Buzzkill: The EAA's Emails Exposed

September 24, 2015

Below are some of the thousands of Educational Achievement Authority emails (edited for length and clarity) obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided to the ACLU of Michigan.

They reveal what happened when public educators, operating within a new structure, teamed up with the private sector in a high-tech effort to educate students in 15 of Detroit's lowest-performing schools. (Three of the EAA schools were separately operated charters that didn't use the Buzz technology.) The story these emails tell begins in January 2012 with discussion of a documentary film that will be used to chronicle the achievements of the EAA and the central role technology would play in the newly created school system. (Explanations and clarifications appear in italics.)

JANUARY 2012

From: Ben Johnson [SINET]

To: Kathy Weiler [Documentary filmmaker]

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

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

 

From: Duane Call [Agilix]

To: Marry Esselman; Cory Linton [SINET]

Subject Agilix EAA SWO agreement

Cory and Mary,

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

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

 

From: Ben Johnson

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Student Centered Learning

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

About This Program

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

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

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

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

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


 

From: Curtis Linton [Vice President, SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Cover Letter

Dear Educator,

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

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

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


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

Date: April 2012

Dear XXX,

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

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

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

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

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

 

From: Curtis Linton

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Sending Email to PD360 Candidates

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


 

JUNE 2012:

From: Curtis Linton

To: Mary Esselman [and two others]

Subject: School Improvement Innovation Summit Speaker Agreement

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

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


 

JULY 2012:

From: Todd Smith [SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Client Interest Student Centered Learning System

Mary,

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

Thanks for all you do. 


 

AUGUST 2012:

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

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

Subject: Need sample of Buzz course training ASAP

Bernd and Mark,

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

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

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

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


 OCTOBER 2012

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman

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

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

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

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

 

From: Mary Esselman

To: Mark Luetzelschwab [SINET]

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

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

 

From: Mark Luetzelschwab

To: Mary Esselman

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

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

This email demonstrates the degree to which speaking engagements by Esselman and Covington, in which they highlighted the work being done at the EAA, also helped promote Buzz, were 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.


 

NOVEMBER 2012

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

 

From: Curt Allen [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

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

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

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

 

Covington and Esselman promoting Buzz to other Michigan schools, even though the product remained problematic:

From: Mary Esselman

To: Curt Allen [Agilix]

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

Thank you for caring.

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


 

From: Duane Call [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: TED Talks

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

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


 

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

To: Duane Call [Agilix]

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

I am having a hard time trying to trouble shoot what exactly is going on at Law with their courses. Currently their Spanish, Music and Gym teachers have nothing but a yellow screen appearing in Buzz...

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


 

From: Duane Call

To: Bernd Helzer [Agilix]

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

 

From: Curt Allen

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Quick Questions re: Buzz at EAA

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

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

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

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

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

 

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman

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

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

Cool,

Duane

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


 

From: Mary Esselman

To: [Several Agilix support staff]

Subject: Unit not letting students progress

Guys ... We have Eli Broad, the governor, Head of Education in the House and Senate, hedge funders, etc. coming Friday and the students need at least one day in the unit prior to their visit. If we don't fix this they will not be on the platform and it will be a debacle. This is important because ... we have to generate funding. Please help us figure out why they are not accessing the new unit.

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

 

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman [and two Agilix programmers]

Subject: RE: Unit not letting students progress

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

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

 

From: Curt Allen

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: Detroit visit

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

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


 

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

From Mary Esselman

To: Curt Allen [Agilix]

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

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

 

From: Mary Esselman

To: Curt Allen

Subject: Detroit visit

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


 

DECEMBER 2012

From: Laura Monks [SINET]

To; Kathy Maximov; Duane Call [Agilix]

CC: Mary Esselman

Subject: Course Authoring

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

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


 

From: Curt Allen [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

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

Best wishes!

C

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


 

From: Mary Esselman

To: Curt Allen

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


 

JANUARY 2013

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

To: [multiple recipients]

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

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

 

From: Kathy Maximov

To: [multiple recipients]

Subject: Master courses

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

 

From: Anna Milanowski [SINET]

To: [Multiple Recipients]

Subject: DPS Laptops

Hi team,

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

 

From: Laura Monks

To: [Not shown]

Subject: Students loosing work in BUZZ or Brain Honey

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

 

From: Kathy Maximov [SINET]

To: Duane Call [Agilix]

Subject: Students losing work in Buzz or BrainHoney

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

 

From: Mary Esselman

To: Duane Call

Subject: IMPORTANT

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

 

From: Mary Esselman

To: Duane Call

Subject: Catch Up Call

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

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

 

From: Todd Smith [Strategic Partner Adviser for SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: EAA Invoice

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

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

 


MARCH 2013

From: [An Unnamed EAA Teacher]

To: Mary Esselman

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

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

 

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman; Curt Allen; Mark Luetzelschwab

Subject: Re: InBloom

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

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

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

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

3. Get more content on Buzz...

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


 

From Cory Linton [SINET];

To: Duane Call [Agilix] Mary Esselman

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

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

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

 


APRIL 2013

From: Laura Monks

To: Buzz Support

Subject: Spanish 1 content not showing up in teachers course

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

 

From: Laura Monks

To: Mary Esselman; [multiple other recipients]

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

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

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


 

MAY 2013

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."

From: Brian Chandler: [SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

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

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...


OCTOBER 2013

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

To: Laura Monks [SINET]

Laura,

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.


NOVEMBER 2013

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

Mary,

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!


 

FEBRUARY 2014

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 gage@schoolimprovement.com."

Asked what the current status of Buzz is, EAA spokesman Mario Morrow said, "Everything is under review.