literally just be a babysitter.”
Another teacher described Buzz this way:
“It’s very clunky. It wasn’t up and running until half-way through the school year last year and it crashes all the time. It’s only gotten slightly better this year. It’s not at all user-friendly and, again, it’s not useful if the kids don’t have internet access at home. They can’t access any of their work at home and they can’t really access any of their work at school because there are nearly 40 of them in class and only 20 working computers.
“Look, these are kids and computers are not exactly the most sturdy things. Things happen and there are accidents. So, every time I lose a computer, I have to readjust my whole classroom setup to make sure that all my kids can work without the resources that they need.”
“So, when Buzz wasn’t working, what were you doing?” I asked. “How were you able to teach without it?”
“When Buzz wasn’t up and working I actually created my own website on a free site on the internet. So, I had them on that until Buzz was up and running so that they got used to accessing assignments online. That made it an easier transition onto Buzz once it did get on its feet. But, of course, that’s not useful if the computer itself is broken.”
“I assume that Buzz is collecting data on the students as they go through testing and things like that,” I said.
“Right. And that’s another thing. These kids are tested constantly. They take the state tests and they also do these performance series tests which are given every quarter to the students to determine what grade level they’re working at in math and science and writing and reading. We literally are told that we have to sit down with the student and say, ‘You should be in 8th grade but you’re in math working on material that you should have mastered in 3rd grade so we need to give you four years growth in one year.’ And so we test them every quarter and set goals for them. For a lot of these students, this works and it’s useful but all it is is just teaching to a test.
“Also, with our pay, we have pay-for-performance so our bonus pay is linked to how well our students grow on those performance series tests. Those payments were supposed to have been made in October for the last school year but then they moved it to December and then they’ve moved it to the spring now. They haven’t announced who is getting it and then they’re not giving them out all, so far! And, by the way, those bonuses are not available to teachers who don’t teach English or math because those are the only things tested on the performance series tests.”
The shoddy treatment of teachers in this way — the questionable contract requirements and failure to reward teachers with the “Pay for Performance Incentive Grants” as promised — was another consistent complaint from the teachers I spoke with and plays a significant role in the high turnover rate of EAA teachers. I have had a look at their contract — which they didn’t actually receive this past fall until late October despite the fact that the contract began two months before in late August — and it has a clause in it that seems designed to trap teachers in their jobs. The contract requires teachers to give 60 days notice if they are quitting. If they leave before the 60 days, they are required to pay a $500 “liquidated damages fee” plus “any attorneys’ fees or costs to the EAA to collect” the $500 fee.
One teacher described the contract to me in this way: “There’s no extra duty pay. We’re basically being treated as student teachers when we’re professionals. It’s awful.”
“EAA teachers are not unionized, correct?” I asked one teacher.
“No, we are not unionized,” they said. “It is impossible for us to unionized because they have a stranglehold over some of our schools. We would have to unionize as a district and we can’t get into some of the schools.”
“What’s preventing you from unionizing?” I asked.
“We’ve gotten threats. We got a lot of threats last year. For example, the loudest ‘noisemakers’ were given an ‘ineffective score and were let go or weren’t promoted. So anyone thinking about trying to form a union have more to lose now and they aren’t so keen to do it.”
As much as they are portrayed negatively by many in education community, Teach for America teachers are actually in a far more difficult position than their traditionally trained and educated counterparts. I asked one of them about their situation.
“TFA teachers are bound by contract to stay, right?” I asked. “You can’t leave?”
“Well, you don’t have to stay. You can quit. We just have more to lose if we do quit.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“We aren’t traditionally certified. So, if I quit Teach for America, I can’t just go get another teaching job. I’m out of the profession unless I go back to school and get my four-year degree and student teach.”
“So, if you bail out at any point, you’re out of the program.”
“Right. It’s a two-year certification program that is done while you are teaching so, if you quit, you’ve pretty much given up on teaching.”
“So you are tied to that school for a period of time.”
“Yeah, if you want to be a teacher you are. A lot of the TFA teachers that quit, they just move on to another career field.”
While the working conditions for all EAA teachers are the same, the TFA teachers don’t have the opportunity to leave and pursue their career elsewhere. In their monthly training meetings, they meet with TFA teachers outside of the EAA and hear about a far different experience than the one they have.
“We have once-a-month trainings with TFA and we hear data, we hear stories, we share ideas,” a TFA teacher told me. “It’s a very collaborative spirit. It’s sometimes hard for us EAA teachers to be there because we’re hearing all these great things from other schools about what’s possible and we’re like, ‘well, that’s not our experience at all’…
The State of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority website describes the EAA this way:
The Education Achievement Authority of Michigan is a new public system of schools whose mission is to fundamentally improve public education in Michigan.
Education Achievement Authority schools are creative, innovative learning environments that provide students a quality education. They offer struggling students the opportunity to catch up to their peers around the state and receive the education they need to succeed in college or a career after high school. The system opened in September 2012 with 15 of Detroit’s lowest-achieving schools, which were identified by the Michigan Department of Education as schools with the greatest need. […]
In the Education Achievement Authority classroom, students are divided into small focused learning groups and each student has his or her own computer. […]
In addition to the individualized attention, Education Achievement Authority schools have a 7.5 hour school day and 210 school days per year, which means nearly 1,600 hours of instruction annually (Michigan requires just 1,098 hours). These instructional hours put our students on par with countries such as Japan, China and Singapore, enabling them to achieve on a level with their international competitors.
Almost none of this is true. Rather than creating a world-class school district with proven teaching models, excellent resources, and superior teachers, the EAA is a second class school district that has somehow managed to be inferior to the failing districts it replaced. At least half of its teachers are first-year teachers and half of them are TFA teachers who have had a sum total of five weeks of training before they are put into an EAA classroom. While the TFA teachers that I spoke with are amazingly dedicated young people who love their students and want nothing more than to be educators, the fact is that this is supposed to be a school district designed to lift children trapped in a terrible education situation to a level where they can compete with any student in the state. A district like that should be employing well-trained, highly experienced teachers who are well-compensated for their expertise, given the resources they need to succeed, and treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. None of this is true of the EAA.
Rather than every student having “his or her own computer” as the EAA’s website boasts, there aren’t enough computers to go around in the classroom. To add digital insult to injury, classroom assignments meant to be done online simply aren’t available to large numbers of EAA students who simply do not have the internet at home, much less a computer with which to access it.
This failed system, one which manipulates data to give a distorted impression of its “success” and refuses to answer questions of state legislators, is being targeted for expansion across the state of Michigan by Republicans. It should not only NOT be expanded, it should either be completely overhauled with new leadership, expanded resources, and more input from education professionals or it should be abandoned entirely. As it stands now, it is a failed experiment. Worse yet, it is doing more harm than good and increasing the number of Detroit children who we can only describe as a “lost generation”. They are students who will forever be handicapped by the embarrassingly inferior education they are receiving from the State of Michigan. And that is something we all own a piece of.