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The EAA Exposed: An investigative report

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From: Curt Allen [Agilix]

To: John Covington; Mary Esselman

Doc/Mary: Thank you very much for making the trip to participate in the Datapalooza today. As you know, I firmly believe that your work is providing the exemplary model that many others will follow. Thank you for being pioneers. Thank you for your dedication, leadership and relentless pursuit of excellent outcomes for kids.

Again, talking about what the EAA was doing proved to also be good for Agilix in terms of product promotion. As the email below shows, those efforts went beyond just speaking at conferences. Esselman frequently provided Agilix and School Improvement Network with whatever assistance they requested in terms of helping market their products. However, as Esselman told us, "My job is not to sell any vendor's products."

From: Mary Esselman

To: Curt Allen [Agilix]

Subject: Panel

Curt, I will send out questions today or tomorrow to review for the panel. Please plan a 3-5 minute intro which will talk about how Agilix supports blended learning. Will need slides for this component by Sunday.

NOVEMBER 2012:

Covington and Esselman were directly solicited to help in the effort to spread Buzz to other Michigan schools...

From: Curt Allen [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Thank You Very Much! Congratulations! Time for a Visit

Mary: Thanks again for all you did at VSS! [The annual Virtual School Symposium put on by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, held that year in New Orleans.] It is always a pleasure to watch you work. We had a very positive call today with Susan Patrick of iNACOL [CQ] and she had lots of great things to say about you and what you are doing to advance the cause of student-centered, mastery-based, personalized learning. She said "very cool!" and "HUGE!" several times during the call. She offered to blog about what you are doing as soon as we can provide her more details.

We are now motivated to help get DPS [Detroit Public Schools] and the State of Michigan on-board to help create the broader community support required to scale the effort as soon as possible. To that end, Duane and I would like to make a visit to Detroit as soon as you are able to host us and help us coordinate a meeting with DPS/State of Michigan.

...even though the product remained problematic:

From: Mary Esselman

To: Curt Allen [Agilix]

Thanks for the note. As you know we are still struggling our way through how to meet the varying needs of different levels of the organization as it relates to Buzz – access and reports for coaches and principals, how does it work for sped [special education] teachers and teachers who are not the teacher of record but need to assess work, how does info from the Buzz grade book export to the SIS [student information system], how do teachers add content in an easier way and the general implementation of SCL. My first hope is that we finally could have Duane here for several days to work with teachers and help cement some of the big issues prior to our visits from the governor, head of education committee, and Eli Broad and national funders prior to looking at where it expands and scales. November is a tough month in that the Legislature is working on the EAA bill and Dr. Covington has to testify on the 13th and 30th... I think we should plan a scaling visit for December and perhaps look to receive Duane's support this month prior to the 16th if possible.

Thank you for caring.

The bill Esselman refers to would have allowed the EAA to take over control of low-performing schools throughout Michigan. It failed to make it to the governor's desk.

From: Duane Call [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: TED Talks

This [link] is interesting – it is two people. I don't think it is mandatory – but I'm just thinking out loud – what if you suggest to TED that you and Doc did it together as you cover two different aspects of the solution. I like that you are a white woman and a black man solving education issues. Again – no issue going at it alone, this TED Talk just got me thinking.

TED Talks are the product of a nonprofit organization dedicated to "spreading ideas." Deciding to go it alone, Esselman, standing on a stage in Sarasota, Fla., began hers in compelling fashion, saying, "My yes moment, for me, in transforming traditional public schooling came as a tutor in a maximum security prison during college..."

From: Laura Monks [School Improvement Network "coach" assigned to the EAA]

To: Duane Call [Agilix]

Subject: Courses at Law [Academy, a K-8 EAA School]

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...

According to a confidential pricing agreement, the School Improvement Network charged the EAA a total of $408,000 for supplying four "coaches" for one school year. It is appears their primary job was to help teachers deal with technology-related problems. They were kept very busy.

From: Duane Call

To: Bernd Helzer [Agilix]

A bunch of courses, including the ones we were working on disappeared – we think it's something to do with their SIS [the EAA's student information system] updating courses. Needless to say, it's poor timing – we're trying to figure it out now.

From: Curt Allen

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Quick Questions re: Buzz at EAA

Mary: I hope that all your events this week are going well and that Duane is able to help out! (Don't let him leave until you are satisfied! :)

I just returned from the ASU [Arizona State University] Education Innovation Summit Advisory Board Meeting. We are planning the upcoming Summit (April 15-17, 2013 in Scottsdale) and had lots of great conversations with many people about what you are doing in Michigan. They all love it. It prompted two questions:

1. Would you be interested in participating in the Summit? If so, I will nominate you and John to present and/or be a panelist.

2. Can you provide some more implementation details about the project (device, curriculum, PD etc.) so we can get the word out to increase awareness/support? (probably blogs, tweets to state .. then PR and white papers/case studies, etc.)

You are welcome to provide any information you deem appropriate to Duane so he can pass it along (if he is still there). Otherwise, a brief email at your convenience would be fine.

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman

Mary, Tom [Vander Ark] spoke with Curt [Allen] and Vander Ark wants to blog about the EAA and needs some bullet points tonight that he can highlight. ... I think we should include those items plus throw him a bone – let him mention that you have an entire entourage touring your schools this Friday – it's breaking news that he'll love to announce.

I can help compose this evening so we can send it by EOD. Great opp to drive positive attention to EAA.

Cool,

Duane

Tom Vander Ark is CEO of Getting Smart and a partner at Learn Capital. He is a former public school superintendent and is a director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. He blogs about education issues daily.

From: Mary Esselman

To: [Several Agilix support staff]

Subject: Unit not letting students progress

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.

The mention of "hedge funders" is telling. According to a 2012 article in Reuters, "...investors of all stripes are beginning to sense big profit potential in public education. The K-12 market is tantalizingly huge: The U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18."

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman [and two Agilix programmers]

Subject: RE: Unit not letting students progress

My concern is this is the first set of students to ever get this far – so for all we know, this could be a bug – as we've never had students reach the end of a unit before.

So, if either of you are available to help for just 15 minutes we'd be super grateful.

From: Curt Allen

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Detroit visit

Mary, ... I sent a quick note to Richard McLellan [formidable Lansing lawyer active in education issues favored by Republicans] and Greg Tedder [high level Snyder staffer] – asking if they would be available to meet in two weeks (Dec. 4th-7th). I also asked if they could forward the request to Richard Baird [top Snyder adviser] – as I don't have an email address for him. (No response from them yet.) In speaking with Duane today, he said you recommend we meet with Roy [Roberts, then Emergency Manager for Detroit Public Schools] to get an agreement in place for DPS. Unfortunately, I don't have his email either. Would you be able to send me those two email addresses – so we can confirm meetings before we finalize our travel plans.

According to published reports, both McLellan and Baird were involved with the "skunk works," a group that met in secret to plan education changes in Michigan. Much of the group's focus was on using technology to promote long-distance learning and bring down the cost of education, presumably by reducing the need for teachers.

Meanwhile, attempts to expand the EAA model in Michigan were meeting stiff resistance from lawmakers.

From Mary Esselman

To: Curt Allen [Agilix]

Subject: re: Detroit visit (Dec. 4th-7th)

Today was a really tough hearing for EAA legislation. I am not sure right now is a good time for meetings with DPS and the state.

From: Mary Esselman

To: Curt Allen

Subject: Detroit visit

The issue is people are misunderstanding what we as trying to do and using it as a basis to try to block the legislation. We will need to spend the next few weeks helping those who have not visited understand the model and the technology tools (e.g. the platform).

DECEMBER 2012:

From: Laura Monks [SINET]

To; Kathy Maximov; Duane Call [Agilix]

CC: Mary Esselman

Subject: Course Authoring

... This is a critical fix that needs to happen ASAP. I have two high schools who are working on full implementation of SCL [Student Centered Learning] and Buzz across all grade levels and this is a huge road block for making Buzz a user friendly platform.

Numerous sources told the ACLU of Michigan that textbooks left behind at some of the former Detroit Public Schools which the EAA took over were thrown in the trash, making Buzz content desperately needed. To address the problem, the EAA began paying some teachers to create curriculum that could be loaded into Buzz. Some of those creating course content were Teach for America teachers, who had no education degree and lacked the extensive specialized training usually required for educators doing such work.

From: Curt Allen [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

Mary: You are an amazing pioneer! Never give up! Millions of children around the world will benefit from the innovations you are leading.

Best wishes!

C

Added to the bottom of this message are three quotes, including this one:

"It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders of all those who would profit by the new order; this luke-warmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything until they actually have experience of it." -- Nicola Machiavelli (1469-1527)

From: Mary Esselman

To: Curt Allen

I had only seen the email with the short recommendation and just had the opportunity to review the letter – I couldn't access the EAA emails while in Florida. I can't thank you enough for your kind words. They brought tears to my eyes in a week fraught with disappointment. You confidence helps confirm my commitment to push forward despite the barriers or politics and funding. Thank you so much for your support.

JANUARY 2013:

From: Laura Monks [SINET "coach" assigned to the EAA]

To: [multiple recipients]

A student from Brenda Scott who has everything completed and took the test still has not moved forward. There are a number of them like that. We need a solution to his. Brenda Scott has media coming on Monday to see Buzz in action.

Also, I know another school (a group of teachers from Nolan) that has just stopped using Buzz ... If we want them to use Buzz we have to get this fixed.

From: Kathy Maximov

To: [multiple recipients]

Subject: Master courses

Per Mary's request, Agilix has run a tool on the exiting master courses that removes the "blocks" we have been seeing on progress. Starting now, we should no longer receive reports from teachers that a student "cannot progress."

From: Anna Milanowski [SINET]

To: [Multiple Recipients]

Subject: DPS Laptops

Hi team,

This may seem like a silly issue, but it's influencing how students progress through Buzz so I thought I'd bring it to the group. On the small DPS [Detroit Public School] computers students are not able to see the full screen within Buzz. Thus students have to scroll to the right to move down a page, see the whole page, or click buttons. Because the whole page is not able to be displayed students are missing crucial information within activities or just moving on to the next activity because they don't see where to click buttons. Have any of you encountered this working with your students? Anyone have any solutions to solve this visibility, besides having teachers explicitly explain this step to their students?

From: Laura Monks

To: [Not shown]

Subject: Students loosing work in BUZZ or Brain Honey

Pulled up [a student's] English I course today in BrainHoney and in Buzz and all of his work was deleted. This is becoming a common problem across the district. What is going on?

From: Kathy Maximov [SINET]

To: Duane Call [Agilix]

Subject: Students losing work in Buzz or BrainHoney

Duane – This is MAJOR. Are you looking into it?

From: Mary Esselman

To: Duane Call

Subject: IMPORTANT

... We are finding students using the community and not being monitored. Also, how do we remove the community or permanently inactivate for students/classes using inappropriately. Mark did not get it locked before school started and we now need to inactivate to make sure there are no instances of bullying and to inactivate until students who have misused have shown citizenship.

From: Mary Esselman

To: Duane Call

Subject: Catch Up Call

When can we catch up? I feel like we haven't had an update or just a call for weeks. I was out sick most of this week but was back today. Under a lot of pressure as you can imagine. ... I was quite serious that most teachers are bypassing Buzz to BrainHoney due to the lack of ability to author and the inconvenience of the two systems. Also in the meetings with Compass [another education software provider] last week it appears that much of their content was never loaded, which is probably why we had gotten initially lukewarm response from upper-class teachers – those who have seen the potential additions are quite excited....

Sorry if my emails have been brief. It has been a brutal month.

From: Todd Smith [Strategic Partner Adviser for SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: EAA Invoice

Mary, I hope all is well. As per discussions related to the amended and approved contract with the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, I'm providing the first of 2 invoices for the 2012 school year. Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can be of any assistance to you and the EAA. I will be in your area February 11-12 and always available for you.

The attached invoice, totaling $1,009,660, includes $408,500 for four "coaches"; and $271,000 for high-tech cameras (used in large measure to video classroom and teacher activity that is uploaded onto PD360, SINET's professional development product); and $80,000 for BrainHoney/Buzz. The EAA never made any direct payments to Agilix, creator of Buzz. Many staff interviewed by the ACLU of Michigan believed Buzz was being provided to the district for free because it was still in the developmental stage. In reality, payments were made to SINET, which entered into a formal partnership with Agilix in specific regard to incorporating Buzz in its PD360 product for sale to potential customers interested in a package deal.

MARCH 2013:

From: [An Unnamed EAA Teacher]

To: Mary Esselman

I am not sure who to send this to so I am hoping you could let me know or pass this email along.

I have a student that has been working really hard all year but had to leave school last week on maternity leave. She was very concerned about taking her final but could not be there in person to take it. I told her I would allow her to take in on BUZZ. However, when she went to take the final this weekend she sent me frantic emails that the pictures and diagrams that I had uploaded weren't showing up and that BUZZ wasn't working properly for her to take the exam. ... If you have any idea what I can do to get BUZZ properly working for her to take the exam please let me know. If not, who should I speak with about figuring that out for her?

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman; Curt Allen; Mark Luetzelschwab

Subject: Re: InBloom

Mary, Let's find a time to circle-up with you, me, mark and Curt to talk how we can leverage our other partnerships to strengthen you position with the EAA.

Most of the reason you haven't heard about these other projects is they weren't public nor complete until just now – so don't feel bad. I think the most critical pieces for you are:

1. SISNET and Agilix need to complete their [partnering] agreement – this will allow more $ to be committed to updating Buzz...

2. Nail the next 3-5 buzz updates...

3. Get more content on Buzz...

It is not clear why inBloom is listed in the subject line. The nonprofit organization, as the publication Education Week reported, "aimed to store, clean, and aggregate a wide range of student information for states and districts, then make the data available to district-approved third parties to develop tools and dashboards so the data could more easily be used by classroom educators." It was engaged in what's known as "data analytics. It closed earlier this year. With data on millions of students, privacy concerns were an issue. It doesn't appear as if it has any contract with the EAA. However, one email from Agilix to Esselman suggests that 'inBloom integration" had at least been discussed. Using student data from Buzz to perform analytics, however, soon popped up in another context.

From Cory Linton [SINET];

To: Duane Call [Agilix] Mary Esselman

Subject: How can we find out how to get student achievement data out of Buzz

We are looking at some predictive analytics technology that is really cool, and want to try some it out with Buzz data. What we want to look at is student achievement as it relates to PD360 usage, and see if we can build a personalized professional development plan based on the predictive analytics. Mary, we could either get it right out of Buzz, or get it out of your SIS [Student Information system], or is there another system?...

Asked by the ACLU if the School Improvement Network ever asked employees of the EAA to provide EAA student data that would be used by the School Improvement Network to produce new "tools" or products, Cory Linton, a company vice president, responded: "No. Our product that we supply to the EAA does collect student achievement data—as per the contract. Our tools do this to support teachers and students in learning and to inform decision making. We have not used that data in any manner outside of the system.

APRIL 2013:

From: Laura Monks

To: Buzz Support

Subject: Spanish 1 content not showing up in teachers course

... If Agilix isn't willing to do the work to fix [this problem] properly then I will fix it myself and deal with the extra work it will take to make sure his course stays updated. Honestly, I don't know why I even bother anymore. 90% of what I send I have a back door way of fixing but I don't fix it because it is an issue that should not be occurring and Agilix needs to be aware and fix it, so that their product is functioning correctly.

From: Laura Monks

To: Mary Esselman; [multiple other recipients]

Subject: RE: Spanish 1 content not showing up in teachers course

[Responding to a suggestion that the course might have been set up incorrectly]

I would like clarification on how the course was set up incorrectly. ... This teacher has done nothing to his course. So on our end there was nothing else we could do to make sure the course was set up correctly. This is why there is frustration here because it is obviously a bug in the system that keeps getting passed out and not being truly dealt with. Everyone knows that I check things very thoroughly... I am done. I have nothing else to say because I can't say it more clearly and as always we have these random issues that are huge and never truly get fixed because the buck keeps getting passed to user error. That is why teachers get frustrated. That is why they are hesitant to use the product.

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