Education — January 29, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Is the Education Achievement Authority intentionally designed to fail???


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.

My recent posts about the Education Achievement Authority have begun to rekindle a much needed conversations about efforts to expand a flawed and failing experiment with the education of students in our most challenged districts.

I want to take a moment to step back from the horror stories that are coming out of the EAA and think about what “might have been” had it been done right. I also want to point out why it is so critical that we have this conversation NOW given what appears to be an effort to steamroll expansion of the EAA statewide. Finally, I want to raise the question of “Why?” Why is the EAA so obviously flawed? Why is it being so vigorously defended despite obvious failings? And, lastly, what might the motivations be for those who are pushing to expand something that isn’t working?”

Detroit Public Schools has been struggling for decades. Like the city itself, the district was a victim of a perfect storm of factors: a precipitous drop in population, a collapsed tax base, disinvestment in infrastructure, mismanagement, and outright corruption. All of these factors and more created a situation where large numbers of students were being completely failed by our education system in Michigan.

In 2009, Gov. Granholm signed legislation into law that created the State School Reform/Redesign District (SSRRD), a district that tasked to improve the results in the lowest-performing bottom 5% of schools. A contract with the Education Achievement Authority operates schools in the SSRRD.

When you look at these schools and the issues of poverty and crime and lack of parent involvement that accompanies the poor resources and crumbling infrastructure that they are facing, it’s clear that any attempt to reverse the downward spiral and give the students a chance for the same quality education that they would receive in nearly any other Michigan school needs to be BIG. If you were considering designing such a program, some specific elements come immediately to mind:

  • You’d hire the best teachers you could find and compensate them well for the difficult task they face.
  • You’d tap into the best educational models we have; proven methods based on data and science.
  • You’d refurbish the schools to make them into safe, welcoming environments that kids enjoy being part of.
  • You’d make class sizes small so that the kids were getting the best possible instruction possible.
  • You’d equip the schools with the most cutting edge education technology.
  • You’d build in flexibility so that the needs of ALL students were being met; special education/special needs kids, gifted kids, and everyone in between.
  • You’d fund these schools so that, instead of constantly chasing money from federal grants and corporations (that may have ulterior motives), administrators could focus on empowering students, teachers, parents, and all other participants in the school to achieve at the highest possible level.

These are the things that you would imagine the EAA would include. In order to bring these schools back to the level where they should be after so many decades of failure at all levels, this is the sort of “Educational Surge” that is required to remedy the situation and to do so quickly so that not one more cohort of students is lost.

Unfortunately, the EAA has done essentially NONE of this.

  • At least half of the teachers are first year teachers and half of those are Teach for America teachers who receive only five weeks of training before being put into EAA classrooms.
  • Top administrators, including the man running it, come to the EAA with questionable histories.
  • The educational model used called “student centered teaching” seems to focus mainly on putting students in front of a computer, putting teachers in the role of proctor more than educator. Not only that, the platform, call “Buzz”, crashes regularly. Because a large percentage of the student population doesn’t have internet access at home, they are unable to use the platform for homework.
  • The schools continue to lack basic things like adequate numbers of computers and functional security equipment.
  • Class sizes are frequently 35 or more students and sometimes over 45 students.
  • Special needs kids are not being properly accommodated, often in violation of federal law.
  • Teachers live in fear of the administration and have expectations placed on them that are impossible to achieve because they are denied the resources to do so.
  • School administrators admit they don’t have enough funding to run their schools and have had to chase grants from the federal government and private groups in order to keep from going bankrupt.

When you match up the two lists, it’s hard to understand how the EAA is not a model designed to fail.

It’s no wonder that a full quarter of the students were pulled from the EAA by their parents after the first year.

It’s no wonder teachers are leaving in droves.

It’s no wonder that faculty members at Eastern Michigan University which is the academic partner with the EAA are demanding that the school end its relationship. Today, students at EMU delivered this letter to the president of EMU:

To President Martin,

We, Students for an Ethical and Participatory Education (SEPE) along with the greater community are deeply concerned about the relationship between the Education Achievement Authority/System and EMU. This relationship deeply undermines Eastern Michigan’s ethical standing within the education profession. It is a policy that is furthering racial and economic disparities, as well as fundamentally undermining community democratic control of their education, as well as rights to collective bargaining. The process through which EMU signed the contract is also deeply problematic. The lack of transparency in this process highlights the dubious nature of the program from its inception. This is furthered by the extremely poor results of EAA schools. The EAA was broken from the beginning.

In keeping with EMU’s commitment to “Education First” we demand that EMU sever its relationship to the EAA and all related programs. By endorsing the EAA, EMU is in direct contradiction with its expressed mission and purpose. SEPE is delivering this letter in solidarity with the two resolutions passed by the faculty senate condemning the EAA, with the local schools boycotting the placement of EMU student teachers, and the students, teachers and parents of Detroit struggling for an empowering education. We demand that EMU cease its endorsement of the EAA and all corporate education reform. Since the administration has been well educated by the faculty and community members on the unviable nature of the EAA and EMU’s relationship to it, we expect to have a response from the administration within one week’s time. We are eager to meet and discuss this issue further.


Republicans in our state legislature, at the urging of the Snyder administration, are now attempting to expand the failed and flawed model of the EAA. State Superintendent Mike Flanagan has announced that he will be placing up to nine more schools under the control of the EAA. Worse yet, Republicans continue to work on passing H.B. 4369 that would codify the EAA into state law and spread it to the rest of the state. House Republicans passed a version that would cap the number of EAA schools at 50. In the Senate, that cap was removed, allowing for an unlimited number of schools to be run by the EAA but delaying its implementation until next year. A compromise bill must now be worked out. I have spoken to a House Education Committee member who tells me there has been action recently to do just that.

For those of us who are adamantly opposed to the EAA, the idea of spreading the damage it is doing to our education system to more schools through the state is an educational nightmare. This is why it is so critical that the conversations being started by the reporting I’ve done take place NOW and are done so publicly so that Michigan residents can hold lawmakers responsible for any actions they take.

When you look at what the EAA should be like and what the reality is, you have to ask yourself why the program seems intentionally designed to fail? Why are proponents so quick to defend something that is failing students? What are their motivations?

It would easy to think that these people are simply misguided and don’t know any better. That, in their sincere desire to make things better, they are grasping at what looks like a good idea without ensuring that it is actually working and actually improving the lives of these students.

A more cynical view, however, is that those pushing this failed educational model actually want it to fail. As outrageous as that sounds, it’s hard not to believe it when otherwise intelligent people defend it so vociferously and want to expand it to even more schools. These are most often the same people who are pushing for more and more charter schools in our state, charter schools that are mostly run by for-profit companies that enrich themselves with tax dollars targeted toward educating our children.

The EAA model essentially assures teachers will not unionize to protect their interests collectively. Services are often privatized and resources like the computer model they use are purchased from for-profit companies. The entire model is, at its core, designed to minimize the role of the teacher — the human factor — and to maximize profit-making opportunities for corporations. Even the non-profit Teach for America gets a share — their contract with the EAA specifies that they receive $3,500 for every teacher they place in the EAA. This year, that’s 400 300 new teachers to the tune of $1.4 million $1,050,000.

In my interview with state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, we talked about this:

One thread that is abundantly clear is that the Broad Foundation, and specifically Eli Broad, was and still is intimately involved in the creation as well as the carrying out of the EAA.

How are they doing this?

The Broad Foundation, before the EAA opened, contributed something like $25 million and I believe they’ve made a subsequent grant to the EAA. It appears that he was instrumental in, if not the hiring of John Covington, he was certainly…

Who was a Broad Fellow, correct?

That’s right, a graduate of the Broad Superintendent’s Academy. There are some emails that suggest that the Broad Foundation put his name forward and there doesn’t seem to be any other names that you can find. There doesn’t seem to be this sort of extensive interview process. Some of the emails from that time are sort of, “This is the person that it’s going to be”.

What’s interesting is that, when you look at this in a broader context, in terms of what the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, to name a few, have done in other states, there are similarities. The money that they spend, it sort of follows a very interesting trend line. They will go into states with opportunities for state take over districts or where there is mayoral control. So, you’ll see the Broad Foundation in the Louisiana Recovery District, for example.

Challenged places, in other words.

Mmm hmm. In Philadelphia, places like that. Instead of — and, again, this is my opinion — instead of using their money to fund initiatives that we know work, you have them spending an enormous amount of money to create an infrastructure like an EAA — in Louisiana you have the Louisiana Recovery District — that aggregates control in a single person.

You begin to wonder, “Why is that?” and then you begin to look at the broader context of corporate reform in education, you see that that seems to be the M.O. Why have to work through all of the messiness of this thing called ‘democracy’? Oh, my heavens! School boards can be so insufferable! I mean, we actually have to work with our community!

You have this sense of this sort of disdain for the democratic process. Because, think about the local school board. That defines democracy for a lot of people, right? I mean, people will say to me, “I’m not political. I couldn’t care less about politics.” And I’ll ask them, “Do you care about your schools?” and they’ll say, “Why heavens yes, my children are in school.” “Do you go to school board meetings?” “Absolutely!”

So they are involved.

Absolutely. And the concept that these corporate “reformers” loathe is that very concept. So, how do you get around that? Well, first of all, you convince people that the current system is rotten. And you spend a lot of money to do that. And they can, right? These are organizations…

That are super-wealthy.

Super-wealthy is right. This is a level of money that has not been seen before in this country. So, they start spending a lot of money to buy the conversation. “Schools are failing.” It began with [President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education report] “A Nation at Risk” and it hasn’t stopped since.

“Schools are failing. We’re in crisis. We’re losing our edge.” Whatever it is. But, when you actually look at the data, you realize, well, yeah, if you fudge the data and if you massage it, maybe it will come out that way. But, actually that’s not the case at all.

Now you have people in a panic. You couple that with some of the uglier parts of human nature like “white flight” and other things. You create all of these alternatives like charter schools, you uncap charters, and now you have systematically dismantled public education. And you can now come in and say, “Well, they can’t help themselves so we’re going to take over.” And that’s happened in Detroit.

It’s the “Shock Doctrine”, Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” where you freak people out and then take advantage of the crisis.

Right! And they’ve done it in Philadelphia. They’ve done it in Louisiana. You see it in Los Angeles. We are just one domino. What’s really interesting, Chris, is that, if you look outside of the state, there’s sort of an awakening of this sleeping giant, if you will, where bloggers and activists are starting to start to waken from this slumber. It’s amazing. The internet has been an amazing factor. You’ve got the “United Opt-Out” movement where parents are opting their kids out of standardize testing. Because remember: standardized tests have been a major component of the global corporate education reform movement, right? You create a single point. You’re able to manipulate and cut scores and, suddenly, you’ve got schools in New York where all of a sudden the entire state is failing.

So, in any event, I’m nervous for the future but I’m also hopeful that people are going to say, “Not on my watch.”

It may seem cynical to believe that the EAA was designed to fail so that the pieces could be picked up and handed over to corporations. But the evidence we have seems to suggest it more strongly every day. Whether it’s true, partly true, or just a coincidence, it’s critical that the EAA NOT be expanded. Rather it needs to be shut down and either completely overhauled so that it has the important elements we should expect from such an important program or scrapped for good.

Let’s have that conversation NOW, on our watch.