Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan, published this story at Detroit Metro Times, based on an in-depth exploration of internal documents of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority. The EAA was announced by Governor Rick Snyder in 2011 to “save” the lowest-performing children in Detroit.
Governor Snyder said in 2011:
In June of 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder stepped behind a microphone at Detroit’s Renaissance High School to announce the start of a revolutionary new approach to education in Michigan.
The problem of poor academic performance would be addressed in dramatic fashion.
“We do have too many failing schools in our state,” he said. “If you look at us statewide, only 16 percent of our kids are college-ready. That’s absolutely unacceptable.
“We need to focus on a new way of doing things.”
The target would be Michigan’s lowest-performing schools. The bottom 5 percent.
The stakes could not have been higher. As the governor explained it, the future of both the city and the state as a whole would be riding on this experiment in education.
“For Detroit to be successful, it depends on having successful schools. For Michigan to be successful, it depends on having a successful Detroit,” Snyder declared. “So we’re all in this together, and we’re going to make this happen as a team.”
A year later, the EAA opened its doors. Don’t you think the EAA would have smaller classes for intensive learning, experienced teachers, and the other research-proven methods of successful schools? No.
What Guyette learned was that the EAA was an experimental platform for an online program called BUZZ.
Buzz “came to Detroit from Kansas City, along with John Covington, the controversial figure hired by the EAA board to be the new system’s first chancellor. Along with Buzz, Covington also brought to Detroit a group of administrators who worked under him in Kansas City. A key member of that team is Mary Esselman, first hired on as the EAA’s Chief Officer, Accountability, Equity, and Innovation for the EAA, and later promoted to the position of deputy chancellor.
Covington is gone now, having departed under a cloud of scandal generated by news reports of the credit card spending that occurred under his watch.
But the software remains, significantly upgraded twice since it arrived. Those upgrades were made possible because of the students and teachers at the EAA, who were bitten again and again and again by the many bugs that plagued Buzz for the first two years of its use in Detroit.
Created by a Utah-based company called Agilix Labs, Buzz is education software that provides what its marketing material describes as an individualized learning experience. With the help of $100,000 from the EAA, Buzz was merged with other educational software created by the School Improvement Network [SINET], also based in Utah. Another $250,000 from the EAA would eventually pay for improvements suggested by the teachers, students, and administrators who were using it, according to Esselman.
The children were guinea pigs for product development.
What internal EAA documents reveal is the extent to which teachers and students were, over the course of two school years, used as whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.
In fact, a SINET employee in November of 2013 informed Mary Esselman of his “fear” that another school district might want to start using Buzz (re-branded as GAGE for the purpose of marketing the product to others) before a second major upgrade could be finished and ready for use in March of the following year.
Records show that such an upgrade did finally land in April of 2014, and was installed over spring break. Another two months passed before a press release was issued announcing that the upgraded product would be available to selected school districts for the start of the 2014-2015 school year.
Agilix and the School Improvement Network began working with Covington and his team in Kansas City.
“In Kansas City, the leadership team implemented the model with limited technology…,” according to the response provided to Snyder. “In Michigan, they have had the opportunity to select staff and leverage a strong teaching and learning platform with strong, short-cycle innovation.”
By short-cycle innovation they mean this: improvements were made as Buzz moved from Kansas City (where it is no longer used) to Detroit. And in the two years since its arrival here, it has gone through technological upgrades significant enough to warrant press releases heralding the breakthroughs that were achieved.
“We’re building this plane as we fly it,” is a phrase numerous sources we’ve interviewed have attributed to Mary Esselman, who was in the thick of the technological planning.
Part of that build-it-as-they-go model included paying inexperienced Teach for America instructors to provide curriculum content that was loaded into Buzz when it arrived at the EAA. They were recent college grads who didn’t study to become teachers and who lacked certification, coming to the EAA with only a few weeks of training in the art of teaching. (About 25 percent of the EAA’s teachers were from TFA when its schools opened in 2012.)
The EAA announced dramatic score increases. They claimed the experiment was working. But documents show that students were allowed to retake tests they had failed. And the stellar results were not replicated on state tests:
Numerous teachers interviewed by the ACLU told us that, because of intense emphasis on producing positive test results, students were allowed to re-take tests when they failed to perform well. It was described as standard procedure throughout most, if not all, EAA schools.
Asked by the ACLU if she ever became aware of these types of improper testing procedures, Esselman responded: “Yes. We were made aware at a public meeting and immediately made the necessary steps with our school leaders to address this issue.”
Adding more darkness to those shadows is this fact:
In stark contrast to the internal test results are the state’s standardized achievement tests, known as MEAP. The most recent MEAP results show that a high majority of EAA students are either stagnating in terms of reaching math and reading proficiency, or falling even further behind.
In fact, BUZZ was unsuccessful. The plane built in mid-air couldn’t fly. The children were used to improve it, but it did not improve their education.
During the course of our investigation, the ACLU interviewed a dozen current and former teachers, one former administrator, and several students. Many of the teachers asked to remain anonymous, saying that, because they lacked the protections afforded by a labor union, they feared retaliation by the EAA if they spoke on the record. Others feared that the EAA would blackball them. Others, however, did agree to go on the record.
One of them is Jordan Smellie, a tech-savvy former music teacher now working in the IT industry.
“Buzz overall I would describe as a travesty. To say it was incomplete when it arrived is giving it too much credit,” he said. “The software was in a state that any other firm would have never released. The design was poor, front to back, top to bottom. The user experience was horrendous. It was incredibly slow, if it worked at all.”
Nearly everyone interviewed talked about the dearth of content when Buzz first arrived in the fall of 2012, which is contrary to Mary Esselman’s unequivocal written assertion that Buzz arrived on time and fully formed.
Even students testified that they used the classroom computers to play games and visit porn sites.
Were the children “saved”? Of course not. They were used to pilot new technology that could be sold to other districts. Based on the EAA’s experience, the message to other districts should be: BEWARE.