Detroit, Education — September 26, 2014 at 1:46 pm

Explosive Education Achievement Authority exposé pulls back curtain on who profits from expansion: the software vendor


Since the beginning of the year, I have been documenting the ongoing travesty of Gov. Rick Snyder’s failed education experiment on Detroit children known as the Education Achievement Authority (EAA). Through exclusive interviews with current and former teachers and administrators, I detailed how the software platform called “BUZZ” was a total disaster from the very first days of the EAA’s existence. During my research for those pieces, I was never able to find a payment from the EAA to Agilix, the software developer of BUZZ and associated software like Brain Honey that is based on the BUZZ platform.

A new piece out this past week by ACLU journalist Curt Guyette, published in the Detroit Metro Times, pulls back the curtain on the connection between Agilix, the EAA and and a third party called the School Improvement Network or SINET. What Guyette reveals is that the EAA paid nearly $2 million dollars to use BUZZ and funneled the money through SINET which had partnered with Agilix to market their products.

Before I get more into Guyette’s important piece, I hope you’ll indulge me in a bit of a rant. There is no question that the writing and research that I have done on the EAA laid the groundwork for Guyette’s exposé. With regard to the BUZZ software, one piece in particular, titled “EAA Teacher of the Year on why she quit: ‘I was compromising my moral integrity and I couldn’t live with myself'”, began to shed light. In addition, I was contacted directly several months ago by the ACLU who asked me to put them in touch with the teachers and administrators that I had interviewed. I happily helped them with this because the story of the failure of the EAA and use of Detroit students as guinea pigs in this educational experiment needed as much exposure as it can get.

However, despite this assist and despite the fact that I was interviewed by Guyette just a few weeks ago, there is literally not one mention of the interviews, exposés, research, and other work that I have done – there are 102 posts on Eclectablog with the Education Achievement Authority tag – that helped pave the way for this explosive new piece. While I am not in this for the “fame and glory”, it seems to me that professional courtesy would have dictated at least an acknowledgment of the extensive body of work that I have created over the past nine months.

Guyette’s piece is outstanding and I tip my journalistic hat to him. If I was financially supported by a progressive group like the ACLU and was able to quit my day job as a scientist to write full time, this is just the sort of investigative journalism that I would endeavor to do. Unfortunately, that is not an option for me at this time. [/rant]

In addition to interviews with EAA teachers, administrators, parents, and students, the basis for Guyette’s piece is largely a huge number of emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request via Professor Tom Pedroni. His FOIA generated thousands of emails which reveal a shocking level of collusion between EAA administrators, Agilix, and SINET. Through EAA Deputy Chancellor Mary Esselman and former Chancellor John Covington, who was fired resigned in disgrace to “spend more time with family” after extravagant expenditures on travel and furniture were revealed, the EAA administration spent an enormous amount of time helping to promote the software of Agilix/SINET.

Esselman told Guyette that she has “no financial interest” in Agilix or SINET and that it was “not her job” to promote their software. Despite this, both she and Covington heavily promoted BUZZ across the country. They had used first version of BUZZ when the two were in Kansas City Public Schools, Covington as the superintendent and Esselman as a top administrator. (After they left Kansas City for Detroit, the school system lost it accreditation.) They worked closely with Agilix and SINET to improve the software which, according to the many teachers with whom I spoke, was not even functional enough to be called a “beta” version. The emails in Guyette’s piece show that Esselman was working on two fronts. On one front she was criss-crossing the country, giving presentations on the miracle of BUZZ and the so-called “Student Centered Learning” model, often in collusion with SINET and Agilix officials. On the second front she was holding off an increasingly angry group of teachers who were forced to deal with non-functional software. At the same time, she and Covington were keeping up a front that everything was just fine, nothing to see here, with state officials all the way up to Governor Snyder as well as their wealthy benefactors like Eli Broad.

These two email exchanges show the pressure Esselman was under:

From: Mary Esselman
To: Curt Allen [Agilix]

Thanks for the note. As you know we are still struggling our way through how to meet the varying needs of different levels of the organization as it relates to Buzz – access and reports for coaches and principals, how does it work for sped [special education] teachers and teachers who are not the teacher of record but need to assess work, how does info from the Buzz grade book export to the SIS [student information system], how do teachers add content in an easier way and the general implementation of SCL. My first hope is that we finally could have Duane here for several days to work with teachers and help cement some of the big issues prior to our visits from the governor, head of education committee, and Eli Broad and national funders prior to looking at where it expands and scales. November is a tough month in that the Legislature is working on the EAA bill and Dr. Covington has to testify on the 13th and 30th… I think we should plan a scaling visit for December and perhaps look to receive Duane’s support this month prior to the 16th if possible.

Thank you for caring.

From: Mary Esselman
To: [Several Agilix support staff]
Subject: Unit not letting students progress

Guys … We have Eli Broad, the governor, Head of Education in the House and Senate, hedge funders, etc. coming Friday and the students need at least one day in the unit prior to their visit. If we don’t fix this they will not be on the platform and it will be a debacle. This is important because … we have to generate funding. Please help us figure out why they are not accessing the new unit.

The emails prove that, despite the false front Esselman and Covington were presenting to the public, to legislators, to Gov. Snyder and his administration, and to wealthy funders, BUZZ was a complete disaster and they knew it. One of the things that I revealed through my interviews was that teachers, often first-year Teach for America teachers who had gone through only a few weeks of teacher training, were being asked to create curriculum in BUZZ despite the fact they were told when they hired that the software was already fully loaded and functional. But the problem didn’t stop at a lack of curriculum. Once they set up a committee of eight teachers – half of which were first-year TFA teachers – to put curriculum in, they ran into problems trying to do that:

From: Duane Call
To: Mary Esselman

This email deals with a list of 15 problems with Buzz that had to be addressed. Among the most notable:

• We need to be able to monitor which sites they [students] visit while logged into Buzz.
Our largest issue right now above all others is the lack of ability to add content in Buzz by teachers through search libraries or a browser link outside of Buzz. This was in our original scope [of work] but was dropped by the development team. Teachers can add content via a pasted link to everyone, a group, or an individual but have no ability to author courses. We went over this a very long time ago. This is not acceptable.

That wasn’t the only massive problem Esselman was contending with behind the scenes. Students were finishing units and not able to progress to the next one, a main feature of the self-paced, “Student Centered Learning” model.

The entire time Esselman was struggling to fight off an insurrection by her teachers over BUZZ, she was actively promoting it at education conferences, symposiums, and other get-togethers of educators and education reformers. She put in so much effort, it’s shocking to hear the Esselman has no financial involvement and many of the teachers with whom I spoke told me they suspect there IS a connection that she’s not revealing. It would certainly be no surprise to find Esselman working for SINET or Agilix once her tenure in the EAA ends.

There is, without a doubt, a clear financial motive to expand the Education Achievement Authority in Michigan and this is alluded to in the emails, as well. Covington and Esselman were working their tails off to prove that the EAA was a success and the emails show that Agilix and SINET were working hard to help them in that endeavor. It’s clear why: if the EAA expands, the sales of BUZZ will skyrocket meaning huge profits for all involved. Except, if she is to be believed, for Esselman.

It’s not just the expansion in Michigan that is of interest, by the way. They are looking to expand in other states, as well, and one of the big fears of one employee of SINET was that a Kentucky school showing interest in BUZZ, under its new name “GAGE”, would place an order before the “hack” version used by the EAA had been upgraded.

This email exchange, later dismissed by a SINET official as not endorsed by senior management, tells you much of what you need to know about the quality of the software used to educate Detroit kids in the EAA:

From: Brian Chandler [School Improvement Network]
To: Mary Esselman

In terms of the development schedule, we have spent countless hours going back and forth with them [Agilix] to determine how we can solve the remaining items on the schedule. We have reiterated to them again and again they have done a terrible job meeting schedules and expectations. We have had a series of meetings to determine how to complete the Phase 3 items. In the end, they have finally admitted the current version of Buzz is little more than a hack that really can’t be extended much further without a significant rewrite. As promised, I told them I needed a solid schedule from them that I could share with you;

1) Phase 2 – Phase 2 is obviously long past due. However, Austin [where an Agilix office is located) continues to try to blame you and your team for the delay. Phase 2 should be completed and deployed this week.

2) Phase 3 has morphed into a new process. First, Agilix Austin will no longer be involved in development. Second, for this phase, they have committed to doing nothing more than what is required to complete Phase 3 items to make the product scalable and extensible.

I know this schedule is very disappointing. Sam and I feel the same way. Unfortunately, even if we spun our own development at this point, by the time our team got up to speed, I don’t think we would be any further along than their teams will be by March. My other fear is that Kentucky will want Buzz/GAGE on the ground before March. Agilix is manually building another instance of Buzz//GAGE that we can deploy in Kentucky. I know that training Kentucky on the current version is not satisfactory to you (nor is it satisfactory to your needs at the EAA); however, I hope that you can be patient with us and help us make it work if necessary. We are planning to start or own development on BrainHoney and Buzz/GAGE both based on the March version and in parallel (hopefully starting in January or February), which will give us much more freedom on future direction of the product, but we are currently stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The irony of that email is that Esselman is actually being asked to train another school district on the use of software that was in complete failure mode in her own schools. She eventually did and the EAA was paid $5,000 for her services.

Finally, as I mentioned before, despite the fact that this complete failure of a software system was all but nonfunctional for much of the EAA’s life, they paid nearly $2 million to SINET for it along with associated services to support it and even to combine it with other software. Here are a couple of key passages from Guyette’s reporting and the emails (NOTE: the italicized sections are Guyette’s commentary.):

Teachers too had software to assist them in their professional development, a SINET product called PD360 — with PD standing for “professional development.”

Before long, those two companies partnered, with taxpayers kicking in $100,000 to pay for Buzz and PD 360 to be merged, allowing it to be marketed as a single product for customers interested in a package deal. (Contrary to what EAA documents say, a SINET executive told us that Buzz and PD360 had been merged in Kansas City.)

From: Duane Call [Agilix]
To: Marry Esselman; Cory Linton [SINET]
Subject Agilix EAA SWO agreement

Cory and Mary,

Our team just reviewed the final SOW [Statement of Work] and there was only one change required for us to sign. The total amount for the project needs to include the full $250K, not just the $100K from the EAA. I’ve updated the SOW accordingly – please review and then we’ll execute on our side. Thanks for all the patience and feedback!

We found no record of the EAA having ever made any payment to Agilix. It has, however, paid a total of $1.9 million to SINET. Esselman confirmed that “the EAA has utilized $250,000 in support of the development of Buzz and to make revisions requested by EAA teachers and students.”

From: Todd Smith [Strategic Partner Adviser for SINET]
To: Mary Esselman
Subject: EAA Invoice

Mary, I hope all is well. As per discussions related to the amended and approved contract with the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, I’m providing the first of 2 invoices for the 2012 school year. Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can be of any assistance to you and the EAA. I will be in your area February 11-12 and always available for you.

The attached invoice, totaling $1,009,660, includes $408,500 for four “coaches”; and $271,000 for high-tech cameras (used in large measure to video classroom and teacher activity that is uploaded onto PD360, SINET’s professional development product); and $80,000 for BrainHoney/Buzz. The EAA never made any direct payments to Agilix, creator of Buzz. Many staff interviewed by the ACLU of Michigan believed Buzz was being provided to the district for free because it was still in the developmental stage. In reality, payments were made to SINET, which entered into a formal partnership with Agilix in specific regard to incorporating Buzz in its PD360 product for sale to potential customers interested in a package deal.

Guyette’s reporting is extraordinary and raises significant questions about how taxpayer money directed to the EAA was spent. The model of hiring teachers, many of whom were inexperienced, first-year teachers, half of whom had no formal teacher training, and then turning them into proctors for a computer-based teaching model is egregious enough. However, now we learn just how much money was spent on a failed software platform and how intensively EAA officials were working to promote the software, something far beyond the scope of the job they were hired to do.

Taxpayers were literally paying John Covington and Mary Esselman to promote Agilix’s product while, at the same time, their experimental education model was imploding before their very eyes. Not only that, they were lying about the educational outcomes, something that has become abundantly clear thanks to the analyses done by Prof. Tom Pedroni.

So, when Republicans in the state legislature come back once again asking to expand the EAA across the state, we now have confirmation of who most stands to benefit. As I have been saying all along, it is Agilix and their partners at SINET. And, unless I miss my guess, Mary Esselman will end up working for one or the other of them before this is all over.