How do we rescue and turn around schools that are failing?
That's one of the biggest challenges concerning the education system in Michigan. Governor Snyder and many in the Legislature - especially Republicans - favor the EAA as a solution.
The education Achievement Authority is a new school system for Michigan's worst-performing public schools. Since last fall, 15 Detroit schools have been run under the EAA, changing the educational experience for nearly 10,000 students and 400 teachers.
Now, the state is seeking to expand the EAA to 35 more schools around the state. The Legislature is also considering a bill that would establish the EAA in law.
Critics who are challenging the EAA believe that there should be concrete evidence that the EAA is truly helping students before moving ahead with any sort of expansion.
Michigan Radio recently talked with one of those critics, State Representative Ellen Cogen Lipton, a Democrat from Huntington Woods.
Today, John Covington, the chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, joined us to discuss the new school system and to update us on how the 15 Detroit schools are doing.
A response to critics of the EAA
"I find it mind boggling for individuals to make allegations against a unique approach providing educational programs and services to children who have been historically underrepresented and underserved as evidenced by the lackluster performance they demonstrate when we took over."
Covington said that the EAA prepares students with an educational experience that will provide them with the skills they need to graduate and become a part of the workforce or move on to college.
If the EAA isn't the right solution, what will happen to children in the meantime?
"Are we going to send them out to Cranbrook? I equate that to saying, 'Let's keep children in the failing situations in which children - at no fault of their own - are being forced to attend a school in which we all know that the current system isn't working, and hasn't worked for several decades."
How the EAA works
Covington feels strongly that the EAA is working, and that the methods the system uses are progressive and effective.
The EAA doesn't have traditional grade levels. Instead, the system is configured within instructional levels. The curriculum within each instructional level is "tightly aligned to Michigan model content standards and national core standards."
When students demonstrate mastery of an instructional level, they move on to the next one.
At the beginning of the school year, the EAA administered a performance assessment to see where students in the 15 Detroit schools were.
In each subsequent quarter, students took another assessment to chart the growth they made under the new educational system. Currently, the EAA administration is in the process of the third assessment.
Covington said that the growth between the first and second quarter was extraordinary.
'Growth' is an important word for the EAA. A principle goal for the system is to have kids experience one-and -a-half to two year improvement within one academic year.
When the EAA took over the 15 schools, less than 18 percent of the students were proficient in reading. Two percent were proficient in science, and no students were proficient in writing or social studies. The vast majority of students were two or more years behind grade level.
After they compared the first and second quarter assessments, Covington reported progress.
"Twenty percent of the children demonstrated that they made one year's growth, and then 25-30% demonstrated that they were on the trajectory to make one more year's growth."
Learning with Buzz
One of the EAA's tools for students is a digital platform called Buzz, which Covington said provides individualized education plans.
"It's nothing more than an electronic platform to help teachers differentiate instruction, provide children with a blended model of educational experiences, and to help them overcome deficits that children have."
But critics of the EAA said that Buzz wasn't as beneficial as Covington believes it to be.
When Ellen Cogen Lipton spoke with Michigan Radio, she talked about a conversation she had with a student at Mumford high school, which had been taken over by the EAA.
"They said, 'Buzz is a joke, it's not challenging, it's demeaning.' I asked them if they liked their school better now or before and they said, 'Before.' When I asked why, one student said, 'Look around this room. Do you see any books? I really miss my books,'" Cogen Lipton said.
Covington didn't agree.
"Children are absolutely, positively, without question, fascinated with Buzz and with the mark of improvement they see in their own learning. I wasn't with Lipton when she claimed to visit the school. Would I sit here and tell you that every, single student was happy with Buzz? No, I wouldn't. But across the district, the overwhelming majority of teachers and students are happy with the move we've made."
He noted that students are allowed to use a plethora of resources in their education, and that books are available for them.
Goals and hopes
The EAA does need improvement, Covington said.
One area that needs expansion is the professional development program for teachers. In the current model, teachers receive thirty days of professional development support, but Covington would like to see that support continue.
Schools under the EAA will also be working to reduce the amount of disciplinary infractions in the classroom.
Covington isn't concerned with the 5,000 infractions this year - those numbers are typical for urban schools, he said. With time, the culture and climate within the schools will continue to improve.
For him, public education isn't a career, but his life, and he plans to continue moving forward within the EAA.
"For anybody out there who feels that it's okay for a student to graduate high school with a diploma that they can't even read, and they don't find anything wrong with that, there's something wrong with that mindset."
-- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom
To listen to the audio, click the link above.