Families & the Community

Two Districts Roll Back Summit Personalized Learning Program

By Sarah Schwartz — December 22, 2017 6 min read
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A pair of districts have rolled back their use of a technology system meant to deliver personalized learning and developed with the support of Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, citing concerns about content, the alignment of assessments and curricula, and students’ data privacy.

The superintendent of one of the systems, Cheshire Public Schools in Connecticut, Jeffrey Solan, wrote a letter earlier this week informing the community of the school system’s decision to suspend use of the Summit Learning Platform. He cited “issues with content in the platform and a substantial degree of misunderstanding and misinformation within the community.”

Parents in the district had circulated a petition to “Press Pause on Summit” that garnered more than 450 signatures.

Parents in another K-12 system, the Indiana Area School District, in Pennsylvania, had been voicing concerns about the program since the beginning of the school year, said superintendent Dale Kirsch, in an interview. The Indiana Area’s school board voted Monday to reduce use of the platform from four core subjects to two, at Kirsch’s recommendation and after hearing from parents in the district.

The district piloted Summit this year with its 6th grade classes in English, math, social studies, and science. Schools will continue to use the platform in the next academic year, said Kirsch, but it won’t be mandatory—6th grade parents will have the choice to “opt-in” their children.

“We don’t want to battle with our parents,” said Kirsch. “We want to work with them, not against them.”

Of all schools that used the platform in the 2016-2017 school year, 93 percent continued to use it during the current school year, according to Summit Public Schools. The platform is used in about 330 schools across the country, the organization said in a statement to Education Week.

“In collaboration with our partner schools, we are constantly working to improve the Summit Learning Platform and the teacher-developed resources and content to better meet the needs of teachers and students,” Summit officials said.

School districts’ interest in personalized learning—the idea that teaching and learning shoudl be customized to students’ individual needs and interests—has surged in recent years. Some districts and ed-tech companies are seeking to create that customization through digital means. Other K-12 systems have sought to accomplish it through restructuring of student lessons and schedules.

But even as interest in personalized learning has grown, critics have said that the research base supporting the concept is weak, and that school and company strategies for implementing it are flawed.

Concerns Over Content

The Summit platform is a key part of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s plans to support personalized learning. The organization, formed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, plans to give hundreds of millions of dollars to education related causes in the coming years.

In a recent Facebook post, Zuckerberg wrote about CZI’s desire to create “an education system where all students receive the equivalent of an expert one-on-one tutor.” He specifically mentioned the Summit Learning Platform, which has been supported by teams of CZI and Facebook engineers, as the kind of technology that will help scale these efforts.

But parents in both the Cheshire Public Schools and the Indiana Area School District questioned whether students were getting enough interaction with teachers, and whether the material their children were learning was rigorous and aligned to district standards.

Some parents of 6th graders in the Indiana Area School District said the material students learned in Summit’s curriculum playlists didn’t prepare them for the assessments embedded in the platform, said Kirsch. They also raised concerns about students’ lack of access to one-on-one “mentoring” with teachers as they completed project-based learning, he said.

The parents’ petition in the Cheshire Public Schools also raised the question of whether their elementary and middle schools had the resources to “conduct the individual instruction (to students of all types) and mentoring time that the Summit platform recommends.”

Parents and district officials also said that parts of the content loaded into platform were inappropriate.

One of the videos embedded in a social studies lesson showed an inappropriate hand gesture, said Kirsch, and another video in a science lesson also contained content he said was unsuitable for 6th graders. The two videos were removed from the district’s platform.

Teachers in the Indiana Area district had not previewed all of the platform’s content before the school year began, and students who had individually progressed further than the rest of their classes saw these videos before teachers did, said Kirsch. Following the incidents, the district hired substitute teachers to cover some class periods, giving 6th grade teachers time to review the entire platform. None of the other content in the platform raised any red flags, said Kirsch.

Monica Bulger, a researcher with Data & Society research institute who studies personalized learning and data use in education, wonders if some of these same concerns might have also come up in print materials, like textbooks, if parents had been carefully reviewing those resources as well. (There is a long history of state and local officials raising objections to the content of K-12 curriculum across subjects, claiming the material is inaccurate, biased, too difficult, or not difficult enough.)

Parents today are directing particular scrutiny to online resources, she said. The ensuing pushback can raise questions about who should be evaluating educational content and how to measure its effectiveness.

“We don’t necessarily want school content by popular vote,” she said, adding that it’s important that teachers and other experts are involved in shaping and evaluating the content in online platforms.

In a statement, Summit praised the commitment and professionalism of teachers in the Cheshire Public Schools, and said that the organization is “committed to partnering with educators who share our vision by ensuring they have the tools and support they need to be successful.”

A ‘Powerful Fear Narrative’

Protection of students’ personal and academic data is another concern that surfaced in the petition signed by Cheshire Public Schools parents.

“Administrators have not established the degree to which personally identifiable data on students is protected, and whether the disclosure of data required by the district’s contracts with Summit is in compliance with applicable laws,” the petition reads.

The district shares students’ names and email addresses with Summit, and Summit can also see students’ progress and performance in the platform, Solan said, in an interview with EdSurge. But the contract that the district signed says that Summit cannot sell students’ data.

Explaining this to parents didn’t alleviate their concerns, he said. “They felt like because Facebook was involved, then the contract wasn’t valid in some way, shape or form.”

“There’s a powerful fear narrative happening,” said Bulger. Earlier this year, Bulger co-authored a report on the legacy of inBloom, a student data-management project supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The project, launched in 2013, shut down a year later after vocal opposition.

In contrast to the developers of inBloom, she said, Summit has been trying to engage with school communities and respond to parent concerns. But in any any ed-tech implementation involving student data, she said, uncertainty can give way to fear.

These two districts shouldn’t be taken as a harbinger of massive resistance to Summit and other personalized learning programs, she said, but they illuminate concerns that parents have about transparency, boundaries, and responsible data use—concerns that Summit will have to continue to address with school communities going forward.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.