When the Race to the Top district competition finalists were announced last month, the only Michigan representative on a list of 61 finalists was the state-run Education Achievement Authority, which oversees 15 low-performing schools in Detroit.
While the EAA's plans apparently look promising to U.S. Department of Education reviewers, its reputation is viewed with more skepticism by some in the state. A coalition of Michiganders that includes school board members, parents, and the superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools sent a letter, made public early Friday on the Washington Post, to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama questioning that decision. The letter writers, who also include the executive director of the Michigan PTA, teachers, and local professors, are concerned about the governance, curriculum, and future of the EAA.
As far as the educational program goes, the letter says that the still-new EAA has "no objective, external data attesting to its record of success" and wonders how its quality will be assured. The EAA is currently using a model that involves the use of a computer program. (You can find more about this in this article.) It's similar to a program that John Covington, the chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority, put into place while he was the superintendent in Kansas City, Mo. But Kansas City abandoned that curriculum soon after Covington's departure. Testimony from some teachers in the EAA indicates that implementation of the program so far is not ideal in some cases; some also question relying so heavily on a computer program even when implementation goes more smoothly.
The Race to the Top district competition encouraged "personalized" learning, however, which is what the EAA says it is trying to do.
Issues of governance are even more contentious. Earlier this month, the school board voted to withdraw from the contractual agreement that created the EAA. In the meantime, legislation has been proposed in both the state House and Senate that would ensure by law that the EAA would continue to exist. From yesterday's letter to Obama and Duncan:
"The EAA receives public tax dollars but is not subject to oversight by Michigan's elected State Board of Education. This "new form" of school governance is particularly disturbing in its suppression of parent/community participation in the school decision-making process as there is no elected school board. Installing an appointed chancellor who only reports to the governor effectively disenfranchises the citizens of Michigan."
In case anyone needs reminding, education isn't the only arena in which there are leadership/governance questions in Michigan. The city government last year fended off a state takeover.
It seems noteworthy that the EAA is one of a number of nontraditional "districts" that were selected as finalists in the Race to the Top district competition. The list of finalists includes Animo Leadership Charter School in California; KIPP DC; Idea Public Schools; Harmony Public Schools; and Uplift Education. (Those last three are all networks of charter schools.) The federal Education Department has not disclosed much about who the reviewers who selected the finalists are, and the applications themselves have not yet been released en masse either, so we don't have a lot to draw on in terms of what made these applications stand out. Between 15 and 25 of these finalists will ultimately receive grants.
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