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The guy with one of Detroit's toughest jobs is resigning

The Broad Superintendents Academy

Let's do this MEAP style. Choose one of the following.

John Covington is:

A) an education visionary, brought in to turn around some of Detroit's worst schools using a model that lets kids learn at their own level, regardless of age or grade;

B) an overpaid, underperforming puppet of a state takeover of Detroit's schools;

C) It just depends on whom you ask. 

Right or wrong, the chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority is stepping down. 

Hired to fix Detroit's failing schools, amidst political turmoil 

Covington cites his need to care for his ailing mother, and his plans to open an education consulting company.

But he took this job just two years ago, when the state-run EAA was created to take some of Detroit's historically failing districts and give Covington direct control of their reform.

At the time, he'd just resigned as superintendent of the Kansas City, Missouri, public school district.

There's debate about his legacy there, too: The long-troubled district lost its accreditation during his tenure, but some say Covington left because other administrators refused to be transparent about the district's finances, making it impossible for him to do his job. 

But the Detroit job was not going to be any easier. 

"The way the (Education Achievement Authority) district was launched created huge obstacles for it in the first place," says Dan Varner of Excellent Schools Detroit. 

Not only was the EAA comprised of some of the most challenged schools in the city, Varner says, but the state was neither fast enough nor generous enough when it came to offering resources and teacher training to help the EAA get going. 

And right from the EAA's inception, Varner says the district had three political targets on its back: one from the city's labor organizations that had been shut out; a second from the right wing of the Republican party who believed that reform schools should be privatized; and the third from local residents who saw the EAA as a state takeover of Detroit's schools.

In the classroom, Covington's mixed results 

"He's generally thought of as pretty visionary (among those who support him)," Varner says.

"Between grouping students by (education) level rather than age, and (introducing) blended learning to get faster growth. And to do that to scale (across more than a dozen schools). And he’s getting a lot of credit for that." 

The Michigan Department of Education explains the method like this: 

Michigan School Board President John Austin says EAA students just weren't making enough progress under the current system.

"Within those schools, some have made more traction than others, and some have had more serious problems and blow-ups than others. But with any entity that is trying hard and sincerely I think in this case, to put in a new program and reorganize the schools to help those kids learn, given a couple years should show results."

While the EAA boasted that the vast majority of its students were making a year's worth of progress in both math and reading, later independent analysis showed otherwise.

Wayne State University professor Thomas Pedroni wrote about that discrepancy this spring

"The tracking of those students shows us, convincingly, that the majority of EAA students failed to demonstrate even marginal progress toward proficiency on the state’s MEAP exams in math and reading. Among students testing this year who did not demonstrate proficiency on the MEAP math exam last year, 78.3 percent showed either no progress toward proficiency or actual declines. In reading, 58.5 percent showed either no progress toward proficiency or actual declines."

A new shot at reforming Michigan's failing schools?

State school board president Austen says he's hopeful that this could be a turning point in the way Michigan handles school reform. 

"Turning around schools is hard. John Covington may or may not have been the best equipped to do that. But it's sort of the latest in a series of unfortunate kind of missteps and problems with the EAA," he says. 

"The best thing that could happen now is ... we need an effective turnaround strategy. We should have the legislature ask us, the state board, to set clear criteria about who is best qualified to manage a turnaround of a failing school. So we could set criteria for what other school districts, what ... nonprofit or for-profit operators have a good record and/or are supremely qualified based on their experience base, resource base, and credibility. Ones that have a record of turning around failing schools.

"If (that network) showed it could make a difference, meaning  student achievement were to improve versus not improve – which is what we've seen – then it might earn the right to operate more schools. We need an effective turnaround strategy. We need to intervene. Change what's happening in these schools, or replace them with schools that work."   

You can hear Covington talk about his background and his education in the following video profile, from the the Broad Superintendent's Academy:

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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