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MESA, Ariz. — Logan Dubin is good with computers. The 14-year-old speeds ahead when asked to use them to complete assignments. He finds it easy to teach himself with online content as his guide. He breezily navigates the internet and educational platforms his school uses. But he doesn’t like it.
“I just don’t like doing work on an online platform,” said Logan, an eighth grader at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa, Arizona. “It’s better to have a teacher guiding you.”
Logan is part of a generation of “digital natives” who were raised on screens. Many schools embrace technology in the classroom as a route to these students’ hearts. They see kids devouring video games and living on social media and find it obvious that they would also like educational technology. But Logan’s feelings about online learning are common. Surveys and interviews routinely find that many students prefer learning directly from teachers and get tired of looking at screens.
While school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic have forced districts nationwide to consider online learning in recent weeks, Logan’s school embraced the idea of spending at least part of every day on a computer last year. The school uses a platform called Summit Learning as an element of a schoolwide initiative to offer students academic and social-emotional support that is tailored to their needs. Teachers achieve that personalized approach on a schoolwide scale by using online learning materials created by Summit and following its model of making space for in-person mentoring and independent learning time during the school day.
Personalized learning is one of the most popular goals in schools today. It’s also one of the more controversial, as the computer programs that tend to enable personalized learning stoke anxieties about student data being hacked, sold, or otherwise abused. The computers themselves bring concerns about the negative effects of screens on children’s learning and brain development.
“I just don’t like doing work on an online platform. It’s better to have a teacher guiding you.”Logan Dubin, eighth grader at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa, Arizona
But while computers are the heart of Summit’s model, they’re designed to play a supporting role in teaching kids, not take center stage. The Hechinger Report has spent a year exploring the elements of the Summit model, the extensive training process for schools that are new to the program and the twists and turns of implementation. It’s true that academic content is neatly packaged online in the Summit Learning Platform. But that’s not what is easing the transition to remote learning for schools like Rhodes. Now more than ever it’s clear that Summit’s greatest strengths lie offline.
Related: The messy reality of personalized learning
A network of charter schools in California and Washington developed the Summit Learning Program for their students almost a decade ago; the model got a boost in 2014 from Facebook engineers after Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, visited a Summit middle school. Free help from the engineers beefed up the platform and spurred Summit Learning’s move into more schools around the country. Since 2016, when the couple launched an LLC to coordinate much of their charitable giving, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has committed $142.1 million in grant support for the Summit Learning Program. Now nearly 400 schools use it across 40 states.
Nearly 400 schools use the Summit Learning Program across 40 states.
The online platform includes a project-based curriculum for science, social studies, math and English language arts for students in grades four through 12, along with additional content in those subjects that students can tackle at their own pace. It also has teaching tips and resources, progress-tracking capabilities, and guides for mentoring — a key component of the program.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s millions pay for every teacher and administrator new to Summit to attend summer training for free. Schools also have access to professional development gatherings in the fall and spring, a Summit “success manager” assigned to their schools and online support, all at no cost. (The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)
Fears about data privacy and screen time, along with concerns about Silicon Valley’s conflicting interests as it pushes into public schools, have battered Summit’s reputation. There have been highly publicized problems in some districts that have adopted the program. A new spin-off organization, TLP Education, separated from the charter school network that originally developed the Summit Learning Program last year and shifted its focus to helping existing partner schools and districts use the model well. This commitment ensures Summit won’t offer a quick-fix for schools turning to remote instruction because of the coronavirus, but new schools adopt the program every year. According to TLP Education leaders, 82 percent of schools using the program last year continued with it this year and about 50 new schools joined their ranks, primarily from districts expanding the model. Because Summit requires new schools to spend almost an entire year preparing to adopt its model, the coronavirus is not expected to cause a surge in the number of Summit schools next fall.
In dozens of interviews, Summit leadership, education researchers, and the people who teach and learn in schools that use Summit agreed that the platform offers a systematic way to achieve the otherwise complicated, messy objective of personalizing learning. Observations in classrooms and at Summit’s summer training, which was previously closed to the media, suggest a nuanced picture of a program that can be used poorly but can also transform teaching and learning for the better – and not just because of computers.
At Rhodes Junior High, where Logan goes to school, teacher Ashley Thorpe kicked off a winter math class with a warm-up activity that asked students to identify the slope and y-intercept in three different word problems. Her eighth graders had computers on their desks, closed, alongside their notebooks and folders. Thorpe wanted them to work with a pencil and paper, and she encouraged students to talk to each other and brainstorm solutions together.
Once a five-minute timer hit zero, the class talked through the answers and then Thorpe told them to get onto Summit. She helped them navigate to the day’s lesson: a comprehension-check, of sorts, that would help Thorpe understand how much the students knew about slope and linear equations.
Again, students worked in groups. Their laptops open, they read a problem asking them how many hamsters someone could buy with $65 dollars if each hamster cost $5. They shared communal white boards to draft an equation that would lead them to the answer, graphed its line, then took a picture of their boards with their laptops and uploaded it right into the Summit platform.
In Allison McIntosh’s nearby seventh grade science classroom, students were three weeks into a project in which they had to draw a comic book story of a geologic site’s past, present and future based on the conditions that build up or chip away at mountains, carve valleys and dry out lakes. Students chose their sites from a group of 10 photos, making inferences about how the climate and other factors might affect the geography based on what they saw in the photos, things like sea water, clouds, farm fields and evidence of erosion on rocks. Many students had their laptops open but ignored them, looking at McIntosh while she spoke, and at sample comic books she had placed at their tables.
“How many boxes does it take for a character to move, for something to happen?” McIntosh asked, prompting students to draw lessons from the comic books in front of them. “How do they draw that something is happening?”
Related: Project-based learning boosts student engagement, understanding
Rhodes serves a predominantly low-income population of about 900 kids just outside of Phoenix. The school’s most recent rating from the Arizona Department of Education is an F, due to below-average student growth and achievement. Rhodes is in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. Nonetheless it is known as an innovative school and its use of Summit is part of a comprehensive “Rhodes to Success” program that principal Patricia Christie hopes will transform the school and her students’ outcomes.
Two years ago, Christie lost almost half of her staff — some she invited to leave and others took advantage of an open invitation to switch to a different school if they didn’t want to go all-in on personalized learning. Now the school is perhaps uncommonly united in support of Summit and the broader educational philosophy on which it is based. The parent community at Rhodes is not particularly involved, said Christie, and there hasn’t been the pushback to Summit or online learning that other communities have faced.
In Cheshire, Connecticut — a higher-income community with more active parents — the school district scrapped Summit in 2017 because parents didn’t want so much of their children’s educational data to be tracked by an outside company, particularly one backed by Zuckerberg, who critics worry is supporting Summit as another massive data collection engine, like Facebook.
Summit Learning does share student data with 20 different service providers who help facilitate the platform’s capabilities. Facebook has not been one of them since 2017, but the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has full access to the Summit Learning platform’s content and traffic data. On its website, Summit Learning emphasizes that it will never sell student data or seek to make money from the people using the platform. It also lays out the myriad ways it protects information in the Summit Learning Platform, though high-profile data breaches of retail giants, banks and even credit reporting agencies in recent years have made it clear no data is ever truly safe.
For its part, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative lays out eight data privacy principles relating to its work with Summit, including the principles that students, parents and schools own their own data; that students have a right to access, correct and delete their personal information; and that CZI never sells student information, never shares student data with Facebook, never uses student data for advertising, and never keeps student information for longer than necessary for educational services.
In Cheshire, parents bemoaned the quality of content in Summit and the time their kids spent on computers. But at Rhodes, Christie doesn’t hear complaints like that. Since 2017, Summit has revised its middle and high school curriculum and teachers routinely say it’s high-quality. At Rhodes, educators see a lot of good in the program.
McIntosh, the science teacher, loves having a complete curriculum to work from. She used to spend a lot of time creating her own materials, and likes the fact that Summit gives her a base she can then modify. She finds the program gives her extra time to meet individual kids’ needs.
“I’m not spending as much time on the ground level,” McIntosh said. “I’m getting directly into interventions, targeted materials, resources, lesson plans, pedagogical skills that are tailored toward the kids I have sitting right in front of me.”
Teachers also like the way Summit’s model prioritizes skills like stress management, relationship skills, independence and students’ belief in their ability to learn. Summit calls them “habits of success.”
“The fact that a student can walk up to me and say, ‘I’m struggling with dividing multi-digit numbers, can you help me?’ … That they can articulate exactly what they need is such a powerful moment in the classroom.”Shelby Villegas, sixth grade math teacher at Whispering Wind Academy Elementary School in Phoenix
Shelby Villegas, a sixth grade math teacher at Whispering Wind Academy Elementary School in Phoenix, is in her third year with Summit. She said students have a much clearer understanding of what they know and what they need to work on because of their access to progress data in the platform. And the lessons about independence and self-advocacy lead to kids who know how and when to ask for help.
“The fact that a student can walk up to me and say, ‘I’m struggling with dividing multi-digit numbers, can you help me?’ … That they can articulate exactly what they need is such a powerful moment in the classroom,” Villegas said.
Summit’s summer training is full of evangelists for the platform — teachers, like Villegas, who have become “fellows” to help train their colleagues around the country on the model, and administrators who are back for the second or third year with new teachers. They share impressive results.
Related: Personalized learning gives students a sense of control over chaotic lives
Hilary Witts, the director of Summit at Aspen Valley Prep Academy Charter School in Fresno, California said her school’s state test scores jumped by the end of the first year with Summit, in large part because the program helped teachers identify gaps in student understanding and offered targeted supports to help them catch up. By the third year, the school surpassed the California state average and nearly doubled the district’s percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards on eighth grade reading and seventh grade math.
At Wellington High School in Kansas, administrators expected Summit to boost, in particular, sophomore performance on state reading tests. Stephanie Smith, the assistant principal, said the curriculum’s interdisciplinary focus and emphasis on argumentative writing, textual analysis and inquiry seemed like it would have to have an impact. After just one year, student performance improved, and for the first time in more than a decade, Smith said sophomores from Wellington performed above the state average.
“We were absolutely elated to see the data on that,” Smith said.
Though one of the biggest criticisms of Summit is that it turns teaching over to computers, many educators who use it said they’re doing more intensive teaching than ever. When Angela Pipinich, a math teacher at Rocky Mountain Middle School in Idaho Falls talks about Summit’s impact, she doesn’t even mention computers. She said her classroom is much more student-led now, where before she led most lessons, lecturing from the front of the room. And her content prioritizes depth over breadth, in keeping with today’s best practices for math instruction.
“I think a huge misconception is that Summit Learning is a computer program,” she said. “It’s a mindset shift.”
Summit’s math curriculum is designed to occur almost entirely off-screen, according to Andrew Goldin, executive director of TLP Education. Its science, English and social studies curricula are all project-based, meaning students are meant to spend a significant chunk of their time collaborating with each other or actively completing their projects.
Mentoring is another high point of Summit’s model that users praise. Students are supposed to receive 10 minutes per week of one-on-one time with a mentor. Teachers said the time leads to better relationships with their students than they’ve ever had. Administrators said it changes the feel of schools. And students love it. Even those who said they don’t like learning on computers through Summit don’t write off the program entirely because of this component.
Tonia Nystrom transferred to Rhodes Junior High earlier this year. She said it’s weird using computers in class, but overall likes Rhodes, not least because of the mentoring. She was surprised when her math teacher introduced herself as her mentor, confused at first what that even meant. “I’ve never had that,” she said.
Those mentoring relationships have been a lifeline for Rhodes since the school closed in mid-March because of the coronavirus. Students have found their mentors to be obvious points of contact online and by phone; because of those connections, school leaders have had a better understanding of students’ needs.
“We have so many students out there whose lives are being completely disrupted by this experience,” said Christie, the school principal. “They have relied on our faculty to support them in that transition.”
Still, despite the emphasis on the off-screen elements of Summit’s model, it is the computers that hold the content that drives instruction, and they provide a key place for student-teacher communication.
Students take quizzes and tests through the platform, submit assignments online, and track their progress in each course. They also set academic goals, ask questions, request feedback and prepare for meetings with their mentors through the platform.
For nearly half of Rhodes students, that was put on hold when the district closed March 16. It wasn’t until mid-April that the school hosted its first device pick-up event, giving students a chance to check out computers they normally use in class. Christie estimated that about 20 percent of her students still didn’t have devices by the end of April, when the district had begun asking schools to prepare 90 minutes of activities per week for kids in English, math, science and social studies. Some students have picked up where they left off in the Summit Learning Platform; many others have made limited progress under the new educational reality, even if Christie maintains that using Summit and having more flexible, personalized learning processes in place has given the school a leg up.
89 percent of students in third through 12th grades say they use digital learning tools in school at least a few days per week.
When schools are open, the Summit model calls for one class period per day of “self-directed learning” time; students generally spend most or even all of this period with their laptops open. They work through readings and instructional videos from the web at their own pace, taking assessments as they go to prove they are keeping up with the material.
Students have to pass these quizzes and tests with a score of at least 80 percent or retake them. Teachers decide how many times a student can retake an assessment before intervention is needed. When students struggle to pass the quizzes more than twice, the best teachers pull them for small-group workshops to supplement the online instruction. But the program technically allows teachers to approve as many retakes as a student requests, allowing students to continue to take the tests until they pass. Students in some schools have used that to memorize the correct answers without actually mastering the material.
In most Summit schools, debates over the proper role of technology and the right quantity of screen time preceded use of the platform. Technology use in these schools, as in most modern classrooms, was already widespread. Rhodes, for example, has had laptops for several years but has used Summit for only two.
More than 99 percent of schools now have enough bandwidth to support online learning for every student every day, according to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit which spearheaded the push for improved internet infrastructure in U.S. schools. A recent Gallup survey found that 89 percent of students in third grade through 12th grade say they use digital learning tools in school at least a few days per week.
Researchers tend to agree that screen time itself is not bad, at least for older kids. That’s the argument Summit makes. “All screen time is not the same. There’s nuance,” said Goldin. “We are doing the right type of screen time with students — they are using their computers to collaborate, word process, research — those are skills for the 21st century. Screens are going to be a part of our lives going forward.”
While data privacy and screen time are the most public concerns about Summit, the platform does bring other downsides. Amethyst Hinton Sainz, an English teacher for students with very limited English fluency at Rhodes, has had a hard time helping her students work through Summit’s text-heavy curriculum. Although Summit provides translation tools and built-in ideas for making the projects and assignments manageable for kids still learning English, Hinton Sainz has spent a good chunk of this year, her first with Summit, revising the curriculum to make it accessible for her students. For those least fluent in English, Hinton Sainz sometimes has to scrap the projects entirely.
More broadly, Hinton Sainz doesn’t like the idea of a pre-packaged curriculum. A National Board Certified teacher, she has been in the classroom for 25 years. One of her favorite parts about teaching has been the creativity it takes to design her own activities and materials.
“We are doing the right type of screen time with students — they are using their computers to collaborate, word process, research — those are skills for the 21st century.”Andrew Goldin, executive director of TLP Education, which oversees the Summit Learning Program
“That’s pretty much gone with Summit,” Hinton Sainz said. “But when I look at what’s there, it’s good stuff.”
Teachers in other schools have found the shift to project-based learning to be a massive, unwanted change from traditional instruction. Kids working on projects often create a more chaotic classroom, filled with chatter and commotion. It’s messy, loud, and teachers have to relinquish some of their time at the front of the room. It can also take greater expertise to help kids work productively in groups.
Donna Stone, founder and executive director of New England Basecamp, which has supported nearly 40 schools in Rhode Island and Massachusetts introducing Summit, said teacher feelings about Summit often come down to their level of comfort with conversation in the classroom.
“If a teacher likes desks in rows and wants students to be quiet, then this isn’t the model for them,” Stone said. “You have to be willing to let them talk in class. Your comfort level with noise in the classroom has to rise.”
Related: Giving students a say
In Providence, Rhode Island, a damning report by researchers at Johns Hopkins University chronicled a completely dysfunctional school system that has now been taken over by the state. A handful of schools in Providence used Summit, but they incorporated the program differently, with some teachers sticking to the curriculum and others seemingly using only the self-directed learning content to offer remedial education for students. Some teachers abandoned direct instruction entirely, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers’ account.
Even when Summit is implemented as designed, however, kids still dislike parts of it.
Like Logan and Tonia, a fair number don’t want to do the work of teaching themselves on a computer, even if their teacher personally selects the materials and offers additional support. It takes more work for kids to research and master concepts on their own than to take notes and regurgitate information their teachers share via lectures. Kids who are used to easy A’s under the more traditional model can be particularly hard to convert for this reason. They face an unfamiliar struggle if hands-on projects demand more of them than they are used to, or if their teachers funnel texts to them that are more challenging than those they would have studied in a whole-class reading.
Guadalupe Solorzano Baltazar, one of Logan’s classmates, said she simply prefers learning on paper. “When you write it, I don’t know, you just learn more.” Research backs her up. Studies have found students remember more when taking notes by hand, and they have found students remember and understand concepts better when they read them in print.
Summit doesn’t preclude note-taking by hand. And many teachers print out materials from the online platform, further reducing the time students spend on screens. Still, Leslie Soto, one of Guadalupe’s friends, said she spends enough time on the computer during her personal time. She doesn’t like being on the computer at school, too.
“It’s just a lot,” she said.
Personalized learning has become such a popular goal in schools because it is basically a catch-all for some of the most lauded educational ideas of the last century. Summit’s model weaves together a host of research-based best practices, banking on the benefits of letting students progress at their own pace, giving them opportunities to learn through in-depth projects, supporting strong adult-child relationships, using data to inform teaching, and developing students’ understanding that, with enough time and effort, they can learn anything.
Yet for a program so steeped in research and so scripted that teachers could teach an entire course without having to come up with a single original idea, it leads to frustratingly varied experiences from one school to the next. That, too, is by design.
While schools sign a partnership agreement committing to implement all three core elements of the Summit model — projects, self-directed learning and mentoring — teachers and schools ultimately do what they want. Schools don’t have to create an extra period in the school day for mentoring, for example. But if they don’t, teachers have to squeeze the conversations in between other teaching duties. And while science, social studies, English and math are supposed to be project-based, teachers still lead their own classrooms. If school administrators don’t insist teachers follow the script, Summit won’t step in as an enforcer. That’s why some students in Providence only seemed to use Summit when they were told to work at their own pace on computers during self-directed learning time.
Stone, of New England Basecamp, who has supported 10 schools in Providence using Summit, said daily activities are “gift-wrapped” for teachers. “What Summit offers is highly rigorous, Common Core-aligned curriculum in a platform that is accessible to students and teachers. It comes with the planning, and it comes with the ideas — if your students are struggling with ‘blank,’ try this.”
But across the schools in which Stone has helped implement Summit, she has seen major differences, mostly based on school conditions. Sometimes schools have high teacher turnover and struggle because it takes time to learn and master the model. That’s true for any new curriculum — teachers have to learn the pacing, get a handle on the material and decide how to adapt certain elements for their own students. Many teachers who use Summit said the learning curve lasts at least a year. Stone tells schools to expect real results only by year three.
“If a teacher likes desks in rows and wants students to be quiet, then this isn’t the model for them.”Donna Stone, founder and executive director of New England Basecamp
Then, of course, there are schools full of educators who just don’t like Summit and resist using it. Sometimes schools adopt the program but don’t have strong support from their districts and can’t get the technology they need to implement it well.
And Summit tries not to be too demanding. It asks schools to sign partnership agreements, but Goldin said his team trusts and respects local expertise about how to incorporate Summit. They advise schools on what seems to work best, but support them however they choose to implement the program. That may not be the way to get the greatest fidelity to the model, but for Summit leaders, it’s the way to give access to the most diverse groups of students, whether they’re in high-functioning schools or not.
Convinced by the logic behind personalized learning, Zuckerberg is pouring his fortune into spreading Summit’s model, donating nearly $26 million in 2018 and $43 million in 2019 to Summit Public Schools and TLP Education through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The promise of personalized learning, more broadly, has captured the imagination of educators all over the country. But while there is a strong research base behind the elements that make up personalized learning, the research into comprehensive models like Summit’s is extremely thin. So far, Summit has resisted attempts to study whether its model improves learning outcomes and the school experience for students.
Related: New study casts doubts on effectiveness of personalized learning program in New Jersey
Goldin said individual schools track their own data, which cumulatively represents “tons of evidence, case by case, of successes that schools are seeing.” But, as an organization, TLP Education is more interested in studying the elements of effective implementation than commissioning a multi-year study that shows, concretely, how Summit affects students and schools.
CZI, though, as its biggest funder, is watching outcomes. Dakarai Aarons, a CZI spokesman, said the Summit Learning Program has earned the support of the organization for its focus on life skills and purpose along with academics and its use of technology to support deeper student-teacher relationships. While he cited promising examples of success in Summit schools, Aarons said CZI does expect additional research in the years to come.
“The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is committed to research and evidence-based practices in education and supports the measures that Summit has put in place at this stage in the program’s growth to ensure continuous improvements,” Aarons said. “As the program grows, we look forward to expanded research to help measure its long-term impact.”
More than 84,000 students use Summit today, Goldin said. Some of them really do spend a lot of time on computers during the school day, and not always high-quality time; they game the system and pass assessments because of endless retakes, or they cruise through the bare minimum and then sit bored while their peers catch up. But Goldin is right that many schools cite impressive changes they attribute to the program. And many students do like getting to work at their own pace, tracking their own progress, and having all of their educational materials stored in a computer that they’re less likely to lose.
It all comes down to how schools introduce and make room for Summit in their classrooms.
Dawn Hillman, a middle school principal in the Greeley-Evans School District in Colorado places the responsibility on administrators like herself. Hillman was the principal of Prairie Heights Elementary School during its first two years using Summit. It was a rough shift for many of her teachers and it came with tears and frustration.
At first, Hillman saw a lot of kids working alone on computers for too much of the day. She and her leadership team quickly convened all-staff meetings to talk about collaboration and student discourse. They worked with individual teachers and provided additional professional development, beyond that offered by Summit.
Hillman believes Summit offers a good program, but said schools can screw up any curriculum; it takes a lot of work and good leadership to get it right. “If they’re allowing teachers to just put the computer in front of the kids and attack the curriculum that way, that’s on building leadership,” she said, “because Summit was not intended to work that way.”
Summit was also not intended to work as a remote learning solution, but schools that have most deeply embraced the model in their buildings have found it to be surprisingly transferrable.
Nicki Chase, whose daughter is a junior at Classical Academy High School Personalized Learning Campus in Escondido, California, has been amazed by the smooth transition. Chase said that her daughter has capitalized on the self-directed learning skills she has been practicing through Summit for years. Even without direct instruction from teachers, she knew how to start a new lesson on her own, take a diagnostic assessment to get a sense of her strengths and weaknesses, click through the learning materials to learn more about the topic, take notes along the way, reach out to peers as a first stop for help and communicate with a teacher through the platform when necessary, Chase said.
Chase’s home has internet access and enough computers to go around, so her daughter has also been able to join video conference sessions with her teachers and classmates when they’re offered. Her daughter’s mentor has checked in multiple times to make sure she is staying on track.
“I’m not worried there’s going to be a gap in her learning,” Chase said. “It’s really amazing as a parent to get to know that that part is covered.”
This story about Summit Learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
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