Summit Learning – grasping resistance from the jaws of opportunity

Once again, a story about Kansas education graced the front page and opinion page of the New York Times. No, it wasn’t about how much schools are underfunded (although the opinion article does describe Kansas schools as “underfunded”). These articles refer to a “rebellion” that is taking place regarding the use of a curriculum called Summit Learning at McPherson Middle School and Wellington High School. Summit Learning is billed as a computer-based, personalized learning program that allows students to customize learning based on students’ ability and progress. Teachers are no longer the “sage on the stage” as we used to say, but are now facilitators, free to work with students on an individual basis and addressing needs to improve their outcomes. Sounds great in concept, right? Maybe so, but it’s not so great in practice, at least not to a critical mass of parents of students at McPherson Middle and Wellington High. Parents at the two schools have or are threatening to pull their children out of those schools over the use of Summit.

What’s all the fuss? In a nutshell, both students and parents complain that too much time is spent alone in front of a computer screen instead of interacting with a teacher. This has not only created feelings of isolation, but also given rise to health concerns. Summit is undeniably a departure from the traditional model of education.

I admit to having almost no knowledge of Summit Learning which was introduced about four years ago. I taught in Kansas for 17 years, leaving in 2014, a year before Summit was introduced. The program is free of charge to schools and is now in nearly 400 schools across the nation. However, there are some things about Summit that raise the eyebrows.

First and foremost, it was the brainchild of none other than Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is on the forefront with other billionaires to transform public education. Zuckerberg has a history of putting his money where others’ mouths are, including giving $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey public school system. That donation failed to make any difference in student outcomes, although the money did find its way into the pockets of many enterprising education consultants.

Summit, which is a K-12 curriculum, also claims to align with Common Core standards, another educational top-down mandate backed by Bill Gates, who reportedly contributed millions to the development and promotion of Summit Learning.

Ironically, Summit and the controversy that has followed made its way into McPherson and Wellington through KSDE’s “moon shot” project, a high-profile promotion designed to encourage schools to “redesign.” McPherson Middle and Wellington High are two of the original seven “Mercury” schools to be selected by KSDE for the initiative.

Despite KPI’s inherent skepticism of such a top-down approach, the concept of using a computer-based curriculum like Summit should not be dismissed out of hand. There is no question that the role of technology in education has grown and will continue to expand. Computer-based approaches do allow for individualized learning, something that is not possible with the traditional education model of the one teacher/twenty students approach. It also has a special utility in rural states like Kansas, in which small districts sometimes have difficulty in hiring and retaining teachers.

However, a school-wide application such as Summit is a radical change – change being the operative word. And this is one thing that is true about Kansas education: change is not greeted with open arms.

What should not go unnoticed is the change that must have been experienced by the teachers. As a former teacher, I can testify to many programs/approaches that were touted as the “silver bullet” that guaranteed huge increases in student performance. Was Summit Learning seen by the teachers as just another empty promise? Were the teachers – those who are ultimately responsible for delivering the program – receptive to this change? Were they willing and properly trained to be an effective “guide on the side”?

It didn’t have to happen this way. There is a viable alternative that the two school districts missed that would have avoided such controversy. The districts should have opened public charter schools and given parents a choice as to whether they wanted their children exposed to the Summit approach. In fact, Summit started as a charter organization in the early 2000s and now boasts a well-regarded network of public charters in northern California and the Seattle area.

As Kansas education officials (and the communities) are painfully realizing, true differentiated learning is virtually impossible in a traditional public school setting. And what has become glaringly obvious, regardless of what education bureaucrats believe, when differentiated learning is operationalized in a traditional public school setting, it is met with active resistance.

Editors note: The New York Times printed a correction regarding the health impacts of Summit Learning on a student. The updated version of the story can be seen here.