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The Education Achievement Authority has been hampered in trying to turn around Michigan's lowest-performing schools by its limited size, financial issues and the tight timetable under which it was created, according to a report released Wednesday.

The study, issued by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, says the EAA is "not the complete disaster you may have heard it to be" but trails similar but broader recovery districts in Louisiana and Tennessee in improving student performance.

Fordham's report was written by Nelson Smith, former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Prior reports studied Louisiana's Recovery School District and Tennessee's Achievement School District.

"By any reckoning, the EAA has gotten off to a wobbly start," Smith wrote in the report. "Its ambitious vision has been clouded by confusion about goals, set back by political attacks, and complicated by self-inflicted wounds."

Smith said while its governing structure is clearly laid out, its architecture is "patched together through contractual agreements that can be (and already have been) terminated, without ever being codified in state law."

The EAA runs 12 schools directly and three charters, all taken over from Detroit Public Schools. Gov. Rick Snyder announced its creation in June 2011; the EAA opened 15 months later.

A year after opening, the district saw enrollment drop nearly 24 percent by fall 2013. It faced a cash shortage and had to borrow $12 million from the state during the 2012-13 school year.

The district also has struggled to turn around historically low test scores at the former DPS schools.

In the Michigan Educational Assessment Program exam offered in October 2013, test scores in the EAA showed gains in 11 of 18 test areas. However, proficiency rates remained under 10 percent in 13 test areas.

"Perhaps an expert manager can get enough cylinders firing for the EAA to start chugging forward," Smith said. "The authority has got to stem the outflow of students, up its academic game an restore its credibility for wider expansion to have any chance."

Interim EAA chancellor Veronica Conforme said she appreciates the report's feedback.

"We certainly have more work to do to fulfill our mission of providing a new direction for the education of our children," she said. "That is why, as interim chancellor, I have been taking a hard look at what is working at the EAA and what needs improvement, and moving aggressively based upon what we find."

Smith said there were many takeaways from the report, but listed these as his top three:

-Running most schools centrally required more resources and personnel than the EAA planned at the outset.

-The EAA's structure as an Interlocal Agreement is different from other state turnaround districts, which are codified in law. This raises continuing questions about its sustainability.

-Given how badly the schools they inherited had been performing, it probably made sense for the EAA to emphasize academic growth over absolute proficiency at first. But it has got to start moving the needle on proficiency in the next cycle of standardized tests, Smith said.

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