Detroit, Education, Interview, Teachers — April 21, 2014 at 7:10 am

INTERVIEW – Former EAA teacher: “I really think that they are being dishonest with the public, teachers, and parents”


One of the recurring themes in the conversations that I have had with various teachers and administrators who work or have worked for the Education Achievement Authority is that when financial benefactors or members of our state government came to visit, the entire school transformed. Schedules were altered, often on the fly, to accommodate the visitors’ schedules. Kids ate lunch very early or very late, and as you’ll learn in this interview, teachers were reassigned from their normal classrooms to pose as teacher’s assistants for other teachers to give the appearance that large classrooms had multiple adults in them even though that was not normally the case.

Insights like these are important because so many decisions are made regarding Governor Snyder’s failed education experiment on Detroit’s kids based on visits taken there by state legislators. As we have learned, these visits were staged and even unannounced drop-ins were handled by special code phrases sent over the PA system giving teachers prior warning.

Today’s interview is with a former teacher in the EAA. Like some of the others I have spoken with, they fear reprisals from the administrators of the EAA and asked to have their name withheld. This teacher shares more details about the various deceptions practiced by the EAA administrators.

This is an important week for the EAA expansion bill. Tuesday is the filing deadline to be on the August primary ballot. With multi-millionaire Dick DeVos and other wealthy corporatists vowing to give massive financial support to the primary opponents of uncooperative Republicans in close districts, there will be a LOT of pressure on them in the Senate to change their mind and vote FOR expanding the EAA. Senate Democrats have a hearing scheduled for Tuesday morning and the leverage being exerted by DeVos and other wealthy people interested in privatizing our public school system will end at 4:00 p.m. that day when the deadline is reached for submitting paperwork to be on the ballot.

Please contact your Senator TODAY and ask them to vote NO on expanding the EAA.

Tell me about your experience working for the EAA. What were your impressions during your time there?

My biggest problem with the EAA is that I don’t think they’re being honest with people and I don’t think that they are well organized. Not that this isn’t anything you haven’t heard other say about them, but I really think that they are being dishonest with the public, the teachers, and, in some ways, with the parents.

In what ways? What do you mean by that?

One of the things that they aren’t being honest about is when they have visitors come into the building. That includes everyone up to the Governor. What ended up happening was that, every time there was a visitor in the building, we basically, you know, put on a show. I think it was a pretty decent show but it wasn’t what our school normally looked like.

Like a Potemkin Village where you put up the facades in front of everything.

Exactly. I taught a non-core subject so, on the days we had visitors, my job was to be an assistant classroom teacher during a math or an English Language Arts (ELA) course. It was usually 90 minutes but sometimes it stretched to as long as two hours, working in another teacher’s room, helping them out with their class.

You were brought in to pretend to help teach a class that wasn’t your subject? Is that what you mean?

I was brought in to be a teacher’s assistant for that block in a class where I was not the usual teacher, correct.

Was this a class that normally had only one teacher?

Yes, it normally had just one teacher, that’s correct.

So they brought you in to make it look like it was a “team teaching” situation.

That and to make it look like they had a teacher’s assistant there regularly. It was actually a selling point used by the upper level administrators. They would point out to visitors that the teacher pulls from their regular subject to help out. That would actually be a point of discussion that I regularly heard. But it only happened when we had visitors. I was never there any other time.

No kidding. That’s awesome. A true “dog and pony show”.

I’m not sure where the deception came from, if it was my principal telling her administrators that lie or if it was upper level administrators knowing it and passing that misinformation along again and again.

And that happened for every non-core subject teacher, every paraprofessional. There were other school employees like the parent volunteer coordinator, they’d get pulled in to help out in those rooms when we had visitors. Occasionally there were as many as three in a room.

But there were also times during visits when teachers didn’t get any help and we were directed not to send anybody out of the room without an adult. We were threatened with write ups. So, you could have a situation where you had a kid who needed to use the bathroom or was bleeding or had gotten into a fight, you had to find a way to flag somebody down.

Because you were told not to let them leave the room without adult supervision and you were alone.

Right. I know of at least two situations, one of which involved — I’m not kidding — a fifth grader where the kid ended up going to the bathroom on themselves because that teacher was afraid of being written up and didn’t have anybody there to assist and had been told not to send any students out.

I’ve gotten some pushback in some of the comments on my blog things like this never happened and that the principals would never ask anyone to do that. But I’ve now heard from at least three different teachers who have said this separately. So it’s interesting…

Yes. Yes.

It almost seems like there are a contingent of people who are supporting specific principals who are coming to my site and putting in positive comments. Angela Underwood from Nolan, for examples, seems to have at least a couple people that are putting out positive stuff about her.

She does have some supporters. There are some parents, I think, who like her a lot. Some people have claimed that things are better than when DPS was in charge. But my position is that if it IS better, it’s only because there are a bunch of really good teachers in that building who are busting their asses. Because they’ve given teachers no reason to stay. The whole thing is going to collapse on itself when those teachers leave. And I do say WHEN and not IF. Because it’s only a matter of time.

The Teach for America teachers who came in the first year the EAA opened are at the end of their contracts this summer. I have a feeling a lot of them will be gone when that happens.

In the building I was in, there were ten first year teachers. Some of us had traditional backgrounds, some of them were TFA people, but it was a lot. What ended up happening is that we leaned on each other for support and worked very hard and I DO think we made some improvements. But I don’t think it’s a systemic EAA thing. I think it’s just the people that we happened to have there and that’s really all that I think you can pin it on. And I don’t think most of those people are going to stay.

Had you taught before you came to the EAA?

I had not taught in a school before that. I had done student teaching, of course. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree and Masters degree in Education, but I had not yet received a teaching job. I had moved from out of state and not been employed as a teacher prior to being hired by the EAA.

One of the things that I’ve been trying to determine is whether or not the BUZZ software program actually had curriculum in place when teachers got there or whether they were expected to populate that and…

[Hearty laughter]. Look, you have to understand that, as a non-core curriculum person, I didn’t even get access to computers. But, for my subject, there was nothing there. Absolutely nothing.

SHOULD you have had access to computers? You’re laughing about this.

Well, that had been talked about at the beginning of the year. That was one of the goals. But they never materialized. The administration did talk it up, saying that they wanted everyone doing that. But they didn’t give people teaching non-core subjects those resources.

So what were you doing without computers to teach your class? My understanding is that they got rid of all of the textbooks and there were very few resources available.

I was lucky in that the textbooks for my subjects were NOT thrown away.

So you actually got to use textbooks.

I did. Another part of it was that I created a lot of stuff from scratch and I would do lots of learning targets and learning goals myself. I tried to get that up and running because we were still expected to establish learning goals as you would in BUZZ, mastery of learning goals. But we didn’t have the platform or curriculum there to show us specifically how it should be done so we were just kind of winging it.

So tell me a bit more about when your school had visitors. Those visits sounded like they were very disruptive to the education process on the days visitors came.

Yes. As you’ve heard, we changed lunch, recess schedules, and class schedules to accommodate the visitors. You did have kindergarteners eating lunch at 10:00 a.m., that sort of thing. We would change the schedule on the fly sometimes. There was one time when we changed the whole day’s schedule during the day because the visitor’s schedule got moved back, for example.

Any time we had a visitor, our lives revolved around the visit. There was such a huge gap between what people wanted to happen and what actually was happening. There’s a fantastic story about when Governor Snyder visited late in November, it was right before Thanksgiving. He toured the building and then, after the tour, they had a catered lunch in the library. There were some administrators, some parents, a few select students, the Governor and his staff and all of that. Meanwhile, in the lunchroom that day, the cafeteria was a bit short on food so the lunch was tortilla chips, nacho cheese, cinnamon Teddy Grahams, an apple, and water. At one point they ran out of tortilla chips so they switched to Doritos. So, you had the Governor upstairs eating in the library a catered lunch brought in from outside and downstairs in the cafeteria you had elementary school kids eating Doritos with nacho cheese.

I ate the lunch in the cafeteria with the kids that day and I felt terrible the rest of the day. So I can imagine how the kids felt.

They’re not being honest with their visitors. They’re not showing them what the EAA schools do look like, they’re showing them what they want them to look like.

In your opinion, if they showed them what it actually does look like, is it really that horrible that it would reflect badly on them?

You know, I don’t know. I’m really not sure what they are so worried about or afraid of. We weren’t good during transitions. Hallways were bad. There were kids who would have been loud, it would not have been a perfect setting, etc., etc. But I’m really uncertain about why the sleight of hand is there. That’s never made sense to me. Some of the things with the Child Protective Services reports had never made sense to me either. When you posted that email, I remembered what brought that about. I’m going mostly from what I heard from other teachers but I was told that we had a security guard who made a CPS report because of a situation they witnessed between a student and a parent in the building. What we know for sure is that that security guard was reassigned almost immediately afterwards.

My understanding is that the parent got very upset and made a big fuss with the administration so that may be why that happened.

And you’ve got the situation where teachers are being asked to report to the administration before filing a CPS report which is just straight up illegal as I understand it.

I really think that one of the major areas where the ball has been dropped by the EAA administration is the follow-up on those sorts of situations and the way they’ve treated special needs kids.

What are your impressions about the claims of academic success being made by the EAA administrators?

I don’t trust the data that they are giving to the public. I don’t feel like I saw the same sort of progress that they are talking up.

They’re claiming students progressed a year and a half in one year on average and more in some cases.

I don’t believe. Here’s the thing about the test: when we gave it to them in the fall, we just kind of threw it at them. Then, when we tested them again the second, third, fourth time, we had pizza parties for students who did well so there was incentive for them to try hard on it when there wasn’t the first time. So there were these little things like that which makes me not trust their data.

I also don’t think they’re being honest with the teacher evaluations. The year that I taught there, it was definitely a challenge and it was hard. But I really felt that I got better by the end of the year. At the end of the year, I was doing well enough that I was invited to be part of what was called the “Innovators by Design Team”. It is a staff-led professional development team. We were told, and I’m quoting from the email they sent me here, “You were selected because you have demonstrated a good working knowledge and vision for a student-centered system of teaching and learning beginning with your own classroom. You’re growing enthusiasm motivates your students and colleagues to achieve at higher levels. As a member of the team, you’ll be responsible for delivering high quality, ongoing professional development to your colleagues.

And who did this come from?

This was from the district. This was a district-level professional development team that they had developed to help explain and teach this SCL – student centered learning – stuff to new staff. It was nice, they were willing to pay me a little extra to do that. It was a nice thing to get.

It was also really funny because they rated me as “Minimally Effective”.

Are you KIDDING me?!

No, sir, I’m not.

This was some sort of end-of-the-year evaluation or something?

Exactly. The teacher evaluations had five domains which I believe is standard in Michigan’s school turnaround model. There were four domains where I was given a three and which is “Effective”, one domain where I was given a two which is “Minimally Effective”. They use some sort of way to take an average and my score came out a 2.9. But you have to hit a 3 to be considered “Effective” so they labeled me “Minimally Effective”.

But you were invited to be on this blue ribbon panel to do professional development of other teachers.

Yup. So, I don’t really know which it was. I don’t know if they thought I was a strong teacher or if I was a weak teacher. I know the rumor was, and I saw no documentation for this, but the rumor was that you had to have a 3.0 to get the bonus money. You know we had those TIF [Teacher Incentive Fund] grants where they had money for bonuses for high achieving teachers. So it would have been awfully convenient for them if I were to get a 2.9.

Right. That would save them some money. So, they’ve got all of these metrics for evaluating teachers but they seem to ignore them when they need you for something.

Yeah. Exactly right. So, there’s are two options and neither one of them is good. Option One is that they rated me lower than what I actually was as a teacher or, Option Two, they decided that, even though I was minimally effective, I was still good enough to help train other teachers. Neither way is good there. So, I don’t think they’re being honest on their teacher evaluations, quite frankly.

I’ve also heard that there was a great deal of favoritism among administrators of EAA schools and they had sort of “pet teachers” that they particularly liked and that they were the ones that were more likely to toe the line for them and do what they wanted so they got special treatment.

There was. There absolutely was. As you’ve heard, they didn’t care for people who were willing to speak up.

People like Nolan Teacher of the Year Kim Jurczak?

Yes, people like Kim. And I had another colleague who was conveniently fired at the end of the year. They actually ended up having to rehire her because they determined that they hadn’t fired her in a correct or legal fashion. But she was very outspoken throughout the year so it wasn’t surprising to me that they had fired her.

The EAA is obviously a very disorganized organization; they were “building the plane as we fly it”. That’s a direct quote, by the way, that was said by an upper level administrator during professional development. Quote, “We are building the plane as we fly it.”

At least there was self-awareness about it! I’m sort of relieved to hear that, actually.

Well, that’s the thing, I’m not certain what the deal is. Obviously somebody is being deceived but I’m not exactly sure who and why and for what reasons. There is some sleight of hand going on, or multiple sleights of hand going on.

It just seems like it would have been better if they had just said, “Look, we’re getting off to a rocky start, we’re not getting things up and running as quickly as we wanted to, but here’s the reality and we’re working really hard.” But instead of being honest about it, they put up this big front to pretend that they’re something that they weren’t. And you’re right, I don’t know who the audience is. Is it the wealthy benefactors like the Gates Foundation or the Broad Foundation, or was it the State Board of Education, or whatever? Who was it?

I don’t know. Because they ALL came in. But we just seemed to get squeezed harder. I assume the principals were under a lot of pressure and that they, in turn, put a lot on us. I really don’t know.

The whole organization was disorganized, though. For example, we didn’t know the snow day policy until we had a snow day. That was the first time we heard about it. I was thinking ahead about it and late November, early December, I asked one of our administrators, “What’s our snow day policy?” And they were honest with me and said the didn’t know. He was an administrator and the upper level administration hadn’t outlined that for him yet.

You would think in Michigan they would have thought to do that!

Right! I don’t if wasn’t as big of a thing in Kansas City [where EAA Chancellor John Covington and much of his staff are from] or what, but we’re talking about early December and they didn’t know how they were going to handle snow days. The first time we had a snow day, they asked the staff to report and everybody was upset about that. The second time that changed. And how they listed it on the tv screens changed between the first and second time and then changed again.

I understand that a school system is starting from scratch is going to have some of that happen but they’re trying to act like nothing is wrong.

Instead of being honest about it, right. I suppose that part of that — I mean Covington came in selling himself as a proven administrator who knew how to do this stuff, he knew what he was doing. So he couldn’t admit that things were going to be bad because it would show that he wasn’t as qualified as he said he was.

That matches up with what we were told. When he came in and spoke, he was very inspiring, etc. And I do think that Covington is a smart guy. When he came in for visits, he wasn’t the one talking. He was standing back and watching and listening.

You know his history, right? He left Kansas City schools as superintendent and then they lost their accreditation a short time later. So there was a house of cards there that all collapsed after he left.

When that news started getting out, our principal addressed that very strongly. When we started getting news about Kansas City losing their accreditation, I recall being told that it was politically motivated at the time, that they weren’t playing the political game properly.

So they were spinning it to you guys.


The big thing for me is that they really aren’t being honest with people at all. And they’re going to lose teachers because of it.