The EAA: How a policy package created Michigan's statewide district
Michigan's Education Achievement Authority (EAA) is a statewide school district formed in September 2012 for Detroit's 15 poorest-performing schools. Last month, the state's Legislature passed House Bill 4369, expanding the reform district.
Under the new version of the bill, the EAA has the authority to take over 12 additional schools by June 2014 and continue the expansion beyond Detroit. The EAA is a contentious topic because it imposes the state as the district's authority. Similar to a charter school, it takes away the public's voting rights to determine who runs the schools and how. More specifically, however, the EAA is an example of how federal education policies can result in massive experimentation within schools.
Below are frequently asked questions on the EAA, detailing how the Race to the Top policy package tangentially created a school district.
Are statewide school districts common?
No. To date, Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan are the only three states with such systems in place.
The Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) was formed in 2003 to take over the operations of failing schools (defined as schools that have not met the minimum academic standards for at least four consecutive years). RSD started small, but after Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than 100 of New Orleans’ 128 school buildings, the state's legislature passed an act transferring the city's 107 worst-performing public schools to the district. Today, Louisiana is known for the statewide district, which has pushed to turn many traditional public schools into charter schools. No state has a higher percentage of students attending charters.
In 2012 — at the same time as Michigan — Tennessee jumped on the bandwagon and formed the Achievement School District to manage Memphis' six worst-performing public schools in its first year. Thus far, Michigan and Tennessee have been different from Louisiana, as their statewide districts have been city specific (Memphis and Detroit), versus truly statewide.
How does Race to the Top play into the creation of the EAA?
In 2002, the Bush Administration introduced No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as a re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Under NCLB, schools must show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) against student achievement measures that each state chooses. While the federal government did not have a role in enforcing these measures, it did control Title I funding. The federal government tied AYP to standardized tests (chosen by each state) and decided to take away Title I funding if schools did not make AYP. This was the first time the federal government got involved in what had been a state, city, and local education decision.
In 2010, NCLB had been around for 8 years, and, by 2013-2014, it was said that 90% of students in the country would be proficient. Suddenly schools stopped making AYP. Addressing a need to reauthorize ESEA, President Obama offered waivers to states and created a competition: Race to the Top (RTTT). States that did the best on a rubric would get federal funding to test innovative models, and points were given for factors including: contracts with Teach for America, union participation, and the number of charter schools. States began to make radical changes to become eligible.
Cash-strapped Michigan was among states competing for RTTT money. In addition to RTTT, the federal government also gave School Improvement Grants (SIG) to states that came up with a plan for Priority Schools (the bottom 5% of schools in the state). Michigan put into place Act 451, which created the “Top to Bottom” list; the act explicitly states it was created for “the purpose of the federal incentive grant program.”
In August 2011, the Michigan Department of Education released a “Top to Bottom” list, which highlighted the bottom 5% of schools in the state. Schools in this bottom percentile (Priority Schools) could select one of four models to improve their situation: Turn Around (fire 50% of staff and the principal), Restart (hire an EMO and become a charter school), Closure (close the school), or Transformation (which includes extending the school day and implementing other instructional reform strategies). However, if a district had more than nine-schools on the list, they couldn’t choose the same option for all schools. DPS had 48 schools on the “Top to Bottom” list, which meant they would have to implement several of the different models. In June 2011, months before the “Top to Bottom” list was released, Governor Rick Snyder and then-DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts announced plans for the Education Achievement System (which became the EAA). The following year, the 15 Detroit schools selected for the 2012-13 trial year were announced.
So did Michigan get RTTT/SIG funding?
No. But while Michigan didn't get RTTT funding, it had already put the policies in place to make the state a more attractive bid for RTTT.
What is the EAA’s organizational structure and how are decisions made?
The EAA is an inter-local agreement between then DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts and Eastern Michigan University’s Board of Regents (EAA's authorizer). Below them is the EAA Board, which is comprised of seven members of Gov. Rick Snyder’s choosing, two members of Roy Robert’s choosing, and two members of Eastern Michigan University’s choosing. Within the EAA Board is the Executive Committee, which is made up of five EAA Board Members. This committee is the main decision-making body.
Since Gov. Snyder picked seven board members, and Roy Roberts (himself handpicked by Snyder) picked another two, it can be inferred that the board is really controlled by Snyder and the state of Michigan.
What is the EAA’s current track record of success?
The district’s recent scores on the state’s standardized exam, the MEAP, show stagnation and declines.
Dr. Thomas Pedroni of Detroit’s Wayne State University analyzed the results and found that of the students who already lacked proficiency before entering the EAA: “78.3% showed either no progress toward proficiency (44.1%) or actual declines (34.2%). In reading, 58.5% showed either no progress toward proficiency (27.3%) or actual declines (31.2%).”
He then analyzed those who were actually proficient before entering the EAA and found: “During the 2013 administration of the MEAP math test, there were a total of only 56 test-takers who had scored proficient the year before. Of those 56 students, only 10 stayed at the same level of proficiency or improved. That means that 46 of those 56 previously proficient students actually declined—became less proficient.”
Why is the EAA so controversial?
The EAA isn't just controversial because it's a statewide district — which means the public is not voting on who represents the schools — but it has also implemented numerous reform strategies that have little data to back the decisions up.
For example, the EAA is a technology-centric district using a program called BUZZ, developed by Agilix. BUZZ was created specifically for the EAA, and has never been tested elsewhere. This detail conjures notions of the EAA — a district of the most marginalized and already behind students — being a field test or experiment for tech.
Additionally, the EAA has a contract with Teach for America (TFA); in the 2012-2013 school year, 27% of the district's staff was made up of corps members. Given the fact that the EAA is made up of the poorest performing schools in Detroit, many critics wonder why it would make sense to send in rookie teachers for the job. Critics have latched onto the EAA's partnership with TFA as evidence that the district is an experimental lab, incentivized by federal policy and the push for privatized public education. The TFA-EAA alliance is a win for both sides: The EAA gets cheap teachers, and TFA Detroit was able to expand its corps by over 50% from its charter year in 2010.
How does this relate to the rest of the nation?
Although there are only three states in the country that have statewide districts, the EAA is an example of a worst-case scenario that could easily happen in any American city. The formation and current structure of the district touches on issues affecting schools across the nation — specifically, the transformation of districts to appeal to the federal government (read: the Common Core) and the push for technology without adequate testing of how the products fair in the environment.
AltSchool made news recently with its $30-million investments to transform the current education landscape through technology. The difference between the EAA and AltSchool’s micro-schools, however, is that the SF families enrolled in AltSchool are paying tuition, thus electing to be a part of this innovative and experimental technology incorporation. The EAA, on the other hand, is a district comprised of 15 of Detroit's lowest-performing schools, with families enrolling in the district lacking the same say in how their children are educated, specifically because they can no longer vote for representatives within the EAA.
While the EAA is a unique situation, it is also a cautionary tale to the rest of the nation, and specifically brings to question what education reform really means.