The Education Achievement Authority, Part 3: True reform, or a questionable experiment?

Apr 16, 2013

Pershing players and fans celebrate their win
Pershing players and fans celebrate their win
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

The Education Achievement Authority is up and running right now in 15 Detroit schools.

Michigan’s state-run “reform district” for the lowest-performing schools is already controversial.

In the eyes of Governor Snyder and its champions, the EAA is the best way to assure that schools don’t linger in failure for years on end.

In the eyes of critics, it’s already a failed experiment that threatens the very heart of public education in Michigan.

In the final installment of a three-part series, Michigan Radio takes a look at both sides and what the future might hold.

Changes in the home of the “Doughboys”

Detroit’s Pershing High School has some long, deep traditions.

One of those traditions is “Doughboys” basketball.

Pershing’s Doughboys were nationally ranked this year. And they took on Detroit Cass Tech for the city title last month at Detroit’s Western International High School.

Pershing isn’t a Detroit public school anymore, though. It’s one of 15 Detroit schools that entered the Education Achievement Authority this school year.

“It’s a pretty nice school. Different from what it was last year, but it’s all right,” says tenth-grader Candace Tate as she prepares to cheer on the Doughboys.

Tate says she felt like things have been a little bit hectic during this transition year, but she thinks things have gotten somewhat better as the year goes on.

Some of Tate’s classmates aren’t as charitable. Sitting amongst the blue-and-yellow clad Doughboy fans is tenth-grader Zarriya Carruthers.

“I don’t like school,” Carruthers says. “There’s too much going on. There’s like, gang violence and all that … I don’t really like school.”

When I ask Carruthers exactly what she means, she says simply, “Watch the news.”

Pershing has had its share of issues this year, including one major gang violence incident that brought police rushing into the school.

Carruthers’ classmate, Niaja Hill, has a broader critique. “It’s unorganized,” Hill says. “Everything is at the last minute.”

Hill’s sentiment is one I’ve heard over and over again from EAA teachers and students: The school environment, at least at the high school level, seems to have gotten worse during this transition year.

And that’s a problem for Michigan’s “turnaround” or “reform district.” The EAA’s big goal is to take the lowest-performing schools—the lowest five percent of performers statewide—and somehow foster educational environments where students can thrive, despite a lot of tough obstacles.

But state and district officials don’t necessarily see things the same way.

A “reform district” … or a failed experiment?

“The overall vision is much like has been done in other states,” says Bill Rustem, Governor Snyder’s director of strategy, “to build another model for the delivery of educational services … that is a reform district.”

The EAA is one of Snyder’s biggest education initiatives. It’s part of his larger, state-led effort to “transform traditional public education.”

The EAA’s own literature puts it this way:

“The system will place the ultimate power for running each school in the hands of the principal, teachers and staff … rather than in a central administration. It will allow principals to hire the best teachers; and ensure that at least a third more taxpayer dollars are spent directly in the classroom.”

The EAA is only running in Detroit right now. But a bill to take the district statewide is moving in Lansing. Critics say, at best, that move is premature.

“They’re experimenting on our students,” says Thomas Pedroni, associate professor of curriculum studies at Wayne State University. “And it’s interesting that it’s almost always low-income students of color.”

Pedroni is part of a group of educators and citizen activists that’s been highly critical of the EAA, and broadly suspicious of Governor Snyder’s “education reform” agenda.

Pedroni was himself a teacher, and he’s since studied different “reform districts” in other states. One key thing everyone agrees those districts need to do in order to succeed: hire and retain great teachers.

But Pedroni says the EAA has done something other reform districts have done: rely heavily on Teach for America. That program takes college graduates, usually from elite universities, and puts them through a five-week, summer crash course in teaching. After the teachers become licensed by the state to teach in their subject areas, they're placed in high-poverty schools, usually for two years.

But the program has many critics, including Pedroni. “While there are certainly also among the Teach for America cohort some very talented teachers,” Pedroni says, “the reality is that their attractiveness to school districts is oftentimes their low cost.”

In the EAA, 27 percent of teachers are with Teach for America. The percentage is much higher in some schools.

Pedroni and other critics argue that Teach for America doesn’t tend to produce a high proportion of career teachers. Many of the the program's alumni do continue as classroom teachers, and a larger portion stay in the education field. However, the program's own 2011 statistics show that a little less than a third of all Teach for America alumni stay in the classroom.

Pedroni points out that by cycling teachers in and out of schools every two years, the program can contribute to the instability that already plagues high-poverty schools. TFA teachers are also, by default, relatively young and inexperienced. Overall, a little over half the EAA’s teachers have three years of teaching experience or less.

Pedroni says so far, it’s also hard to verify the EAA’s claim that it’s spending more money—at least 90 percent—in the classroom than a traditional public school.

"The EAA budget—at least, the ones that are available to the public—do not break down the budget into the traditional U.S. Department of Education categories," Pedroni says.

The EAA budget does break down the budget into “school based” and “non-school based” costs, with an impressive 94 percent of funds deemed “school based.” However, Pedroni says this is a different formula than federal officials use to calculate classroom-based spending, which is usually identified as an “instruction” category.

Pedroni and other EAA critics think this is all part of a bigger problem. They argue the EAA, as it stands, lacks transparency and accountability, and is part of some disturbing trends in Michigan’s public schools.

“Everyone involved in education in Michigan ought to be alarmed ... ”

“There are private forces behind it, and there are conflicts of interest all over the place,” says Bert Johnson, a state senator from Detroit.

Right now, the EAA isn’t operating as a legal, statewide school district. It’s running under an interlocal agreement between the Detroit Public Schools and Eastern Michigan University.

Johnson says that’s a problem, “Because [the EAA is] co-opting public funds, and using them in a way that [it] can’t necessarily qualify on paper in front of the Michigan Department of Education.

“Everyone involved in education in Michigan ought to be alarmed that that is happening.”

Part of the problem, in critics’ eyes, is that the EAA is also privately funded. The district launched with the promise of a private fundraising campaign to support its operations. But district officials won’t reveal who their main funders are—or even how much money they want to raise.

We do know, though, that so far, the district hasn’t raised as much private money as it would have liked. Earlier this year, Chancellor John Covington had to ask for an advance on state funds.

Johnson says that’s only one of the ways the EAA has been rushed into place. He argues that it’s part of a larger education agenda that aims to strip local school districts of their traditional authority, and put a host of new, largely private, interests in their place.

“You just don’t get to put the cart before the horse,” Johnson says. “You have to get it right. And we’ve told them that.”

But district and state officials say calling the EAA a politically-motivated rush job is unfair.

“The idea is put it in place, and then let’s begin a process of carefully constructing the EAA over time to give these kids a chance,” insists Governor Snyder’s chief strategist Bill Rustem.

Rustem and district officials argue that any start-up needs time to succeed, and that what limited data exists so far shows EAA students making some strides.

And Rustem says the bottom line is simple: the state has the ultimate responsibility to educate students. He maintains that locally-controlled schools are given lots of time and options to turn things around before they get moved into the EAA.

“But if you can’t, or if you refuse, or if you don’t … then the state has that constitutional obligation to step in and provide for the education of those kids,” Rustem says.

And Rustem says that’s why the EAA should be approved in Lansing, and taken statewide. It’s been approved largely along party lines in the House, and it appears destined to follow the same path in the Senate—though Democrats like Johnson are trying to hold up the process.

A turnaround victory for the EAA?

Oh, and that city championship basketball game? Pershing won. It was a tremendous come-from-behind victory, as Pershing’s Martez Walker hit a buzzer-beater to give the Doughboys a two-point victory over Cass Tech—and sent their loyal fans into an ecstatic courtside celebration.

Can the EAA pull off the same kind of turnaround victory in a bigger sense? We still don’t know, and likely won’t know for awhile yet.

But EAA critics are right in one sense: the district is definitely a big experiment. And the results of that experiment will reshape public education in Michigan, one way or another.