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The EAA Exposed: An investigative report

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Below are some of the thousands of Educational Achievement Authority emails (edited for length and clarity) obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided to the ACLU of Michigan. They reveal what happened when public educators, operating within a new structure, teamed up with the private sector in a high-tech effort to educate students in 15 of Detroit's lowest-performing schools. (Three of the EAA schools were separately operated charters that didn't use the Buzz technology.) The story these emails tell begins in January 2012 with discussion of a documentary film that will be used to chronicle the achievements of the EAA and the central role technology would play in the newly created school system. (Explanations and clarifications appear in italics.)

JANUARY 2012:

From: Ben Johnson [SINET]

To: Kathy Weiler [Documentary filmmaker]

... I'm returning from Detroit today and Mary Esselman (the investor/instigator for this project) has read the scripts but has revisions. She would like to do a webcam conference with you next week. Is there a best day for you to meet with her via Skype or Mac's Facetime?

At the request of Gov. Rick Snyder's office, Esselman and her boss, Dr. John Covington, twice produced letters from Agilix and SINET asserting that neither of the educators had any financial interests in the companies or any of their products. Esselman reaffirmed that she had no financial ties to the companies in response to questions for this story. The EAA has utilized $250,000 in support of the development of Buzz and to make revisions.

From: Duane Call [Agilix]

To: Marry Esselman; Cory Linton [SINET]

Subject Agilix EAA SWO agreement

Cory and Mary,

Our team just reviewed the final SOW [Statement of Work] and there was only one change required for us to sign. The total amount for the project needs to include the full $250K, not just the $100K from the EAA. I've updated the SOW accordingly – please review and then we'll execute on our side. Thanks for all the patience and feedback!

We found no record of the EAA having ever made any payment to Agilix. It has, however, paid a total of $1.9 million to SINET. Esselman confirmed that "the EAA has utilized $250,000 in support of the development of Buzz and to make revisions requested by EAA teachers and students."

From: Ben Johnson

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Student Centered Learning

In the following attachment to this email, the definition of "Student Centered Learning" as applied in the EAA is outlined. It offers a description of schools in Kansas City, Mo., where Covington was chancellor and he and his team first began developing the approach to education they brought to Detroit.

About This Program

In the Kansas City Missouri School District, the days of classrooms filled with desks in straight rows with a teacher immovable from the chalkboard are quickly becoming a sign of the past. Gone is the notion of social promotion and gone is the idea that school must start in late August and end by Memorial Day with students being promoted to the next level regardless of progress and growth. Replacing this industrial and antiquated approach to education is a system of Student Centered Learning (SCL).

In SCL schools, the students take ownership of their learning ... through hands-on project-based education. This innovative approach to teaching and learning helps to clearly identify what students are learning, when they need help, and when they have mastered a set of standards are ready to progress to the next level. In the SCL system, learning is the constant, time is the variable, and students are the focus. Time becomes insignificant as a result of the focus being on the quality of what is learned rather than the time in which it traditionally should have been learned.

Standards-Based Schools are built on the tenet of student empowerment through choice and allowing students to work at their own pace while giving them the support and structures they need to be successful. This program will identify Stands-Based Schools as the mechanism of Kansas City's success.

The Kansas City public school district lost its state accreditation in Aug. 2011, two weeks after Covington left to become chancellor of the newly created EAA. Shortly thereafter, Esselman and several other key members of Covington's Kansans City team followed him to Detroit.

Called "stakeholders," teachers and other school personnel were asked to sign releases so that they could be filmed as part of the above-mentioned documentary.

From: Curtis Linton [Vice President, SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Cover Letter

Dear Educator,

The School Improvement Network is documenting over time on video and in print the establishment of the Education Achievement authority of Michigan (EAA). The School Improvement Network will use this work to create training materials, documentary films, articles and books about the significant effort to reinvent public education in Michigan. Every week in our work with over 800,000 educators across the U.S., we receive inquiries as to how to dramatically reform today's struggling students. For this reason, we are proud of our partnership with the EAA to support this significant work, and share how it is done with American educators.

As part of this, we will have a video production crew in Michigan over the next few years. This crew will video the work of the EAA at the state, system, school, classroom, and community levels. This video footage will be analyzed, edited, and written in such a way as to celebrate and highlight the processes, policies, work, and successes of the schools in the EAA. Most of this media will then be delivered to educators through School Improvement Network's PD360 online professional development platform, LiveBook, ebook platform, and other media outlets.

As a stakeholder in the EAA, we invite you to participate in the videotaping. Please complete the attached release form granting us the right to film you and use this footage in various media formats. Please also contact me with any questions you might have. Thank you for your passion and dedication to Michigan's schools.

In keeping with its commitment to innovation and reliance on technology, the EAA and SINET decided to use PD360 in a new way, revising it to help facilitate the online application process for teachers hoping to get a job with the EAA for the start of the 2012-13 school year in September. Following are some of the email exchanges as attempts were made to deal with the EAA's first technological snafu. From the FOIA documents, it is not clear who is sending some of the emails. The "Dear XXX" is the beginning of a proposed message sent to job candidates informing them of the problem. The glitch caused a setback in the hiring process.

Date: April 2012

Dear XXX,

Thank you for your continued interest regarding a teaching position with the EAA. We are currently experiencing a technical difficulty with our PD360 vendor that is housing the Video Course portion of the selection process. As we work to resolve the problem, we wanted to reach out to you in order to learn of the status of your application.

• I don't want to be difficult on this. But we had people hanging in the video course part of the pipeline for over a month not realizing they were ready to be screened. From my vantage point this makes us look bad (poor customer service) and has slowed down movement through the pipeline resulting n far fewer people in the virtual pool.

• All, if this isn't fixed by Monday, we need to move to plan B, especially if we are on the job boards, the volume should pick up considerably.

• I understand about this being used in a new way and I totally agree that they [SINET] have been responsive to our question/concerns. However, the reality is that we've been discussing this problem for several weeks (or longer) and there still isn't a resolution causing candidates to be "stuck" in the pipeline.

• ... We will be sending one last plea to PD360 to help us with this. If this problem cannot be resolve ... I will draft a memo to you recommending we pull the content for recruitment and selection from PD 360 and use a simpler process through YouTube and google. Sound OK?

From: Curtis Linton

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Sending Email to PD360 Candidates

Of course it is fixable. I am working on it. I am currently taking myself through the course, completing all the tasks so that my license can be used as the guinea pig. ... I will stay in touch on this.

JUNE 2012:

From: Curtis Linton

To: Mary Esselman [and two others]

Subject: School Improvement Innovation Summit Speaker Agreement

Hi Mary, I can talk to you and Doc in more detail about you presentations when I am in Detroit. For now, I would love it if you lay out the pieces of the EAA – what it is, where you are at, what is revolutionary about it, and also demo Buzz et al, and show how it works. You could easily take two hours to show people how intense the innovation is that's happening in EAA, and how it works.

The Summit, an annual event put on by SINET, is described by the company as "an intimate gathering of likeminded educators who seek to expand their thinking, their practice, and their vision; who want to build the future of teaching and learning, and understand their role in this." Covington gave the keynote speech on the opening day of the 2012 Summit in mid-July, about six weeks before the EAA began the task of trying to educate 10,000 students attending 15 of Detroit's lowest-performing schools. Esselman also spoke. Over the next two years, both would make presentations at a number of conferences.

JULY 2012:

From: Todd Smith [SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Client Interest Student Centered Learning System

Mary,

You were a hit!!! We have many clients who could not attend your presentation at the summit and would like information on what you presented. Is there anything you would be willing to provide to introduce them to your student centered learning system?

Thanks for all you do.

AUGUST 2012:

From: Duane Call [Vice President of Strategic partnerships; Agilix]

To: Bernd Helzer [Agilix]; Mark Luetzelschwab [Agilix]; Mary Esselman

Subject: Need sample of Buzz course training ASAP

Bernd and Mark,

I know you are close to having Buzz working so we don't need to have you manually import a course. However, at the moment Mary and I are trying to train the trainers for tomorrow as well as complete training documents. Could you import the following course and enroll a teacher and student so we can view it in Buzz ...

We're up against a tight deadline and this would help greatly.

At the start of September in 2012, the EAA began directly operating 12 Detroit schools and authorizing three separately run charter academies. According to a number of teachers interviewed by the ACLU, Buzz did not become useable until several weeks passed, and it lacked core content for many subjects when it did arrive.

Esselman, in written response to questions from the ACLU, says Buzz arrived on time and was "fully functional."

OCTOBER 2012:

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman

This email deals with a list of 15 problems with Buzz that had to be addressed. Among the most notable:

• We need to be able to monitor which sites they [students] visit while logged into Buzz.

• Our largest issue right now above all others is the lack of ability to add content in Buzz by teachers through search libraries or a browser link outside of Buzz. This was in our original scope [of work] but was dropped by the development team. Teachers can add content via a pasted link to everyone, a group, or an individual but have no ability to author courses. We went over this a very long time ago. This is not acceptable...

The first item is of particular concern. When asked if EAA students were able to visit inappropriate websites, Esselman responded with what sounds like a "no." "Buzz is a digital platform that functions inside of the firewall that is provided through the Detroit Public Schools IT network," she said in a written response. "The firewall is in place to filter inappropriate content. This firewall was in place at the time of launch and continues to be place today." However, a number of teachers and one student told us that children as young as middle-school age were viewing pornography and visiting live-sex chat rooms before the EAA found a way to block access to such sites.

From: Mary Esselman

To: Mark Luetzelschwab [SINET]

Subject Re: Last call for proposals [to present at the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, conference and expo]

Mark, I would be open to develop a proposal for us to for us to present jointly.

From: Mark Luetzelschwab

To: Mary Esselman

Mary, Probably best if you do it and we will show up and cheer. ISTE is funny about commercial presentations so it would reduce your chances if we are on the ticket.

Btw I'm going to present Buzz at the White House next week. Got the official invite last night. I'll share my [presentation] deck if you want. No president, but should be an interesting audience!

This email demonstrates the degree to which speaking engagements by Esselman and Covington, in which they highlighted the work being done at the EAA, also helped promote Buzz, which was central to their efforts. As time goes on, it becomes clear how closely they coordinated efforts to promote Buzz in an attempt to sell it to other schools.

Meanwhile, the product they were so eagerly promoting wasn't yet fully useable.

From: Mary Esselman

To: Duane Call

Subject: Missing Demo Units

Duane, Can we PLEASE Fix this today. I need to get teachers authoring [content] asap. Please. Things are really rough here.

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Missing Demo Units

I just got off the phone with Scott and we're trying to find a quick way to enable all of the teachers for authoring – it's a little tricky. I have to meet with our developers to get some feedback – doing that now.

From: Duane Call [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: RTTT

Race To The Top is President Obama's competitive grant-giving education program designed to spur innovation within schools districts nationwide.

Just checking on the progress with the RTTT proposal – I know the due date is rapidly approaching, so please let me know if there is anything our team can do to help you complete the process. It's been nice to see the EAA solution garner attention – Curt and Mark [Agilix executives] will be presenting it at the Datapalooza event in DC.

I think as we better document the model the more likely it will be to gain traction with other districts. So keep me posted and know I'm available to help however I can.

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