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The Education Achievement Authority: a quick explainer

Dec 10, 2014

Governor Snyder and Education Secretary Arnie Duncan at an EAA school.
Credit Jake Neher / MPRN

What is the Education Achievement Authority?

Opened in the fall of 2012, the idea was to create a bold new kind of school district that was run by the state and less restricted by administrative red tape, in order to do some radical turn-around work in some of Michigan’s worst schools.

The Education Achievement Authority district was envisioned as a kind of proving ground that could model education solutions that would later be repeated at troubled schools around the state.

But some critics saw it as a state takeover of local public schools, even though Detroit Public Schools weren’t doing a good job, either.

The initial legislation to create this kind of state-run turnaround district was passed under former Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, but critics say it’s an inroad for Republicans who want to privatize schools and erode unions.

Despite promises that the district would eventually pull up low-performing schools around the state, the 15 schools actually selected for the EAA are all in Detroit, leading to criticism that poor black kids were now going to be guinea pigs.

Revolutionizing learning, or “little more than a hack?”

The big thing that was supposed to make EAA schools so revolutionary was that they wouldn’t operate like your typical K-12 system.

Instead, the EAA promised to provide kids with individualized learning plans – basically, curriculum that met them at their own level, regardless of what grade they were in.

To do that, the EAA was going to have kids use computers a lot of the time. That way the computer could go at the kids’ pace, the thinking went, and the student would also get comfortable using technology.

No one expected this to be a totally smooth transition.

But ACLU investigative reporter Curt Guyette, formerly of the Metro Times, found that the technology brought into the EAA was riddled with problems that stalled student learning during the districts’ first two years, and that administrators were well aware of those issues even as they continued to use the troubled software.

According to Guyette’s interviews with former EAA teachers, the software program called “Buzz” allowed students to retake multiple choice exams so often that they could memorize the right answers, regularly lost student materials and forced kids to start whole sections over again, putting them way behind classmates.

Buzz was also described in an email from a consulting software design company to an EAA administrator as “little more than a hack that really can’t be extended much further without significant rewrites,” according to documents Guyette obtained through Freedom of Information requests.  

The results so far: mixed, but supporters say it’s still early

After the first year, about of quarter of the EAA’s students didn’t come back.

And the district’s 2014 MEAP scores weren’t great (most students “weren’t showing improvement or were getting worse,” according to a Free Press editorial) though supporters pointed out that this kind of turnaround doesn’t happen overnight.

MLive’s Khalil AlHajal wrote:

"In 13 of the 18 testing categories, less than 10 percent of EAA students scored at proficient levels.

Less than 5 percent passed in 10 categories.

And in two tests, seventh-grade math and fifth-grade science, the percentage of proficient scorers was 0.

But the EAA saw improvement from last year in 10 of the 18 categories.

Some of those gains were very slight, but there were also significant gains in reading, including a 10-percent bump for eighth graders -- going from 21.6 percent last year to 31.8 this year, a 6.5-point increase for sixth graders and a six-percent boost in fourth grade.”

The state superintendent, Mike Flanagan, also ended the EAA’s contract as the only reform district in the state.  

And the EAA’s leader, John Covington, resigned suddenly in June 2014.

The state appointed a new interim chancellor, Veronica Conforme, and extended her contract back in October.

For now, it appears that legislative efforts to expand the EAA have stalled.