The state legislature is considering bills that would expand a state-led effort to turn around Michigan’s lowest performing schools.
Right now, the Education Achievement Authority is in charge of 15 schools, all of them in Detroit.
In this second half of a two-part series, we’ll hear from some people who’ve been inside the current EAA—and paint a less-than-rosy picture.
“Disrupting” traditional education?
Governor Snyder has long urged state lawmakers to create more policy options for turning around historically low-performing schools.
“Shouldn’t we have it so we have more choices for persistently failing schools?” Snyder asked recently.
A bill that would do exactly that recently passed the State House, and is now before the Senate.
One of those choices would be to put more schools—up to 50 statewide--into the Education Achievement Authority. Right now, just 15 Detroit schools are in the EAA.
A promotional video on the EAA website shows formerly-failing schools transformed by a new, individualized education model.
“The EAA looks to disrupt traditional education. It’s a different system for a different outcome,” an EAA principal says at one point during the video.
District officials say what sets its approach apart is that individualized model, called student-centered learning. It’s the centerpiece of the EAA’s effort to “meet students where they’re at,” and boost achievement in schools where the vast majority of students start out way behind.
In the EAA, student-centered learning centers around computers—specifically, a curriculum platform called BUZZ. EAA officials said early district assessments showed the approach is already working, and that students are much more engaged.
“They just don’t like sit down all day, and make us do work,” a 12-year-old student from Nolan Elementary-Middle School says in the district video. “They will be up helping kids, answering questions.”
“It was like being thrown into the lion’s den”
But as the EAA goes through its second full school year, there’s more solid information on the district’s performance. It reveals some problems.
One major problem is enrollment. The data show that about one-quarter of all EAA students left the district between its first and second year (district officials have said this drop was "expected").
The EAA’s first batch of state test results weren’t too promising, either. You can find some bright spots among the data. But overall, most EAA students’ MEAP scores dropped, or stayed about the same, as the previous year.
And a small but growing number of former teachers and administrators have started speaking out publicly about the EAA’s troubles.
“It started from the very beginning of school. It seemed like I was set up to fail,” said former Nolan teacher Delbert Glaze. “I pretty much felt like I was thrown into the lion’s den, and left to fend for myself the whole year.”
Glaze said that despite his protests, he was assigned to teach middle school—even though he’s not certified at that level.
Then there were major problems with BUZZ. Glaze said it didn’t even work much of the time. And even when it did, many of his students either weren’t really learning from the program, or connecting with it.
Glaze describes himself as a “tech guy,” and he was initially attracted to the district’s technology-centered curriculum. But he said that to really “meet students where they’re at,” you need to mix things up.
“Every student learns in a different way,” Glaze said. “You have to find out how each student learns, and then differentiate based on that.
“A computer can be part of the lesson, [but] not the whole lesson…where they’re like zombies looking at computer screens all day.”
But Glaze said when he tried to engage kids in different ways—like group review sessions to complement BUZZ lessons--he was criticized. He said anything that smacked of what EAA administrators saw as “traditional” or “whole group” teaching was treated with contempt.
Glaze said there were other technology problems. The computer system had no web filter until late in the school year, meaning kids could—and did—access any website they wanted during the school day.
Then there were the more human problems. Glaze said staff morale was low, student discipline a serious problem, and there was a general atmosphere of intimidation.
And with the EAA under a magnifying glass, Glaze said there was a constant parade of politicians, potential funders, and other visitors coming through the school. Then, the focus shifted to making things look good.
Glaze recounted one instance when a visitor asked one of his students whether she liked BUZZ. When she replied that she wasn’t learning anything, Glaze was told to keep the girl away from future visitors.
“My children didn’t learn as much”
Many parents weren’t impressed, either.
“I thought it was going to be a better learning system, but it was the opposite,” Dorcus Anderson said. “My children didn’t learn as much as they did in the DPS [Detroit Public Schools] system.”
Anderson’s four kids attended Nolan before and after it became an EAA school. She said her first impression was that the school was somewhat more organized under the new system.
“But after you get in and you start watching a little bit, it is not organized at all,” Anderson said.
Anderson admitted that Nolan was “far from perfect” as a DPS school. But she felt like the teachers and administrators genuinely cared. Under the EAA, Anderson said her kids seemed to get less individual attention, and most teachers seemed “too busy” to reach out to parents.
Anderson said the breaking point came when she had to put her third-grade son in private tutoring because he couldn’t master basic math. So she pulled her kids out of the EAA, and put them in Highland Park public schools.
Anderson said teachers there caught her son’s learning problems, and suggested he be tested for an individualized education program (something required by federal law if a child has a learning disability). Anderson said she didn’t even realize that was an option.
Anderson said her kids are much happier in school now. “I don’t feel like they’re being pushed to the side, and being passed on,” she said.
Are critics being fair?
Even the EAA’s fiercest critics admit that every school is different, and no doubt some parents are pleased with the system. But the enrollment data tell us that many, like Dorcus Anderson, are not.
And then there are the troubling accounts from teachers like Delbert Glaze.
An EAA spokesman said by email that such “unfortunate and inappropriate political attacks” are unfair to EAA educators, who are “determined to stay focused on the needs of the children, and not the politics of the adults.” It went on to highlight some bright spots in district MEAP scores, including a 15 point jump in reading proficiency among Nolan 4th graders.
It added that it wouldn’t be appropriate to respond to unverified claims from “disgruntled former teachers."
Delbert Glaze was dismissed from the EAA after one year, and is now teaching in another district. He knows that publicly criticizing his former employer doesn’t look good--but points out he’s not the only one.
And Glaze bristles at the suggestion those who are speaking out don’t care about their former students.
“It’s because we do care about the kids,” Glaze said. “Staying with the EAA is just saying you agree with keeping these kids back.”
No one thought that turning around historically low-performing schools would be easy. And few people expected EAA students to make huge leaps in student achievement after less than two years in existence.
But critics have raised enough questions that people are paying attention. And scrutiny has only grown since January, when state school superintendent Mike Flanagan canceled the EAA’s exclusive, 15-year contract to run failing schools.
So as Governor Snyder urges lawmakers to approve new school reform measures and grow the EAA, many people suggest he should pay more attention to fixing what’s already underway in Detroit.