Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Just Happened To Summit?

Summit Schools were an early entry (2003) into the world of charters, with founder Diane Tavenner trying to do personalized learning the low tech way. Tavenner is reportedly a former teacher, asst. principal and a graduate of the Broad Faux Academy of Superintendenty Stuff-- (oh, she's the board chair for the California Charter Schools Association, a board that includes Joe Williams, head of DFER as a member). Mark Zuckerberg ran across the Bay area school in 2014 and decided that he would give it not just an infusion of cash, but an infusion of technology. Including engineering support to "make this better."

Not feeling the magic here
Like AltSchool, another super-duper techno-personalized charter system, Summit decided they could make some real money selling their program to schools across the country [correction-- Summit has been giving their product away] , and in fact a few hundred schools are now Summit schools, using some form of the computer-based algorithm-driven education-flavored product.

Summit is one of Zuckerberg's pet projects, and it's also beloved by that other well-connected super-rich education amateur, Bill Gates, who has some of his Top People promoting hell out of it. Summit is, I presume, a dream product for many in the privatization biz, because it has been so successful in getting actual public schools to invite it to come and stay.

Not that everyone is a fan. Take a look at some of the comments in this piece "The Inherent Racism of Summit 'Public' (Charter) School." And many schools have backed away from the Mass Customized Learning Program (a term that deserves a place on the oxymoron shelf right next to Jumbo Shrimp and Peacekeeper Missiles). The program is a model for Personalized [sic] Learning via Competency Based Education, featuring playlists for students to work through at their own pace.

Indiana, Pennsylvania schools tried to quietly implement Summit programming, and parents began to squawk almost immediately. After just one month

parents began telling the school board that their kids were not adjusting to the new learning style, that they found questionable and objectionable material in the recommended online resources in their classes, and that their children were spending too much time in front of computer screens.

NY Magazine just profiled Cheshire, Connecticut, another town that fought back when the mass customized learning program came to town (or rather, the town came to them, since the Summit model involves logging on to the Summit website). The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative had paid for the 130 Chromebooks needed, but once again, reality got in the way of CZI dreams.

Students rarely met with teachers, but instead had lots of screen time with a computer program that was reportedly easy to trick (just skip the lessons and go straight to the tests). The program still has glitches, including questions that cannot be answered correctly (maybe some nerdy programmer decided Summit needed its own Kobayashi Maru?) And there's the problem of the open-sourced playlists themselves:

Nothing about the platform said Silicon Valley more than the open-source approach to the “playlists.” Teachers were encouraged to customize them, to add and subtract — and Cheshire’s teachers were working on this, Superintendent Jeff Solan said in an email — but the base material was often just a bunch of links, to sites ranging from Kids Encyclopedia to SparkNotes to the BBC. I interviewed several educators who were involved in developing the platform in 2014, and when I mentioned this to one, he agreed they were “shoddy.” “We knew it,” he said. They were in such a hurry, he said, “we were just throwing things in there, that, at least from a Google search, looked reputable.”

Yikes. It's almost as if the actual education piece is secondary to some other part of the operation. I wonder what that could be...

And there was the question of data. Summit is clear about the 18 partners it shares its data with, and subjects itself to its own strong privacy agreements in addition to the legal protections around student data already in place, but parents and other locals were nonetheless concerned. “The Chromebooks were free. Nothing’s free. There’s always a reason,” said Mary Burnham, a retired educator who was part of the campaign against Summit. “If somebody’s giving you something free, chances are, they want something back, or they’re already getting something from it. As best I can tell, with Summit, it’s data.”

All of which brings us to the newest news from Summit Learning.

As we look to the future, we are excited to continue expanding our impact within the broader public school system by sharing the Summit Learning Program with more schools and refining the Program to best meet the needs of all students. To do this, and with our support, a new nonprofit organization will independently lead and operate the Summit Learning Program beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

My emphasis. Who will be on this new board operating Summit. Well, Tavenner herself. And Priscilla Chan. You know who she is. Peggy Alford-- she's the CFO and Head of Operations for CZI. And Alex Hernandez. Tavenner plugs him as a "seasoned educator," but I'm betting he's on this board more because of his experience as a Broad graduate, a venture capitalist, the lead on Charter Schol Growth Fund's Next-Generation Schools practice focused on personalized learning and school model innovation, and superintendent at the Aspire charter school chain.

At this juncture, we might want to take a moment to step aside and review what CZI actually is-- not a strictly philanthropic organization, but an LLC-- an actual business with certain legal and tax benefits, but still able to think about things like profits and control and not having to divulge that which one does not wish to divulge.

So my question is, did Summit just become a subsidiary of the Zuckerberg empire. Did Mark Zuckerberg, who's entire fortune is based on the biggest data-mining operation ever seen in human history, just manage to grab himself a piece of (currently) 380 schools and all the students therein?

If you are the connect-the-dots kind of person, we've got public schools connected to charters connected to one of the biggest data grabbers on the planet, all tied up in a personalized [sic] learning bow. If your school district decides they'd like to let Summit, I'd recommend you ask some big questions, before someone in your district gives away the data cow in return for some not-very-magic beans.

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