The EAA Exposed: An investigative report

Sep 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

In June of 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder stepped behind a microphone at Detroit's Renaissance High School to announce the start of a revolutionary new approach to education in Michigan.

The problem of poor academic performance would be addressed in dramatic fashion.

"We do have too many failing schools in our state," he said. "If you look at us statewide, only 16 percent of our kids are college-ready. That's absolutely unacceptable.

"We need to focus on a new way of doing things."

The target would be Michigan's lowest-performing schools. The bottom 5 percent.

The stakes could not have been higher. As the governor explained it, the future of both the city and the state as a whole would be riding on this experiment in education.

"For Detroit to be successful, it depends on having successful schools. For Michigan to be successful, it depends on having a successful Detroit," Snyder declared. "So we're all in this together, and we're going to make this happen as a team."

A little more than a year after that speech, the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) opened its doors to students. Instead of taking on the challenge of lifting up all of the state's low-performing schools, or even a large number of them in different areas, decision-makers — operating in a way that was anything but transparent — decided to have as this experiment's proving ground 15 Detroit schools. Three of those would be independent charters. The other 12 would serve as the focal point for the EAA's attempt to radically reconstruct the way in which students are educated.

In all, about 10,000 students — largely poor, predominantly African American, often lagging years behind in terms of academics — would be the test subjects.

In more ways than one.

The system itself would be unique, with all strings leading back to the governor.

The legal loophole through which the EAA slipped into being is a little-used state law that allows two units of government, acting in cooperation, to create a third public entity. It this case, it was Detroit Public Schools (DPS) — under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager — and the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, the majority of whom are gubernatorial appointees, that entered into what's called an inter-local agreement that created the EAA.

It is overseen by an 11-person board, with the governor appointing seven members and EMU and the DPS's emergency manager each selecting two more.

And so this became the test of a completely new system of schooling.

It turned out to be another kind of test as well.

A test of software, developed by one for-profit corporation and marketed by another.

A product named Buzz.

Landing in Detroit

It came to Detroit from Kansas City, along with John Covington, the controversial figure hired by the EAA board to be the new system's first chancellor. Along with Buzz, Covington also brought to Detroit a group of administrators who worked under him in Kansas City. A key member of that team is Mary Esselman, first hired on as the EAA's Chief Officer, Accountability, Equity, and Innovation for the EAA, and later promoted to the position of deputy chancellor.

Covington is gone now, having departed under a cloud of scandal generated by news reports of the credit card spending that occurred under his watch.

But the software remains, significantly upgraded twice since it arrived. Those upgrades were made possible because of the students and teachers at the EAA, who were bitten again and again and again by the many bugs that plagued Buzz for the first two years of its use in Detroit.

Created by a Utah-based company called Agilix Labs, Buzz is education software that provides what its marketing material describes as an individualized learning experience. With the help of $100,000 from the EAA, Buzz was merged with other educational software created by the School Improvement Network [SINET], also based in Utah. Another $250,000 from the EAA would eventually pay for improvements suggested by the teachers, students, and administrators who were using it, according to Esselman.

In December 2013, Gov. Snyder had a number of questions about all of this, including how these products, in conjunction with the EAA model, might be taken statewide.

"The Buzz student-centered learning platform is a joint project between EAA, School Improvement Network and Agilix," according to a written response crafted by Esselman and company representatives.

How do we know that?

The information is found in internal EAA documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Thomas Pedroni and shared with the ACLU of Michigan. Pedroni is an associate professor of curriculum studies at Wayne State University. He's also the director of the Detroit Data and Democracy Project, which he founded in 2011 to "provide timely policy briefs, public testimony, and authoritative perspective on education issues for regional education reporters, community leaders, and community-based organizations."

For those who have followed the EAA saga at all, it's no secret that Pedroni, an expert on urban education, is a critic of the EAA's methods.

The documents he obtained, however, speak for themselves. There are thousands of them — including the email from Snyder, which asks about Agilix, the School Improvement Network, their relationship with the EAA, and how the whole model might be expanded beyond Detroit.

The dual-crafting of the response to Snyder's query, involving a back-and-forth between Esselman and company employees with edits taking place at each stop, reflects the close working relationship between the three entities.

Sometimes it's difficult to tell where the interests of one stops and the other begins.

For example, the response to Snyder points out that Esselman is working with SINET on something called a LumiBook that will describe her vision of the "student-centered" learning process. (A LumiBook, according to the School Improvement Network website, is "the next step in the evolution of the ebook — an online reading platform that lets you become part of the book — developing ideas along with fellow readers and the author that just might become the book's newest chapters.")

In terms of Buzz and the School Improvement Network platform it's been wedded with, the software has "been developed to be agnostic to instructional delivery and resource source, which means it can be used for virtual schools, blended instruction, distance learning, traditional instruction with differentiation, and online assessment," the governor was told.

A product at the forefront of education in the Internet age — at least as it was portrayed to Michigan's self-described "nerd" governor.

But in reality, what internal EAA documents reveal is the extent to which teachers and students were, over the course of two school years, used as whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.

In fact, a SINET employee in November of 2013 informed Mary Esselman of his "fear" that another school district might want to start using Buzz (re-branded as GAGE for the purpose of marketing the product to others) before a second major upgrade could be finished and ready for use in March of the following year.

Records show that such an upgrade did finally land in April of 2014, and was installed over spring break. Another two months passed before a press release was issued announcing that the upgraded product would be available to selected school districts for the start of the 2014-2015 school year.

Agilix and the School Improvement Network began working with Covington and his team in Kansas City.

"In Kansas City, the leadership team implemented the model with limited technology...," according to the response provided to Snyder. "In Michigan, they have had the opportunity to select staff and leverage a strong teaching and learning platform with strong, short-cycle innovation."

By short-cycle innovation they mean this: improvements were made as Buzz moved from Kansas City (where it is no longer used) to Detroit. And in the two years since its arrival here, it has gone through technological upgrades significant enough to warrant press releases heralding the breakthroughs that were achieved.

"We're building this plane as we fly it," is a phrase numerous sources we've interviewed have attributed to Mary Esselman, who was in the thick of the technological planning.

Part of that build-it-as-they-go model included paying inexperienced Teach for America instructors to provide curriculum content that was loaded into Buzz when it arrived at the EAA. They were recent college grads who didn't study to become teachers and who lacked certification, coming to the EAA with only a few weeks of training in the art of teaching. (About 25 percent of the EAA's teachers were from TFA when its schools opened in 2012.)

"We selected eight teachers, some newer teachers and some more experienced, to provide additional choice options for students on a stipend basis," said Esselman, who provided a written response to questions from the ACLU. "Four were TFA teachers."

That's anything but usual.

"Typically in schools, curriculum is developed via teams of teachers working under the guidance of a curriculum specialist (someone with many years of teaching experience and a master's degree but we are now consistently seeing people with doctoral or education specialist degrees in these positions)," according to Stephen A. Wellinski, an associate professor of teacher education at Eastern Michigan University. "Usually these teams are built around the more experienced teachers. It is problematic when novice or non-teachers are in charge of creating school-based curriculum and course content."

Product promotion

What is the response of the EAA to criticisms that it has too many inexperienced teachers and a stubborn reliance on educational software that was rife with problems?

In essence, they say, the real proof is in the results. And, within months of beginning operation, key administrators were already proclaiming that, according to internal testing, their new approach was achieving remarkable results.

The stunning scores coming out of the EAA were eagerly touted by Agilix and the School Improvement Network.

"During the 2012-2013 school term, 59% of students achieved 1.5 or more year's growth in Reading and 58% of student achieved 1.5 or more year's growth in Math," boasts a "case study" posted on the Agilix website.

Those impressive gains, said the people running the EAA, were achieved by combining a change in philosophy with tailor-made technology. EAA students have longer school days and a longer school year than their DPS counterparts. They also had schools that embraced Student Centered Learning, described as an approach that, using the definition employed by the EAA, met students where they were academically rather than forcing them to march lock-step through the traditional, age-based grade system.

And then there was the technology provided by Agilix and SINET. Instead of a teacher with a marker standing in front of a whiteboard and students with textbooks dutifully taking notes, the computer would provide the bulk of their educational experience. Teachers would serve primarily as an adjunct, helpers who facilitated and provided a watchful eye. Teachers too had software to assist them in their professional development, a SINET product called PD360 — with PD standing for "professional development."

Before long, those two companies partnered, with taxpayers kicking in $100,000 to pay for Buzz and PD 360 to be merged, allowing it to be marketed as a single product for customers interested in a package deal. (Contrary to what EAA documents say, a SINET executive told us that Buzz and PD360 had been merged in Kansas City.)

Moreover, key EAA officials devoted much time and energy to promoting both the EAA model and the technology they were using to achieve truly remarkable success.

A symbiotic relation emerged. The companies needed the EAA's students to do well in order to prove the effectiveness of their products when making sales pitches to other schools and districts; the EAA needed the companies to do well, so that more money could be funneled back into the product improvement that would, conceivably, promote the kind of student advancement that would attract even more kids, and the state funding attached to them, to the EAA classrooms.

None of this is idle speculation or hyperbole from critics.

Testing, testing

The emails provided us clearly show company officials time and again asked top EAA administrators — especially Covington and Esselman — to assist in efforts that would help promote their products, from making speaking appearances at conferences to coming up with data on a moment's notice to help provide fodder to an influential blogger. Promoting the work being done by the EAA, and promoting the products being used, were all one and the same.

As for the promises that successful sales would return to the district, there is this telling email from a Agilix official to Mary Esselman:

"Sorry I've been so out of touch the past several months — though don't think you and the EAA aren't top priority — it's nearly all I discuss, promote and focus on. I've just had to make sure SINET is owning the project, getting familiar and able to support and drive it so I can focus on driving sales that drive more money to perfecting your model."

In other words, achieving stellar test results was vital to the success of the EAA model. And the scores really shined, reflecting remarkable success.

At least the ones obtained through something called the "Scantron Performance Series," tests internally administered by the EAA.

There is, however, a shadow that's been cast over all those sparkling Scantron scores.

Numerous teachers interviewed by the ACLU told us that, because of intense emphasis on producing positive test results, students were allowed to re-take tests when they failed to perform well. It was described as standard procedure throughout most, if not all, EAA schools.

Asked by the ACLU if she ever became aware of these types of improper testing procedures, Esselman responded: "Yes. We were made aware at a public meeting and immediately made the necessary steps with our school leaders to address this issue."

Adding more darkness to those shadows is this fact:

In stark contrast to the internal test results are the state's standardized achievement tests, known as MEAP. The most recent MEAP results show that a high majority of EAA students are either stagnating in terms of reaching math and reading proficiency, or falling even further behind.

Asked about those contradictory results, Esselman responded: "The EAA has adopted a student-centered model of teaching and learning that allows teachers to personalize instruction to meet the needs of each child. Our teachers are focused on individual student progress rather than teaching to the state test."

The irony in that is that persistently low MEAP test scores were the reason schools were taken out of the Detroit Public School System and put under the control of the EAA.

Even so, for Cory Linton, an executive vice president at School Improvement Network, the proof of the EAA's success and the success of the software that is a focal point of its system, is in those Scantron scores.

"These kids are getting the best educations of their lives," he said in a phone interview.

When asked about the many bugs in Buzz when it arrived in Detroit, he said those kinds of problems are typical when software gets rolled out. It is part of the process. He also contended that the emails we've examined only reflect postings to a help desk set up specifically to deal with problems quickly and efficiently.

It's not much different than people having problems with an iPhone, he explained. There are bound to be some problems when using any technology, no matter how well it is designed. And that it's not fair to focus only on the problems being emailed to a help center, because it distorts the picture, providing an inaccurate portrayal of what was going on in the big picture, or how well the software works and how effective it is overall.

One thing that he's wrong about, though, is the scope of the documents used to compile this report.

Big picture, big problems

Rather than just pleas for help in dealing with software snafus, many of the emails we examined dealt with bigger-picture issues involving Esselman and the two companies.

One particularly damning email actually came from a SINET employee.

In November 2013 — at which point Buzz had been the keystone of education in the EAA for 14 months — the School Improvement Network's Brian Chandler sent a message to the EAA's Mary Esselman saying this about the work Agilix was doing, and the performance of Buzz, which by that point had been upgraded twice since first being introduced in Kansas City:

"We have reiterated to them [Agilix] again and again they have done a terrible job meeting schedules and expectations. ... In the end, they have finally admitted the current version of Buzz is little more than a hack that really can't be extended much further without a significant rewrite."

"It is hard to defend language like that," Linton admitted.

Esselman's reaction at the time, recorded in an email, was to say she found Agilix's self-evaluation of Buzz to be "hugely concerning," and that her first call about the situation would be to the "governor."

It's not known if that call was ever made, or what the governor's reaction might have been.

But that same email had Esselman being told that the big fear, at least in the eyes of this SINET employee, was that sales efforts in Kentucky would bear fruit too soon, and they would be forced to deliver the "hack" model currently being used in Detroit rather than the upgrade expected to be installed in Detroit in about four months' time.

Another four months of some of Michigan's most vulnerable students being forced to use a product that, as the SINET employee admitted to Esselman, was clearly not "satisfactory to your needs at the EAA."

In a long exchange of emails with the ACLU, SINET Vice President Cory Linton wrote:

"SINET never believed it was a hack. Unfortunately, the email does exist — but that was not an official SINET position. To me, the most important question is what is the impact on the students? Are they having a better learning experience or not? I realize this is very debatable and the data can be interpreted many ways — this is why it is so important to go visit the schools and talk to the students directly, so you can make your own judgment about whether the schools are being successful or not. I can tell you unequivocally — as an official spokesperson for the company — that SINET's motive from the beginning was to help these disadvantaged students have a positive learning experience, and be prepared for a successful career or college after leaving these schools."

As for talking with teachers and students, we have done that.

Inside view

During the course of our investigation, the ACLU interviewed a dozen current and former teachers, one former administrator, and several students. Many of the teachers asked to remain anonymous, saying that, because they lacked the protections afforded by a labor union, they feared retaliation by the EAA if they spoke on the record. Others feared that the EAA would blackball them. Others, however, did agree to go on the record.

One of them is Jordan Smellie, a tech-savvy former music teacher now working in the IT industry.

"Buzz overall I would describe as a travesty. To say it was incomplete when it arrived is giving it too much credit," he said. "The software was in a state that any other firm would have never released. The design was poor, front to back, top to bottom. The user experience was horrendous. It was incredibly slow, if it worked at all."

Nearly everyone interviewed talked about the dearth of content when Buzz first arrived in the fall of 2012, which is contrary to Mary Esselman's unequivocal written assertion that Buzz arrived on time and fully formed.

Two of the teachers we interviewed — both of whom no longer work for the EAA — provided signed affidavits detailing accounts of their EAA experiences. One of them is Delbert Glaze, who formerly taught at Nolan Elementary School.

He recounted for us how EAA administrators had thrown into a Dumpster textbooks left behind by DPS as it vacated the building to make room for the EAA. So he had to use Buzz. But by January of 2013, he noted, "once the Buzz platform had advanced through all of the Web pages for a particular unit, Buzz instructed the students to complete a multiple choice test. When the test was available, students were allowed to re-take the test as often as necessary and thus ultimately figure out the right letter to mark and move toward the next lesson. However, at various points throughout the year, the tests would disappear from the Buzz platform. As a result, students were unable to progress in their curriculum and, in some instances, were forced to completely restart the lesson and thus fall several weeks or months behind."

Instances of test scores and other material disappearing are well-documented in the emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act documents that serve as the foundation of this report.

Brooke Harris, who formerly taught at Mumford High School, signed a statement that mirrors many of the statements made by Glaze.

Among other things, she noted that during the first year Buzz was being used, "The Buzz platform did not have content for certain elective classes for the entire school year."

Despite that, she stated, administrators either applied heavy pressure or offered incentives for teachers to abandon traditional teaching methods and embrace Buzz and its companion technologies.

"I was told that in the student-centered model, my role as a teacher was primarily to supervise students to make sure they were using Buzz."

And then there are the first-person accounts of life in an EAA school provided to us by the three children of Detroit resident Christina Lee. Sitting on a couch in the living room of their rented home on Detroit's west side, they explained why their mom pulled them out of Nolan, a school for children in kindergarten through eighth grade, after attending for two years.

"Nobody did what they were supposed to do," said Destiny, 15. "Kids were getting on Facebook, Instagram, porn sites."

Porn sites?

"Yeah, you know, like the ones where you do video chat."

("Buzz is a digital platform that functions inside of the firewall that is provided through the Detroit Public Schools IT network. 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," Mary Esselman responded in writing when asked if children using Buzz were able to access pornography sites.)

As with teachers who left the EAA, she might be classified as "disgruntled." She was caught using a phone to videorecord girls staging a fight in a bathroom. She was, according to her mother, suspended for 180 days.

"I know I did wrong," Destiny said. "But 180 days? I begged them to let me come back to school, but they wouldn't let me."

Deon, 14, said, "I didn't get to learning anything. If there's a teacher to help me, I can catch on. But being on a computer all the time doesn't help me. I was doing basic math, over and over. Simple stuff, like what is 3 + 3. Just sit on the computer all day."

The youngest, Aynnya, now 7, recounted the challenge of trying to get help working on a computer. Part of that stems from the fact that her family has no computer at home.

"I'd tell my teacher, 'I don't get this,' and she'd say, 'You have to figure it out for yourself,' and I'd say, 'But I don't get it,'" she recounted, her eyes catching fire from the anger that experience still kindles.

Inquiring minds

In an email responding to questions about bugs in Buzz, Cory Linton explained that there are bound to be problems, and that is the nature of the software business.

"Like all software, as you have more usage, you continually refine and make it better. This is software industry standard practice," he wrote in an email responding to questions from the ACLU. "A best-selling business book, The Lean Startup, explains this process in detail. But the basic idea is that you build software, release it to end users, get feedback, make adjustments, and release again. It is an iterative process, which is why you see so many 'Updates' on applications on your smartphone.

"You can only figure out so much in a lab, and then you learn more when real users use the software. This doesn't mean the users are guinea pigs. I spent 9 years at Microsoft, and many years doing this exact process in the Microsoft Word development team. With every version, we would immediately visit clients and see what they wanted changed/improved, and then incorporate that feedback into the next version — which usually took 18-24 months to release. That process has been followed closely with 'Buzz' — with a new version coming out every 18 months or so."

Having obtained the documents much of this report is based on, Pedroni is well aware of what they contain, and doesn't easily swallow claims that what went on at the EAA should be considered the unavoidable complications that come with creating and deploying software.

"Wouldn't the 'end users' have deleted the Buzz app off their smartphone a long time ago and gone with something else?" he asked. "If the app was a 'hack' for 18 months at least, according to its developers, I would have deleted that app from my smartphone after realizing it didn't do what was being promised.

"The last thing I'd do is use it as the almost sole basis of teaching children I loved, forcing them to endure it for hours and hours a day, week after week, month after month, sacrificing them so they could make it 'better' for some for-profit, private venture. This product was supposed to already be known for lifting schools from the bottom 5 percent. Instead, the system Gov. Snyder single-handedly created brought in a product that was already in its second iteration but still a hack. My smartphone doesn't have space for that kind of poor quality and I'd never force my children to be guinea pigs to assist it in becoming more than a hack."

Linton, recognizing both the controversy and the significance of what the EAA represents, offered an idea.

"I would say, 'Let's see what the impact on the students is.' Is anything more important that that?

"What is their attitude about learning, better or worse? Are there more or less discipline incidents? Do their parents notice a difference in their children? And, most importantly, are the students learning more or less? There is much debate over the data ... we should be focusing on accurately measuring the learning so that we can see what the impact on these students is. I would say we should be pushing to have a neutral, third-party come in and look comprehensively at the impact of the EAA's new educational approaches and systems, and look at all aspects of education and the impact on the student. Such a comprehensive analysis would focus on the big picture so that we all can learn what worked in the EAA, what needs to be tweaked, and so forth — looking at such measures as student learning, student and parent attitudes, culture and climate of the school, student attitudes about their future careers and attending college, and so forth."

We agree that the parents of EAA students and the public at large need to know if the claims of astounding gains being made are actually true, and what the effects of this new learning model really are.

We also agree that more transparency is necessary.

And with Covington now gone, the EAA wants to put the focus on the future. “Everything is under review,” spokesman Mario Morrow said. “It is a new day for the EAA.”

As things move forward, however, one question needs to be answered: How do the leaders involved in creating the EAA, the board charged with overseeing it, and the educators responsible for running it justify allowing a terribly flawed program to be used for two years on 10,000 children in schools that were already deemed to be failing?

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work, which focuses on emergency management law and open government in Michigan, is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation. You can find more of his reporting at Guyette can be contacted at 313-578-6834 or [email protected].

To read some of the emails, continue to next page.

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.)


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


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."


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.

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.


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.



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).


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!


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.


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


... 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.

MAY 2013:

From: Brian Chandler: [SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: District Interested in Student-centered Learning and Buzz/Gage

Asked by the ACLU if she ever helped sell product, Esselman Responded: "My job is not to sell any vendor's products. However, I have spoken to districts, state departments of education, foundations and non-profits about student-centered learning. I share the same information with all groups publicly when I speak about the vision, the tools we have developed and use, and the implementation/professional development required to make the shift."

Hi Mary,

We have a district in Hawaii that is starting a one-to-one laptop program and will likely be piloting it with a couple of their schools this fall. We have a call scheduled with them and I think it would be great if you could be on the call to help us discuss student-centered learning and Buzz/Gage. Would you be willing to do this?

Esselman, according to subsequent emails, participated on the call. Covington joined in as well. Also worth noting, this is the first reference in the FOIA documents to Buzz being linked to a product called GAGE. This is from a July 2013 press release: "GAGE is based upon the Buzz application first implemented a year ago with the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) in Detroit, Michigan." According to SINET's Cory Linton, "There is only one product. It was called Buzz, and still is in EAA. Because it turned out that Buzz could not be trademarked, we changed the name to Gage. However, to avoid confusion in EAA the name has stayed Buzz inside of EAA only. There was discussion around changing it in EAA, but it was decided not to."

From: Laura Monks [SINET 'Teaching and Learning Specialist" Assigned to the EAA]

To: [Unknown Recipient/s]

I now have three reports of things disappearing from courses in BrainHoney and the odd thing is that it seems to happen every Sunday night. ... I don't know what is causing this but we need to get this figured out ASAP ... these teachers are afraid to put anything into the course because things keep disappearing. Also, when the items disappear the progress for the students disappear as well so students are getting frustrated.

Along with using the EAA's students and teachers to identify problems with Buzz, the companies also relied upon teachers to generate ideas for new features that could be added to future updates, making them part of the software development process.

JULY 2013:

From: Sam Wilkinson [SINET Project Manager]

To: Mary Esselman [and multiple others]

Hi all, Thank you for the meeting this morning. It is great to see things progressing. I have put together a spreadsheet containing most of the fixes we would like to see in Buzz. It has three pages. ...

Next week, I will be visiting the EAA in Detroit. This is a great opportunity to get feedback from teachers. ... Please let me know if you have a specific question for the teachers/students, or if you think there is a specific conversation that should involve a teacher. During this trip, I will also work with the teachers to refine the "Big Items" that are still ambiguously defined.

Again, thank you for your time and work. Have a great weekend!

From: Chet Linton

To: Mary Esselman

Hi Mary,

Great seeing you and thanks for your great participation at SIIS [School Improvement Innovation Summit] this year. We greatly value you and our relationship with the EAA.

From: Mary Esselman

To: Brian Chandler [SINET]

Re: Agilix

Needless to say I am extremely disappointed. Most of the items have been on the list for almost 12 months – 18 months for the reports and 36 months for the reports if you add the fact that they also did not get finished in Kansas City. I understand that everyone want the product to go beyond the EAA but the problems with the interface in many cases developers mindset not client vision) have been on the fix list since last summer and before and the product is not viable at scale without them – copy feature, reports, content curating, library, etc. Those were always features in the mock ups and the initial SOW – many tied to issues that initially surfaced in Kansas City...

Individual success plan for students for the latter half of the 2013-14 school year. If we use the same process as this year by the time we get some focus on this we will have to once again wait for developer times and may not get slotted until January or June. The money is in place so I would like the time reserved NOW....

I would like Agilix to see my language.

The above email provides the first clue the relationship between the EAA and Agilix is becoming strained...


From: Nathan Spencer [Science Instructional Coach at Pershing High School]

To: Laura Monks [SINET]


We have a parapro, Mrs. Lyle, that is really helping take charge of the environmental science class left vacant by Mr. Catabiano. We are planning a unit that will be put in place during the first week of November. She will need access to a Buzz account. I will help her put the content on, but our students have been doing "busy work" for almost the whole year now.

From Duane Call [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

Sorry I've been so out of touch the past several months – though don't think you and the EAA aren't top priority – it's nearly all I discuss, promote and focus on. I've just had to make sure SINET is owning the project, getting familiar and able to support and drive it so I can focus on driving sales that drive more money to perfecting your model.


From: Samuel Wilkinson [SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Hi Mary,

Here is a quick summary of what was discussed between Agilix and the group of EAA teachers:

• Agilix asked the teachers to walk them through a day in the life of a teacher and a student

• The teachers talked about different habits using Buzz – some teachers upload small amounts of content daily, others upload large amounts weekly, etc.

• Brendan showed several bugs to Agilix (all of which were already known by the Agilix support team)

• The teachers talked about how tedious it is to author courses using BrainHoney/Buzz

• The teachers pointed out several flaws with the "Assign Task" tool. The teacher cannot keep track of what has already been assigned, nor can they remove assigned tasks.

• Overall the discussion was focused on software bugs, rather than new features.

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman


We'd like to get more of our team out to visit your schools [for a second visit] so they can have a firsthand experience of how Buzz is being used, where it's working and where it can be improved. We want them to see it in the hands of the end customer so they can think more intelligently when they develop.

BTW – you and your team owned iNACOL [International Association for K-12 Online Learning symposium] – endless positive feedback. Nice work.

After 14 months of use by EAA teachers and students, Mary Esselman received a harsh assessment of the software she had so enthusiastically helped promote for use by other educators.

From: Brian Chandler [School Improvement Network]

To: Mary Esselman

... Agilix mentioned to us that they had spoken about potentially making [another] visit on 12/9. I'm not thrilled about this, but they are insisting and we are trying to be cooperative. They feel like it will help their developers see the bigger picture, which is probably accurate, and if this allows us to complete the final Phase 3 items more effectively, then maybe it is worth it. I am going to see if I can find some budget for Sam and I to make the trip with them as well. Does this date still work for you. We also told them you will not have any time to meet with them when you are here [in Utah] the week of Thanksgiving, as we have too much to do.

This brings me to the develop schedule. First, I told them you were very unhappy about their impromptu meeting with your teachers. I told them it was distractive, and did not help us accomplish the goals we are currently trying to accomplish, and that they shouldn't have done this without your approval. They claimed that the intention of the meeting was actually to allow their developers to see the iNACOL presentation put on by your teachers. I told them that regardless of their intentions, it was their fault for allowing the discussion to digress into a bugs discussion, which did not benefit anyone. I also spoke to them about [the] prototype, and they were very embarrassed by this. I told them we need to specifically focus on Phase 3 item right now and nothing else. They agreed to do this.

In terms of the development schedule, we have spent countless hours going back and forth with them [Agilix] to determine how we can solve the remaining items on the schedule. We have reiterated to them again and again they have done a terrible job meeting schedules and expectations. We have had a series of meetings to determine how to complete the Phase 3 items. In the end, they have finally admitted the current version of Buzz is little more than a hack that really can't be extended much further without a significant rewrite. As promised, I told them I needed a solid schedule from them that I could share with you;

1) Phase 2 – Phase 2 is obviously long past due. However, Austin [where an Agilix office is located) continues to try to blame you and your team for the delay. Phase 2 should be completed and deployed this week.

2) Phase 3 has morphed into a new process. First, Agilix Austin will no longer be involved in development. Second, for this phase, they have committed to doing nothing more than what is required to complete Phase 3 items to make the product scalable and extensible.

I know this schedule is very disappointing. Sam and I feel the same way. Unfortunately, even if we spun our own development at this point, by the time our team got up to speed, I don't think we would be any further along than their teams will be by March. My other fear is that Kentucky will want Buzz/GAGE on the ground before March. Agilix is manually building another instance of Buzz//GAGE that we can deploy in Kentucky. I know that training Kentucky on the current version is not satisfactory to you (nor is it satisfactory to your needs at the EAA); however, I hope that you can be patient with us and help us make it work if necessary. We are planning to start or own development on BrainHoney and Buzz/GAGE both based on the March version and in parallel (hopefully starting in January or February), which will give us much more freedom on future direction of the product, but we are currently stuck between a rock and a hard place.

SINET executive Cory Linton told the ACLU that it is not his company's "official position" that Buzz is a "hack" program. The person who made that statement, he said, was not a SINET executive.

Along with expressing concern, her first reaction is that two important phone calls need to be made.

From: Mary Esselman

To: Brian Chandler

We need to discuss today. Having spent all this time and $250,000 on it to cite it as a hack is hugely concerning as I am setting up a call with governor and Chet. Also what is the KY version?

Chet, presumably is Chet linton, CEO of SINET. The governor of Michigan is Rick Snyder.

From: Brian Chandler

To: Mary Esselman

Please let me know what time you are available to speak. I have about an hour right now ...

I apologize if I was unclear in my previous e-mail. The Kentucky version would be exactly the same as the EAA version with whatever fixes we have competed by the time the want us to deploy it. My point is that I know you are unhappy with the current version, but I'm afraid we will not have all of the fixes that you and I desire in place by the time we may have to deploy it.

But, it was hoped brighter days awaited...

From: Agilix

To: Mary Esselman [and multiple other recipients]

Subject: Final status meeting!

Hi all,

Sam and Phillip and I had a good final status meeting today to close out our fall projects for the EAA and SINET. You all have been great to work with, and I appreciate everyone's efforts to envision, design, develop, and launch such powerful improvements to the Buzz platform for the students, teachers, & administrators of the EAA! This has been a very rewarding project, and I'm really glad to have been a part of it as we moved from hand-drawn concepts all the way through today's final acceptance of what has been deployed.

Mary, Phillip, Same and I talked about support processes going forward, and our time will work hard to continue the positive momentum for EAA and SINET.

From: Nicholas Olson [Southeastern High School Teacher]

To: Laura Monks

Good evening,

I just logged onto Buzz and my classes have disappeared.

From: Christian Weibell [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

[Our upcoming] onsite visit is a key component of our product focus for the next 24 months and beyond, as we update and enhance Buzz. Our team is committed to delivering the very best student-centered, data-informed, teacher-led, personalized learning solution for the blended environment as our number one strategic focus. Because of this, I am brining key members of our development team on site to the EAA to witness SCL firsthand, to help them catch the vision, to fuel their passion, and to have real use case scenarios to draw from during product development. I would like to maximize their exposure to as many classrooms, teachers, and students as possible.

Despite telling the ACLU that it was not her job to sell product, Mary Esselman was encouraged to learn aspects of the specific sales program employed by SINET.

From: Brian Chandler [SINET]

To: Mary Esselman; Kenneth Grover

Subject: SCL DNAS Worksheet

Hi Mary and Kenneth,

Please let me explain a little further with regards to the DNAS sheet that Chris Stott sent over. DNAS is a sales methodology that has been endorsed by our sales leadership team (there is a book associated with this called The DNA Selling Method, which I have read). From this, they have created an outline used by our salespeople ... the outline is actually quite simple in my opinion. I would like to create a first draft version for SCL, most particularly for DeKalb and Kentucky in case it might come in handy for the different groups we will be presenting to I those two areas.

Chandler goes on to outline specific parts of the worksheet he'd like Esselman and Grover to think about and provide feedback on. It is unclear who Grover works for.

From: Briana Kelly [a k-1 teacher at Law Elementary]

To: Laura Monks

I have some concerns about the growth of my class in reading comprehension and writing. These concerns were echoed by my fellow PLC members at yesterday's meeting as well, so I thought I would ask for help. I have looked over my Performance Series [Test] goals for my classes and I realized that my ELA [English Language Arts] block has been almost exclusively dedicated to phonics and phonological awareness. ... I know we are not allowed to do read a-louds or writer's workshop in the SCL model, but I am very concerned that I am not covering key skills my students need in order to make growth on Performance Series [Tests] and be prepared for second grade. Do you have any suggestions for how to cover all aspects of Ela within the SCL model? Are there examples from other schools? Is there a "most effective and efficient" organization model for SCL in ELA lower elementary? ... Thank you for your help.

From: Laura Monks

To: Briana Kelly

I hope that the misconception of teaching mainly phonics is not coming from how it is set up in Buzz. Trust me the Compass content in Buzz is being re-configured and hopefully next year will be a more balanced program.

From: Lisa Cole [EAA Teacher]

To: Laura Monks [SINET]

Subject: Buzz

OMG!! I am sooo frustrated with BUZZ. Ok, I am back to the same issues as before, students are able to login to buzz, but the tabs are empty. Yes, we are on google. My students can't do the assignment because it does not show up on their page, but I can't find the assignment in the syllabus to remove it from my grade book. Is there something going on in Buzz right now? Help me Laura!!

From: Laura Monks

To: Lisa Cole

Subject: RE: Buzz

Hi Lisa, I am currently working in a new position for School Improvement Network and am asking teachers to send their tech issues on Buzz to Buzz help. So that Buzz help can start logging what is going on with teachers in order to make this a better product.

Hopefully they will be able to help you!


From Kaarina Roberto [Documentary Filmmaker for SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Hi Mary,

I was wondering if you could see if it would be fine with Doc if we follow him home from the office next Tuesday evening. ...

By the way, I was just looking at that segment of you going home from the office and it is great. Also, I wanted to mention how much I was admiring your awesome art and décor and how it speaks to your immense creativity.

The following email (which has been edited for clarity) from SINET's Brian Chandler to Mary Esselman deals with several important issues. Esselman's responses appear in bold.

From: Brian Chandler

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: follow Up Items

Hi Mary, I called and left you a voicemail and texted you this afternoon and texted you just so you know I'm not screening you. ;-)

I suspect things are still tense at the EAA. I haven't heard an update, but would love to hear how things are going. There are actually ... items I need to follow with you on, with some new being very critical. I'm on a flight right now so I can't talk, but I could speak later this afternoon when I get back. The following are the items, with some being of an extremely urgent nature at this point (I will label them by urgency):

Extremely Urgent

• I wanted to tell you that if users have been having intermittent access to Buzz over the past couple of days it is because Agilix has had a Denial of Service attack on their servers. They have been working around the clock to get it resolved and should have it fixed soon.

Can I get updates each day until it is fixed?

Somewhat Urgent

• With some of these implementations potentially starting soon, I would like to solidify a contract with you so we can get your help, particularly with the Kentucky districts. However, I still haven't heard from you on your rates or your availability.

I will speak to Dr. Covington on this tomorrow when we return to work. The timing was inappropriate over the last several weeks with all of these issues we were having. It will be a combination of me and coaches.

Esselman informed the ACLU that $5000 was paid to the EAA for two days she spent working in Kentucky at the behest of SINET.

• I am still in great need of any content or competitor pricing you may have to help us in our negotiations and also to nail down some final pricing.

I have pulled the contract book and will have Jesse pull and email tomorrow.

• I wanted to know if you would be open to rebranding Buzz to GAGE. The primary reason being is because it is causing confusion as we are introducing it to now districts. However, it is also causing us some technical headaches having to keep the Buzz branding intact. The impact would be minimal – mostly just a logo and the login screen. (The March release will represent a much larger impact to your users.)

Not sure what to say on this one. A bit awkward for us as it is midyear and it would have been a lot better if we had had a conversation before it was promoted as Gage in terms of timing, etc. In addition we are providing funding for development as Buzz this year. I'll have to review with Dr. Covington.

On June 16, EAA Chancellor John Covington resigned amid scandal after it was revealed that the district had racked up $240,000 in credit card charges on travel and other items in less than two years. Coving said that he was leaving to take care of his ailing mother.

"Dr. Covington embraced the tremendous challenge of building such a school district. His student-centered approach, with individualized learning plans, longer school days and longer school years allowed children to make great strides," Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement released after Covington resigned. "With passion, he built a solid foundation for the work of the EAA to continue and thrive, helping thousands of our young people now and into the future."

On June 30, a press release touted the availability of a new and improved version of GAGE. The release, in part, read:

"School Improvement Network, the leader in educator effectiveness systems, today announced the company's cloud based personalized learning solution GAGE is now scalable across any school or system. GAGE provides everything needed to transform a traditional school or district into a personalized learning environment, and gives districts the ability to provide personalized, mastery based learning along with real-time professional development resources for educators combined into a single system."

"The GAGE personalized learning program is available to select school districts this fall for the 2014-2015 school year. "District administrators interested in being considered for inclusion in this program should contact the School Improvement Network at [email protected]."

Asked what the current status of Buzz is, EAA spokesman Mario Morrow said, "Everything is under review. It is a new day for the EAA."