Although I was unable to attend the Senate Democrats’ hearing on expansion of the Education Achievement Authority earlier this week, I was allowed to submit written testimony. Since it allowed me to sum up my impressions based on nearly 20 interviews with former and current EAA teachers and an administrator, I am reprinting it here.
April 22, 2014
I appreciate the willingness of the committee to accept written testimony as my job precludes me from attending in person.
In December of 2013, I was contacted by two teachers teaching in the Education Achievement Authority (EAA). These two teachers were extremely concerned about how students in the EAA were being treated by staff and administrators and how the teachers themselves were being treated. Because they were still employees, they chose to remain anonymous in exchange for telling me their story and allowing me to publish the interviews on my website, Eclectablog.com.
Following the publication of their interviews, over a dozen other former and current teachers and administrators stepped forward to tell me their stories, all of which corroborated each other. Some were new teachers. Some were veteran teachers. Some had gone through Teach for America’s crash course in classroom teaching. All of them had valid concerns over what is happening in EAA schools.
There are several key points that came out of my interviews, some of which were anonymous and some of which were not. I would like to share those with you today.
Many of the teachers I spoke with detailed highly disturbing accounts of teachers being assaulted by students with no repercussions, of administrators harming students as a matter of policy, and of students using school-issued computers to access inappropriate (pornographic, e.g.) material on the internet. One particularly disturbing account I heard from multiple teachers was of an administrator hitting a student’s hands with a ruler until they were tender and red and then applying stinging alcohol-containing hand sanitizer to make them burn. This was referred to by the administrator as “hand sanitizing” and was used as punishment for improper behavior.
LACK OF ADEQUATE RESOURCES
Nearly all of the teachers with whom I spoke talked about the lack of classroom resources. With textbooks largely unavailable in EAA schools, the main teaching tool was the laptop using the BUZZ computer platform to track students’ progress. However, for much of its existence, the EAA did not have enough computers for all of the students. The BUZZ program itself was not functional until the EAA had been open for business for several months and, once it became available, it was mostly empty, requiring teachers to input their own curriculum. It’s worth noting that a very large percentage of teachers in the EAA are first-year teachers and half of those are from Teach for America meaning that they literally have no training whatsoever with regard to curriculum development.
The BUZZ program itself has never been used anywhere else. It was, in fact, GIVEN to the EAA to test, essentially making EAA students beta testers or “guinea pigs” in this experiment. The assumption here is that, once the bugs have been worked out in the EAA schools, it will be sold into other programs making a profit for the corporation who produces it, a profit paid for with tax funds earmarked for education. There are indications that EAA administrator Mary Esselman has a financial interest in the company that makes BUZZ. If true, this represents a major conflict of interest.
FAILING SPECIAL NEEDS STUDENTS
Many teachers I spoke to, including some special education teachers, told me how special ed students were being denied mandated services. Most teachers never saw the Individualized Education Plans that they were supposed to follow to ensure the students’ needs were being met. Special ed teachers were being given too many cases, in violation of state law, and there were countless examples of how these children were not being well cared for in the EAA school system. It’s heartbreaking because Detroit students are already heavily impacted by the crushing poverty in their city and special needs kids are hit even harder.
POTEMKIN-VILLAGE STYLE SCHOOL VISITS BY FINANCIAL BENEFACTORS AND GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS
Teacher after teacher recounted stories of when they received visitors in their EAA schools. During these visits, the education process ground to a near halt. Classroom schedules were rearranged on the fly to accommodate the visitors and to ensure that they saw only what school administrators allowed them to see. They were generally not permitted to see students transitioning from one class to the next to avoid the hallway chaos that was typical in these schools. Teachers in non-core subjects were pulled into English Language Arts or other core subject classrooms to pose as teacher’s assistance to give the appearance that the large classrooms had more than one educator present. This, I learned, only happened when visitors were present.
During visits, teachers were often instructed to keep their students out of the hallways unescorted by an adult. On multiple occasions this resulted in children soiling themselves in the classroom as teachers were instructed to keep them from even visiting the restroom while visitors were in the building.
Even unannounced visits were not entirely unstaged as administrators would send code word announcements over the school PA to alert teachers to the presence of visitors.
The EAA schools use their own internal testing to “prove” that their students are making out of the ordinary progress. However, teachers informed me that the initial testing was done in a rather haphazard fashion and follow-up testing was incentivized with students who did well being treated to pizza parties. In other words, they established a low level baseline performance and then took steps to ensure that students were far more likely to score well on follow-up tests in order to show exaggerated improvement.
In addition to this, MEAP testing supplies were left unsecured in the days and weeks leading up to the MEAP test being administered, raising the eyebrows of veteran teachers. In their previous schools, these teachers had seen MEAP testing supplies being under tight security before the test in accordance with the rules of administering the test to protect its veracity. What they saw in EAA schools was poor security and high pressure for teachers to show excellent progress – a combination that invites cheating and worried some of the teachers I spoke with.
Despite this, we learned after the most recent MEAP testing results were released that, in fact, EAA schools are NOT showing the dramatic performance improvements claimed by the administration. In some cases, children actually regressed.
In some of the conversations I have had with people about the EAA, I asked them to imagine what a solution to turning around poorly performing schools might look like. In general, there are three components that people feel would be present in an “Education Surge” to rapidly improve struggling schools:
- Well-equipped, well-funded schools with the best available, proven education resources for teaching.
- Highly-trained teachers supported by the best available staff with a strong background in school administration.
- A proven education model for turning around struggling schools.
The EAA fails in all three of these areas:
- The schools are under-equipped, have no textbooks, and operate in buildings that aren’t even air-conditioned in the summer. Despite claims that our state wants to change things, the schools are still funded at levels on par with schools that are NOT struggling in Michigan.
- They operate with an incredibly high number of inexperienced first-year teachers, many from Teach for America who receive less than two months training before being placed in a classroom. The district level administrators come mainly from the Kansas City Public Schools system that lost accreditation shortly after their departure.
- The “Student Centered Learning” approach utilizing the BUZZ computer platform is unproven and, based on the most recent testing results, appears to be ineffective at best and harmful at worst. It’s stunning to think of school rooms without text books or other reading materials, relying entirely on laptop computers.
I urge ALL legislators to read the interviews that I have published and to look more closely behind the curtain of the EAA. Despite grandiose claims of performance improvement by their students, the facts do not correlate with the claims.
One final thing: everybody I know, on both sides of the political spectrum, both inside and outside of public school system, wants to see progress for Detroit students. These children have been ill-served by our state and by our education system for far too long. However, implementing a new system that continues to fail them does not represent an improvement. It may make some of us feel good that we’re “doing something” but if that “something” isn’t making things better, it’s little more than a feel good effort that doesn’t improve the lives of Detroit students. They deserve better than that. They deserve a true “Education Surge” comprised of the elements I described above.