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The Education Achievement Authority, Part 1: An introduction to Michigan's "reform district"

Debate is underway in Lansing on bills that would expand on an educational experiment now underway in Detroit.

It's called the Education Achievement Authority, and its aim is to turn the lowest-performing schools—with changes like a longer school year, and more online learning.

In this first of a three-part series, Michigan Radio takes a look at the Education Achievement Authority - which could be coming soon to a school near you.

Learning numbers at Nolan

Emily Doering-White’s first-grade classroom hums along on a Monday afternoon.

Actually, it’s called a level four classroom here at Nolan Elementary-Middle School in Detroit--where there are two levels for each typical "grade level."

That’s just one of the things that’s different about Nolan now that it’s no longer a Detroit Public School, as it had been. It’s part of the Education Achievement Authority.

“It’s been wonderful. I have a group of great kids,” says Doering-White, an enthusiastic first-year teacher. “It’s been really exciting, trying new things in here.”

Right now, she has the kids in small groups. They’re learning about numbers. Specifically, the idea of place value—you know, your tens and ones.

The emphasis here is on mastering concepts like that—and then creating evidence to prove what you know.

“And then we have my evidence table in the middle, with scissors and paper and some other things,” Doering-White says. “If they are ready, they get to go there and make whatever they want to show me they’ve mastered it.”

This is all part of the EAA’s grand effort—to boost student performance in the state’s “persistently low-achieving schools.”

On a path to success?

John Covington is the EAA’s chancellor. He says the district’s rollout this year—with 15 schools in Detroit—has gone far better than he could have hoped.

“They have moved forward at a very very rapid pace, to implement the education platform where we use time as the variable, learning is the constant, students are the focus,” Covington said.

Covington can use education jargon like that a lot. But the ideas behind the jargon are central to the vision that Covington and Governor Snyder’s office have for the EAA.

“We see this tool--of meeting children where they are in these non-grade level schools--as the best way of doing that,” Covington of the EAA’s approach.

Covington experimented with similar ideas when he was schools superintendent in Kansas City, Missouri. But his tenure there was controversial.

The district lost its state accreditationsoon after he left, and officials there now say they’re pursuing a “different direction.”

Covington admits there have been some rocky moments in Detroit with some overcrowded classrooms, technology hiccups and funding shortfalls.

But he says those things are getting sorted out—and the district is on a path to success.

“How is the EAA different?”

Some observers are waiting for more evidence before issuing a verdict on the EAA.

“We think it’s really hopeful,” said Amber Arellano, the director of Education Trust Midwest. The non-profit group was the first to advocate for a “turnaround” or “reform district” like the EAA in Michigan. “And we’re looking forward to seeing what the data say.”

Similar districts have popped up all over the country—from New York to New Orleans.

Those districts have been controversial. They also have very mixed track records.

Arellano says their success depends on how they go about fostering effective school environments in tough places where kids tend to start out way behind—and stay there.

“You’re either creating from scratch new schools,” Arellano said of the idea behind reform districts. “Or you’re taking existing traditional schools, putting them in that [better] environment, and ideally removing some of the barriers that usually hold them back.”

Arellano says that so far, the EAA has done some unusual things for a turnaround district.

They’ve partnered with charter operators to run some schools—usually, charter schools don’t do turnaround.

And Arellano says student-centered learning that Covington touts is a great idea—but it all depends on how it’s done. And right now, we just don’t have enough data to really judge the EAA’s performance.

“How is the EAA doing it? How is it different?” Arellano asked.  “And the truth is, we don’t know yet.”

That’s a quick primer on the EAA. In part two of this series, we’ll explore how things are working out right now—specifically, back at Nolan Elementary School, and at an EAA high school.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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