On Thursday, February 20, at 10:00 AM, members of the Eastern Michigan University (EMU) community opposed to the ongoing association between their university and the Snyder administration’s troubled Educational Achievement Authority (EAA), will be gathering in Welch Hall to “demand” that all connections be immediately severed. Following is my discussion with EMU College of Education Associate Professor Steven Camron, one of the event’s organizers… Those who cannot attend, by the way, are encouraged to sign the online petition.
MARK: My knowledge of the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) is somewhat limited. Perhaps a good way for us to start would be for me to tell you what little I know, and you can jump in and correct me where necessary… As I understand it, the EAA was conceived of as a statewide school district, into which Michigan’s least well performing schools could be placed. This, we were told by the Governor, when he announced the existence of the EAA in 2011, would make it easier for the State to ensure that “more and better resources” could be delivered to the students in these schools. The long term goal, we were told, was to put the bottom 5% of all Michigan schools into the EAA, but they started with a subset of 15 Detroit schools. And the results at these schools, from what I’ve been able to ascertain, have been mixed at best. Since the roll-out of the EAA, during the 2012-2013 school year, we’ve seen enrollment in these schools drop by 24%, insufficient funding, and evidence of unsafe conditions, among other things. In other words, it doesn’t look as though “more and better resources” actually materialized… Am I close?
STEVEN: Yes, you’re spot-on! Former teachers I’ve talked to (three to be precise) have confirmed the anonymous reports we’ve been hearing out of EAA schools, about the poor teaching and learning environments. For instance, even experienced teachers are finding the exclusive teaching methodology – the computer-centric BUZZ system – wildly insufficient and under-resourced. And that’s even more true for the untrained Teach for America recruits who have been drafted to work in these schools.
MARK: Snyder, when announcing the launch of this initiative, in addition to promising “more and better resources” for kids in EAA schools, also said that there would be “more autonomy in these schools.” Given your reference to an “exclusive teaching methodology,” would I be right to assume that he also never made good on the promise of autonomy?
STEVEN: When the corporate reformers talk about “more autonomy for the schools” they don’t mean autonomy for teachers in the classroom. They mean principals getting to make hiring and firing decisions. They mean autonomy from “central office” on curriculum decisions, working conditions, staffing, etc.
MARK: What can you tell me about the BUZZ system?
STEVEN: I do not have first-hand knowledge of BUZZ. I’d suggest that you talk to former teachers, Delbery Glaze or Brooke Harris, who have very strong feelings and experience with it, and have described it as a joke.
Based on what we’re seeing unfold, it’s difficult not to get the
impression that our legislators want to see a system in which those with resources purchase private education, while those without are
warehoused in situations where inexperienced facilitators essentially
read scripts… Which leads me to my next question. Are any of these
initiatives being put forward by the EAA scientifically vetted? Are they
employing best practices sanctioned by the educational community?
STEVEN: I think EAA officials have described their instructional approaches as “Student-Centered-Learning,” “cutting-edge” and the wave of the future. If that were true then why did the Kansas City Public Schools dump that experimental approach immediately after Covington left them to come to the EAA. Former teachers, and some anonymous current EAA teachers have unanimously described the instructional regimen at the EAA as anything but student-centered. My colleagues in the College of Education at Eastern, and Dr. Tom Pedroni from Wayne State, know better than I about evidence-based, research-supported pedagogy, and they describe this approach as defective from the beginning.
MARK: And EMU President Susan Martin signed on to be a partner in all of this… What was the role of EMU to have been?
STEVEN: As a signatory to the underlying inter-local agreement that created the EAA, the university has ceded all of it’s power and authority, and the weight of its considerable reputation, to the EAA. This effort was driven by at least one of our Regents, who in 2011, over the dinner table, was made promises that, in exchange for entering into this agreement, there would be a “pipeline” of increased enrollment to EMU from the taken-over schools. In other words, the Regents may have had good intentions, but there was never any serious benefit for the university, only the promise of a diminished national reputation. One of our Regents serves on the Executive Committee of the EAA, where all the major decisions are made… like the decision to indiscriminately fire all the teachers in an a certain school, and hire 200 Teacher for America recruits as short-term, expendable facilitators (not really expected to teach). From the outside-looking-in, I can see how people are blaming EMU for the atrocious acts of the EAA. I want to make it perfectly clear, however, except for the independent actions of the Regent on the Executive Committee, no one from the College of Education, nor any EMU faculty, have been closely involved in the start-up, implementation, nor the operations of the EAA – all of which were ill-conceived, politically-motivated, poorly-implemented and disastrously operated.
MARK: So the State needed a signatory… They needed an institution of higher education to sign-off, and make it official…
STEVEN: Yes, the law underlying inter-local agreement requires two public entities (in this case EMU and the Detroit Public School’s Emergency Manager) enter into an agreement creating the third entity (EAA), thus sharing governmental powers each has with the third.
MARK: You reference a Regent being made promises over a dinner table. Is that what you think happened, or is there actually evidence of such a promise being made?
STEVEN: I wish I had hard evidence… For the time being, it’s probably most accurate to attribute the story to “well-sourced, but anonymous” sources. So, it’s very much akin to rumor, unfortunately.
MARK: My assumption is that Martin agreed to this as she felt as though state dollars would follow. Do we know how much money, if any, EMU took in as a result of their participation in the EAA?
STEVEN: When I’ve asked that very question of University and College leadership, which I’ve done on several occasions over the past 18 months, they reply that no money has come to EMU because of this affiliation with the EAA.
MARK: Just today, as I’m sure you’ve heard, State Superintendent Mike Flanagan officially notified the head of the EAA, John Covington, telling him that, contrary to Snyder’s original vision, the EAA would no longer have exclusive responsibility for all of Michigan’s “failing” schools. According to the Detroit News, Flanagan essentially terminated contract language that gave the EAA sole responsibility through 2026… So, where does that leave us now?
STEVEN: Yes, it’s a curious development. Perhaps politically motivated… I’m not certain. What it appears to do is open the door for placing schools in the “bottom 5%” (such a deplorable label to place on a school) in a variety of other educational entities (i.e. in Intermediate School Districts, under charter operators, etc.).
MARK: So, might things end up even worse? Might we not see our lowest performing schools being sold off to for-profit corporations? Once wonders if perhaps this was the plan all along… to create a district that never had a chance of making it, and then using the failure to justify privatization.
STEVEN: Yes, it’s possible. I’d prefer, however, to think that we could take the opportunity to align the Michigan Department of Education with House Bill 5268, introduced by Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton of Huntington Woods. I’m leary, though.
[A video of Lipton explaining the proposed legislation can be found here.]
MARK: As with most initiatives put forward by the Snyder administration, would it be safe to assume that the EAA, once everything is stripped away, is more about union busting and school privatization than it is about anything else?
STEVEN: You know, in the broader context, when you think about “Right-to-Work” and diminished teacher tenure rights, it’s difficult not to put-two-and-two together! The expansion of cyber charters, and removing the caps on charters in general, lend credence to this underlying motivation. The fact is, Michigan is “ground-zero” for for-profit and private charter operators.
MARK: How, specifically, does the EAA help move this agenda forward? For instance, am I correct to assume that, under the EAA, administrators have the power to break union contracts?
STEVEN: The EAA did not have to honor the AFT/DPS collective bargaining agreement when they took-over the 15 DPS schools in the summer of 2012. Plus, the draft legislation to “codify” the EAA would give them independent chartering authority, and, as a result, they could “charter-out” the lower performing schools to private charter operators, including for-profit ones. And the state’s charter school law doesn’t require collective bargaining for these teachers.
MARK: We’re using the term “failing” quite a bit, and I’m wondering if you might be able to help with a definition. How is it determined whether or not a school is failing, and to what degree they’re failing?
STEVEN: That’s a great question. I think it may be more complicated than my understanding, but I believe it’s totally based on MEAP test scores, and the number/level/percentage of students scoring “proficient” on that single annual test, which is taken in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school.
MARK: It became public knowledge a week or so ago that 10 of the EMU College of Education’s 11 full-time lecturers had been laid-off. Since then, there’s been quite a bit of conjecture around the university community as to what might have brought this on. I suspect it likely had more to do with cost-cutting than retribution, but I keep hearing that these individuals may have been let go because they took a public stand against President Martin on her alignment with the EAA. Is it even remotely possible that this could in fact have been the case?
STEVEN: I’m aware of the layoffs, and I sympathize with the lecturers. What our College of Education Dean has told us is that it was out of fiscal necessity. With lower enrollments, and cancelled classes, they needed for that work to be spread to full-time faculty. So, from now on, faculty will be supervising student teachers, instead of the lecturers. The problem with this solution is that the people who were laid-off were experts not only at the supervision of student teachers, but also the much harder job of making placements.
MARK: Has the College of Education Dean taken a stand on the EAA one way or the other?
STEVEN: I think her decision to resign from the EAA Board speaks volumes. Despite the “official” spin offered by the administration, Dean Joseph made it clear to her faculty and staff that she was resigning that appointment voluntarily and for principled reasons. She gained a lot of respect for taking that action.
MARK: I’ve also heard that the university’s association with the EAA may be hurting EMU College of Education students, who are just starting their careers in teaching, as administrators in districts around the state are refusing to hire them. I’d like to think that it’s not the case that EMU grads would be made to suffer as a result of the fact that their university’s senior administration colluded with Snyder team to bring about the EAA, but I’ve actually heard this from someone that I trust… Have you heard the same?
STEVEN: I haven’t heard that EMU graduates are not getting hired. Of course it’s a difficult job market in Michigan with so many public schools laying teachers off last summer. I have heard, however, that school officials are blocking student teaching placements and preclinical experience placements in the districts where the teachers have decided to boycott our students. That is hurting our students, but these teachers are trying to pressure our Regents to change, just as the EMU faculty are pressuring them.
MARK: What happens to the EAA if EMU backs out, assuming, of course, they can even legally do so?
STEVEN: First, I’ve examined the termination clause in the inter-local agreement, and, in my humble opinion, it’s unenforceable in court. That clause requires that the EAA and the Emergency Manager of Detroit Public Schools approve the termination. Such a requirement violates a fundamental of contract law: independence of action by the parties. Contracts are voluntary by nature and to require that all the parties agree to termination eliminates the freedom of that party to exercise that fundamental right. We don’t exactly know what would happen if the Regents do the right thing and vote to terminate the agreement. We hope that such action would send a strong message that EMU doesn’t want anything to do with this brand of corporate reform, though. I hope it would spell the end of the EAA and that those schools would return to the Detroit Public Schools, where the teachers and principals are working hard to improve education.
State Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods) said today that the state superintendent of education’s decision to end its exclusive agreement with the troubled Education Achievement Authority (EAA) signals a profound lack of confidence in the organization used by the state to takeover local schools. On Wednesday, State Superintendent Mike Flanagan, who signed his authority over school reform to the experimental EAA for 15 years in 2011, asked to get it back immediately, apparently due to deep concerns about the EAA’s many failures — but EAA Chancellor John Covington refused. Given the crumbling relationship between the EAA and Flanagan, Lipton said the EAA must be brought to a halt, not expanded, as Republicans in the Legislature are seeking to do.
As a result of the clash between the EAA and Flanagan, promises by EAA supporters that House Bill 4369, currently pending in the House, would allow troubled schools to be overseen by Intermediate School Districts or charter schools are incorrect. Due to Covington’s arrogant position and the poorly conceived contract signed by Flanagan, the state must wait a year before regaining authority over troubled districts, according to internal Department of Education documents obtained by Lipton today.
“This is evidence of a governor, a state education department and an experimental educational entity flying off the rails,” Lipton said. “Why did Gov. Rick Snyder allow Superintendent Flanagan to give authority over school reform to an unproven entity – the EAA – managed by an individual with a track record of failure in his previous job in Kansas City? Why did Flanagan agree to give up his department’s authority for 15 years back in 2011? Why won’t Covington relinquish his control back to the state after being asked to do so by Flanagan? And why won’t the governor, through his control over the EAA Board of Directors that hired and can fire Covington, demand Covington to immediately return control to Flanagan or be removed from office?”
Meanwhile, House Speaker Jase Bolger and House Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons refuse to hold any hearings that could shed light on this troubling situation. Instead, Bolger and Lyons continue their efforts to jam through state takeover legislation before the EAA’s Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) results are available in March.
“Rep. Lyons on a radio show Tuesday said she no longer believes MEAP testing is important in determining whether the EAA is successful or not. This is an astounding about-face for a lawmaker who up to now has said standardized testing should be used for every school decision, from tenure to teacher pay to measuring school success. It’s apparent that the current school reform measures passed by the majority and supported by this governor are failing badly and are in disarray,” said Lipton.
Lipton called on Lyons to hold hearings on HB 5268, which provides for community-based reform efforts instead of handing schools over to an arrogant state-run district such as the EAA. Having the community engaged is essential to school success. As a statewide organization, the EAA can never successfully develop local solutions to school issues – indeed, the EAA has canceled its two most recent school board meetings, which provide limited community involvement, and refuses to post up-to-date financial data on its website that could allow parents to better learn its fiscal situation.
“It’s time to stop letting out-of-state, for-profit education advocates like Eli Broad – who internal emails show has been running the EAA from afar – have control over school reform in Michigan, and return our schools to local control,” said Lipton. “It’s appalling to see Republicans ignore the wishes of parents and invite people like John Covington to come from outside of the state to destroy our constitutionally mandated, democratically based, locally controlled public education system.”
It sounds to me as though now might be a good time for EMU to jump from the sinking ship.