Mark Zuckerberg was still stinging from his experience wasting $100 million on Newark's bad reform ideas, but three years ago he decided to throw some more money at education-- only this time he would supposedly pick something that was already working. So for three years, Zuckerberg has been using his mountain of money to pump up Summit Public [sic] Schools [sic].
When Zuckerberg toured the Bay-area charter in 2014, he must have had many thoughts. One may have been, "Gosh, here's a great idea for education." Another might have been, "Here's a perfect platform for investing in a development laboratory for computer-based personalized learning that will finally let me expand my tentacles into a whole new sector."
Okay, so I'm just speculating here. Summit founder Diane Tavenner had been trying to do personalized learning the old low-tech way, with close teacher supervision and a whole bunch of worksheets and project activities. What Zuckerberg brought her was not just a pile of money, but a massive infusion of technology.
“Mark said to me, ‘Can I meet your engineering team?’ And I said ‘Oh, sure, here’s Sam,’ and he said, ‘Just one?’ ” Tavenner recalls. “And he said, ‘What you’re doing is really important, and I’d love to help you. What Facebook does well is engineering, so how about we give you some engineering support so you can make this better?’ ”
"Personalized Learning" seems to be emerging as the more market-friendly name for competency-based-education, and Summit is one of the companies out in front of the wave. With Facebook's help, Summit has developed a web-based personalized learning platform that is available to any school in the country. Currently the Summit program is available for free, which sets off all sorts of alarms-- remember, when it comes to on-line services, if you're not paying for it, you're the product. And if there is anyone who knows about data mining for fun and profit, it's the folks at facebook.
But what about the Summit program? Is it any good? Is it very scary? Well, let's take a look at Summit's own explanation of the requirements for implementing their program.
The Summit Learning Platform comes with a cognitive skills rubric that covers Grade 4 through pre-professional and "helps students not only understand how they’re doing, but also
understand that they can transfer these valuable skills from subject to
subject, and achieve mastery day-by-day, year-by-year as they work
toward college and career readiness." Press the right button, earn a cookie or food pellet or mini-credential or badge. That, and a rubric that can be used for grades 4-16, for all areas, because it's so awesome that one size truly fits all. Sigh.
The Summit Learning Platform will implement a competency-based education program. Students will get a playlist, which is "essentially content arranged in a certain order. Content includes videos,
articles, and other information" and students can decide how they want to interact with that list. When they think they're ready to take the Content Assessment, they take it (with a proctor)-- that allows them either to move on to the new playlist or they have to go do the old one over again. Summit assures us that Content Assessments are different each time, though they cover the same content. "Different" is a fuzzy word-- it could mean all new questions, or it could mean the same questions with the multiple-choice answers flipped in different orders. I know which approach would be more cost-effective.
Putting students in the driver’s seat in this way enables teachers to move away from a
lecture-oriented classroom environment, and spend more time as a mentor and facilitator,
creating small groups to support struggling students, for example, but also letting them be
the primary decision-makers in their own learning.
The material is not entirely clear on how much driving the student gets to do. The promotional materials suggest that students are entirely self-directing, but for some students that would almost certainly be disastrous and in fact one student interviewed for a story about Summit said, "I was falling behind, and it wasn’t really anyone’s fault but mine.” That quote may be designed to show a student taking responsibility, but if the student is in the driver's seat, then who determines that she's "behind"?
Summit's math stuff sounds just awesome-- "The units consist of a collection of backwards-planned, carefully-crafted, cognitively-rigorous rich math tasks."
Summit also uses "mentors," who are... I don't know. But Summit says one strength of its program is that its students are "deeply known," and the mentor sees them every day, with at least one ten minute one-on-one meeting a week. These mentors are supposed to know the students "as whole people: academically, socially and emotionally."
Summit's grading policy is one of its worst ideas. Their policy requires 70% cognitive skills, and 30% content knowledge. This is codified Common Core approach, where we imagine that math and reading and writing are all content-free "skills" that exist independent of any actual knowledge. This emphasis on "cognitive skills" would be enough to disqualify as this as a program I'd put my own child in, but there's another mystery. Remember-- students wrapped up playlists with a content assessment, so where did the assessment of the cognitive skills happen? The software apparently scores the students' skills "based on their performance throughout the year" so... the SLP is all testing, all the time? That would be consistent with the CBE approach.
Summit wants you to implement this as a full grade level, with at least the four core subject teachers signed on for a full year of this. The school should revamp its schedule to accommodate projects, CBE time, and mentoring. Oh-- and you have to buy the NWEA MAP test set-up and administer that three times a year.
For technical requirements, a Summit school must have a computer in every students' hand and the software to share all that data with the Summit Central Brain (my term).
For legal requirements, your school has to sign off on the Summit privacy agreement. Here's what Summit promises:
Summit will only use student data to maintain and improve the platform,
and provide information to teachers, students, parents and other
authorized users. Summit will not use personally identifiable
information from students’ education records for targeted advertising.
"Other authorized users" is a hole big enough to drive a cyber-truck through. "Targeted advertising" is likewise an empty limiter for personal information use. Remember-- facebook engineers helped build this machine.
Supposedly 100 schools have signed on to join this Brave New World and transform their schools into wonderful personalized creches. We'll see how much they love it.
The problems here are the usual problems with personalized learning-- they are, in fact, many of the same problems that have surfaced every time some version of this has been tried.
Self-pacing is rough on some students-- in fact, it's roughest on students who have the hardest time with the material. If I'm lousy at reading, I do not get up in the morning thinking, "Man, I just can't wait to hunker down and do more reading assignments on my computer today." If you think a student will be more engaged and excited because the work is on a computer, you need to get out and meet more digital natives.
It reduces education to a checklist; rip through the checklist and you can call yourself educated. That's a highly reductive and not-very-useful interpretation of what an education is. It's a great way to train mice to run mazes or operate switches, but it's not much of a way to educate human beings. And plenty of people inside Summit have confirmed that picture.
It promises that we can reduce or eliminate teachers lecturing in a classroom, but if our replacement for teachers teaching is for some sort-of-teachers to write up a piece of software that students access on a computer, have we really taken a step up. That software is only as smart and adaptable as the humans who wrote it, and there's no reason to believe that it's better at the job than Mrs. McLivehuman. What makes us think that a computer is a better teacher than a teacher?
The other mystery here is the future. The current business model is unsustainable. Summit-Facebook's enterprise cannot keep working as a free give-away, which means at some point the whole thing has to start generating some revenue. Maybe the plan is to start charging for it, and these free implementations are just like an introductory hit of crack, but Facebook itself has never started charging. They don't have to, because they are sitting on a quidzillion pieces of data, and that's a very valuable, marketable mountain.
Bottom line-- Summit is some scary Big Brother creeping, low-quality training-instead-of-education stuff. But it has powerful friends and a pile of money that smells a future of more money. But keep your eyes peeled, because it could be coming to a school near you.