“The idea of hoping someone fails is a little mind boggling to me. These children deserve the best. “
That was the reaction of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday when he was asked about the bitter and often misleading attempts by some critics to destroy the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan (EAA).
“Obviously I’m just in for a day,” Duncan, who has seen schools all over the U.S., told reporters at Brenda Scott Elementary/Middle School, “but talking to some of the young children today at this school compared to last year, they feel safer, they’re learning more. They feel they’re in an environment where they have a chance to be successful.”
The question is why some members of the Legislature and other critics are so dead-set on denying children this opportunity and on misrepresenting the EAA in the process.
For instance, in a letter he hand-delivered to Sec. Duncan, State Sen. Bert Johnson alleged that “the EAA has received two $6 million loans from the already cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools (DPS).” That is simply not true and what is worse, Sen. Johnson knows it is not true. The loans were from the State of Michigan to the EAA with DPS merely served as a conduit for the money. Not a dime of DPS funds were involved. In addition, DPS was paid interest plus an $88,000 fee just to process the loan.
We borrowed those funds from the state because we began operations last July 1, hired more than 400 teachers and conducted a month-long training session for them in August and then started school in September while not receiving our first state school aid foundation allowance payment until late October. Now that we are receiving regular state funding we are balancing our funds, have repaid all but $2.6 million of the loan from the state and will have completed the repayment in July.
The truth is that what we have accomplished in less than a year represents a remarkable leap forward in educating children who were being underserved by a broken system.
When we opened our doors in September we had more than 10,000 students who had been attending failing schools – schools that ranked at the bottom for the entire state of Michigan. We started out by testing each student to determine where they were academically. Only 2% of elementary and middle school students coming into the EAA were proficient in math — none in the sixth grade — and only 18% were proficient in reading. No one can defend schools that produce those results.
We then took those test results and developed an individual plan for each student so that the work they are doing in school is fitted to their own achievement level. If the student is reading at the 2nd grade level, his or her reading assignments are at the 2nd grade level. As the student improves to the third and 4th grade level, the reading assignments are elevated. He or she doesn’t have to wait a year to go to the next level. They advance at their own speed.
A fundamental part of the student-centered approach to education is regular testing of students to make sure their work continues to match their achievement level. We use these tests to adjust each student’s educational plan, moving students who are achieving forward and determining what needs to be done to work with those who are making slower progress.
The second set of tests were administered in late January and February of this year. After just four months under the new system, more than 27 percent of EAA students in grades 2 through 9 already had achieved one full year’s growth or more in reading and 22 percent had already achieved one or more year’s growth in mathematics.
The most significant growth was in high school mathematic scores for grades 9 and 10, where 40 percent of students already had achieved one or more year’s growth and an additional 16 percent were on track to achieve one or more year’s growth by the final assessment in late June.
We are testing the students again now to determine their progress and will be releasing those test results once they are completed.
In addition to the overall test results, we have experienced so many inspiring individual stories of young people who in past years have been disengaged and created discipline problems who are now engaged and eagerly learning. It’s proof on a very fundamental level that children, no matter what background they come from, want to learn, can learn and will learn if they are provided the right environment and support system. That is what student-centered learning can accomplish.
You would think that people professing to care about urban students would welcome this increase in student performance. You would think they would want to encourage it, not look for ways to nit-pick it to death or argue about peripheral issues and attempt to return students to the old schools that have been failing them. It’s a sad commentary when we fail to want for other children what we would demand for our own.
Has everything gone smoothly? Of course not. We are, after all, a start-up operation with 15 schools, more than 400 teachers and 10,000 students. Any new organization of that size is going to have hiccups. The question is whether you work cooperatively to fix those hiccups and keep moving forward, or you use them to nit-pick and try to destroy the progress that is being made.
In his remarks to reporters Duncan said “All I know is that these are schools that have underperformed, in some cases, for decades in which the status quo is unacceptable. We all need to work together so if there are things the EAA can do better, absolutely, let’s bring it to the table. If there are things the Detroit Public Schools can do better absolutely we need to bring that to the table. But if someone is hoping a set of schools fail here then that is just a different mindset than one I understand.”
That hoping for failure is not a mindset that we at the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan understand, either. The schools that are part of the EAA were failing before they became a part of the EAA. Now they are showing early clear and welcome signs of success. We are determined to expand on that success.
The shame is that those who should welcome this improvement for the kids who need it most are wedded so resolutely to the old, failed status quo. Our kids deserve better from them. They deserve for us to fight for their chance to succeed in life – to create an environment, as Secretary Duncan put it so well, “where they have a chance to be successful.”
Each of us at the EAA is working every day to see that is exactly what they get.