Special Report
IT Infrastructure & Management

Tech ‘Convert’ Helps Head Network’s Personalized Learning Push

By Benjamin Herold — March 28, 2016 | Corrected: March 28, 2016 7 min read
Adam Carter, far right, is the chief academic officer of Summit Public Schools, a network of 10 charters, including this one, Everest Public High School in Redwood City, Calif. He is a central figure in Summit’s embrace of ed tech and personalized learning.
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Corrected: An earlier version of the chart featured in this article misspelled the name of Vishal Shah and provided an incorrect title. Vishal Shah is the chief data and information officer. The previous chart was also missing the name of Lizzie Choi, the director of Summit Basecamp.

Adam Carter started his career as a frazzled high school English teacher with one overhead projector in his classroom and no real sense that additional technology might help him meet the wildly varying needs of his students.

Fourteen years later, he’s the chief academic officer at Summit Public Schools, helping to craft the California-based charter network’s nationally recognized approach to using technology to personalize student learning. He’s also a central figure in Summit’s one-of-a-kind partnership with Facebook, through which educators and engineers are collaborating to develop new software for customizing education in K-12 schools.

The key to his evolution, the 37-year-old South Carolina native said, has been coming to understand ed tech as a means of extending and deepening the capabilities of good schools and teachers.

“I’m not doing anything now that I didn’t always want to do,” Carter said. “I became a convert because I saw the academic utility in using technology in a thoughtful and intentional manner.”

Summit’s efforts to bridge the divide between educators and technologists is a big reason why the network, which now serves roughly 2,500 students in 10 schools in California and Washington, has become a destination for educators around the country interested in personalized learning. Carter plays a key role, heading the academic side of Summit’s house and working closely with three technology experts within the network:

• Chief technology officer Bryant Wong, responsible for Summit’s hardware, devices, and information-technology infrastructure.

• Director of information Vishal Shah, responsible for the software used in Summit schools, all attendant data analysis, and the network’s reporting and compliance obligations.

Summit Public Schools Charter Network

• Location: Redwood City, Calif.
• School System Size: 2,500 Students

• Facebook engineer Mike Sego, who is overseeing the development of a digital learning platform called the Personalized Learning Plan, now in use in all Summit schools, as well as at 19 pilot sites around the country.

Such collaboration is key to meeting Summit’s intertwined goals, said network CEO Dianne Tavenner. Teachers need a strong academic vision for meeting each child where he or she is, she said, and they also need the tools and data necessary to run classrooms that reflect that vision.

“The underlying philosophy is that we invest heavily in understanding what each other is doing,” Tavenner said.

Low-Tech Beginning

For Carter, working across traditional siloes means learning about everything from bandwidth requirements to software-development processes—all of which, he said, has pushed him to reconsider and sharpen his understanding of what really matters in the classroom.

But back in 2002, when Carter was a first-year teacher fresh out of Stanford University’s graduate program in teacher education, none of those issues was even on his radar screen.

“I knew I was overwhelming some kids, not challenging others enough,” he said. “In my classes of 30 kids, there are many I knew I wasn’t serving well.”

The resources at his disposal were limited to the contents of a few folders in a filing cabinet. An assistant principal advised him to take the long view, suggesting he consider the impact teachers can have over their career if they reach just five students a year. Carter almost quit that day.

Not long after, he met Tavenner and became part of the founding team at the first Summit campus. It wasn’t a high-tech operation at the time, Carter said, but there was a real commitment to helping every single student realize his or her potential.

Carter spent two years at Summit, then took a job as an English teacher at the Jakarta International School, in Indonesia. It was there that he first started experimenting with learning software and games, including BrainPop, a collection of online learning videos, games, and quizzes for students.

Adam Carter, left, meets with Mike Dunham, right, and other members of the information team at Everest High School. The network is working to bridge the gap between educators and technologists.

But it was through his work training teachers in dramatically less-resourced schools in the surrounding Indonesian villages that Carter began to really think about what emerging classroom technology was actually for.

He recalled meeting a teacher for whom classroom chalk was such a precious resource that she kept it at the bottom of her purse, only to be used for truly important moments—most notably, when a student was to solve a problem in front of the class.

“What she was actually saying was, ‘The best use of this technology is to lay bare the thinking of students for the class to engage with,’ ” Carter said. “It’s precisely what we’re doing now with tools like a Google Doc.”

A Collaborative Effort

Carter returned to the United States, and to Summit, in 2011.

Tavenner, who calls him “among the top 1 percent of teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing,” named him Summit’s chief academic officer the following year.

By that time, Carter said, two ed-tech tools had prompted him to truly embrace technology’s potential: Turnitin.com, a website that allows teachers to offer rich digital feedback on student writing; and Khan Academy, the popular website with free online math lessons and exercises that Summit officials decided several years ago was key to solving their problem with some of their students’ persistent underperformance in math.

Team Effort

Three technology experts—Bryant Wong, Vishal Shah, and Mike Sego—are part of the leadership team that is developing Summit’s approach to personalized learning.


Source: Education Week

From the beginning, it was clear that making Khan Academy work in Summit schools would take a collaborative effort. Carter worked with a team of academic experts from Stanford on integrating the new online tools into Summit’s curriculum, which was shifting to merge project-based learning with a focus on helping students “learn about how they learn.”

Meanwhile, Wong, the chief technology officer, boosted Summit’s broadband and wireless networks and started buying devices.

And a staffer on what would become the data and information team developed a process for exporting, analyzing, and sharing data on student progress—at first doing that work every night, by hand.

“We wanted students setting goals, aligning those plans with their daily actions, and getting reports on their progress daily,” said Carter. “But it was a monumental challenge on the technology and data front to get to a place where we could enact that vision.”

Becoming More Intentional

Despite early headaches, Summit soon doubled down on the effort. Carter dove further into the research on the cognitive skills that transcend subjects, such as selecting relevant sources, and nonacademic “habits of success,” such as managing emotions, that now form the foundation of Summit’s conception of what it takes for students to succeed in college. Tavenner hired the network’s own software engineer and began staffing up the data and information team.

And the Personalized Learning Plan became the place where it all had to come together.

The PLP, as Summit’s in-development digital learning platform is commonly known, aims to bring together all aspects of Summit’s philosophy and model in a single place. It contains a complete curriculum for grades 6-12, with hundreds of project-based units aligned with content-area skills that students are expected to master. It is also structured around the cognitive skills and habits of success that Summit hopes to help students develop. The PLP provides a vehicle for getting students to set long- and short-term goals, creating the foundation for mentoring relationships with adults.

For an individual student, that means the ability to log into the PLP and see at a glance active class projects, progress toward mastering specific content and skills, and what still needs to be done to get his or her desired grade in the class and to meet the entrance criteria for the student’s college of choice.

Having access to a highly skilled technical team that can turn an academic vision into software has been amazing, Carter said. But having to ensure that vision can be embodied via the technology has also forced him to reimmerse himself in education research and become more disciplined in his decisionmaking, he said.

One example: Designing the PLP forced difficult conversations about whether to prioritize students’ development of cognitive skills or their academic content knowledge. (The cognitive skills won out.)

Another one: When Carter and Tavenner said they wanted to use digital badges as a way of recognizing student progress in developing their habits of success, the engineers pushed back strongly.

“Our reaction was, ‘OK, that sounds like an interesting solution, but let’s understand what the problem is first,’ ” said Sego, the Facebook engineer. “We have a structured way of exploring different approaches.”

The result was a scaled-back pilot, testing out a digital badging process for one discrete habit of success: good note-taking.

It’s not always easy, Carter said, but building such bridges between the academic and technology sides of the Summit house has been worth it.

“We have to be so intentional and collaborative around every decision we make,” he said. “It’s been an unbelievably awesome experience.”

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2016 edition of Education Week as Tech ‘Convert’ Helps Guide Network’s Transformation


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