Metro Detroit Times has just published an extraordinary expose of the software-based curriculum that was imposed in 2012 in 12 Detroit, Michigan schools. These were the bulk of schools in Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s new Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state agency created to take over Michigan’s schools with the lowest test scores. “In all, about 10,000 students—largely poor, predominantly African American, often lagging years behind in terms of academics—would be the test subjects.”
According to the report’s author, Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter with the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Snyder’s state school takeover was intended to originate with a number of low-scoring schools in Detroit and then take over so-called failing schools across the state; however, the legislation to expand the Education Achievement Authority beyond Detroit never passed in the legislature. Snyder is known to have modeled his idea on the Louisiana Recovery School District, that took over public schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,
Guyette describes how the EAA was created in Michigan, “The system itself would be unique, with all strings leading back to the governor. The legal loophole through which the EAA slipped into being is a little-used state law that allows two units of government, acting in cooperation, to create a third public entity. In this case, it was Detroit Public Schools (DPS)—under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager—and the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, the majority of whom are gubernatorial appointees, that entered into what’s called an inter-local agreement that created the EAA. It is overseen by an 11-person board, with the governor appointing seven members and EMU and the DPS’s emergency manager each selecting two more.”
In 2012, EAA hired John Covington as chancellor. Covington had recently left Kansas City Public Schools (just two weeks before that school district lost its accreditation). Covington brought along a team from Kansas City, headed up by Mary Esselman, who became the EAA’s deputy chancellor and who led the launch of a massive, software-based curriculum called Buzz—developed by one Utah company, Agilix Labs, and supplemented with additional educational software from another Utah company, the School Improvement Network.
All this was supposed to “personalize” and “individualize” learning for the students in Detroit’s experiment. “But in reality, 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.” Mary Esselman is reported to have described the adoption of the Buzz program: “We’re building this plane as we fly it.”
Students in the EAA schools increased test scores at what seemed to be an astounding rate, but it was later exposed that the high test scores were from “Scantron” tests that accompanied the Buzz program, and students were being allowed to take the tests over and over to improve their scores. “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.”
According to teachers, some named and some remaining anonymous due to fear for their jobs, the Buzz program lacked curriculum for months in several required subjects. About Buzz, one teachers says, “To say it was incomplete when it arrived is giving it too much credit. The software was in a state that any other firm would have never released it.” In one e-mail a School Improvement Network “coach” assigned to Detroit wrote to a staffer at Agilix: “I am having a hard time trying to trouble shoot what exactly is going on at Law with their courses. Currently their Spanish, Music and Gym teachers have nothing but a yellow screen appearing in Buzz…” Through 2013, frantic support coaches from School Improvement Network continued e-mailing company staff that they were unable to help teachers and students use the Buzz curriculum due to technical glitches.
A teacher reports that when EAA took over, administrators dumped textbooks formerly used by Detroit Public Schools, which forced teachers to use the Buzz software, the only content provided by EAA. Teachers interviewed for this investigation describe how students would progress through a cycle of lessons calibrated to be based on their on-line progress only to have the entire series disappear from their computers, requiring that they start over and repeat days’ of work. Students interviewed for the investigation report that students breached the Buzz program’s firewall to enable themselves and their peers to surf the internet including pornography chat rooms.
What Guyette describes is the destruction of schools that were already struggling, even as Mary Esselman and promoters at Agilix and the School Improvement Network collaborated to promote the software to funders and to other school districts. While it is not suggested that Esselman was paid as a spokesperson for Agilix and the School Improvement Network, it is clear from e-mails secured by ACLU that she and Chancellor Covington traveled widely to promote their software-based schools. In one e-mail Curt Allen from Agilix writes to Covington and Esselman: “Thank you very much for making the trip to participate in the Datapalooza today… Thank you for being pioneers.”
E-mails printed at the end of the article demonstrate that all through the fall of 2012, after the software had been launched and was being widely used, Mary Esselman and others in Detroit were begging Agilix and School Improvement Network to fix bugs in the system and send support staff to Detroit to help work out major problems. At one point in November, Mary Esselman e-mails Aglix support staff: “Guys… We have Eli Broad, the governor, Head of Education in the House and Senate, hedge funders, etc. coming Friday and the students need at least one day in the unit prior to their visit. If we don’t fix this they will not be on the platform and it will be a debacle. This is important because… we have to generate funding. Please help us figure out why they are not accessing the new unit.” Her worry is about impressing potential funders, not about the students who are struggling to work with the computer program that has replaced text books in their school.
By the summer of 2013, Mary Esselman herself has become frustrated with both Agilix and the Student Improvement Network as problems with the Buzz on-line curriculum persist despite months’ of requests for assistance from the software developers: “Needless to say I am extremely disappointed. Most of the items have been on the list for almost 12 months–18 months for the reports and 36 months for the reports if you add the fact that they also did not get finished in Kansas City. I understand that everyone wants the product to go beyond the EAA but the problems with the interface in many cases… have been on the fix list since last summer and before and the product is not viable at scale without them…”
In June of 2014, EAA Chancellor John Covington resigned after it became known that he had racked up credit card bills for travel and other expenses of $240,000. The School Improvement Network re-randed the Buzz software with a new name, GAGE, and began advertising it to school districts across the country. “Asked what the current status of Buzz is, EAA spokesman Mario Morrow said, ‘Everything is under review. It is a new day for the EAA.'”