Lessons from the Summit Learning kerfuffle

Image courtesy of Got Credit, CC

Image courtesy of Got Credit, CC

by John Watson

There’s been quite the media backlash against Summit Learning, with articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, and smaller media outlets. See, for example: 

Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion.

Students protest Zuckerberg-backed digital learning program and ask him: ‘What gives you this right?

School board pulls plug on Summit Learning

This paragraph from the New York Times article captures the essence:

The resistance in Kansas is part of mounting nationwide opposition to Summit, which began trials of its system in public schools four years ago and is now in around 380 schools and used by 74,000 students. In Brooklyn, high school students walked out in November after their school started using Summit’s platform. In Indiana, Pa., after a survey by Indiana University of Pennsylvania found 70 percent of students wanted Summit dropped or made optional, the school board scaled it back and then voted this month to terminate it. And in Cheshire, Conn., the program was cut after protests in 2017.

I see three lessons out of these articles and the growth and investment in Summit Learning over the last several years.

First, it’s hard to separate isolated incidents and views from larger findings and trends, whether those views are positive or negative.

Is it true that there is “mounting nationwide opposition to Summit”? It’s impossible to say based on these articles, for a couple of reasons. First, both Summit and some of the district leaders challenge the accuracy of these articles. Second, even if we assume the articles to be accurate, they are reporting on a very small percentage (about 2%) of schools that are dissatisfied, which may not be representative of the experience of most schools. Of course, we also can’t say that those schools are not representative—we just don’t know based on the articles.

Second, to the extent that some of the issues with Summit are representative, there are a couple of elements that are important to take into account in comparing typical Summit implementations to many online and blended schools.

  • Most online/blended/hybrid schools are schools of choice, so students who don’t wish to have a technology-rich learning environment don’t select these schools. This self-selection probably leads to higher student and parent satisfaction, because if the families don’t like the blended/hybrid/online school, they can leave.

  • Many online/blended/hybrid schools are new and able to select teachers who support a technology-rich instructional model. This is a very different situation than a model where an entire existing school, or even a subset of a school such as all teachers in a subset of grade levels, switch to a new instructional model.

When an existing mainstream school chooses to implement a broad-based program like Summit, there will undoubtedly be some students and teachers who don’t like it. The same would hold true for any major instructional change, such as a switch to project-based learning, competency-based learning, or experiential education.

Does this mean that schools can never implement broad changes? No—but it does mean that they need to take into account the need for involving all stakeholders, especially students, parents, and teachers, in the decision-making processes.

Third, $100 million just doesn’t buy what it used to.

The Times buries a nugget of information in the 20th paragraph of the article:

“Since 2016, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has committed $99.1 million in grants to Summit.”

(Yes, I rounded up to $100m to make my point.)

According to the Summit website, the platform serves “more than 380 schools, nearly 3,800 educators, and more than 72,000 students across the U.S.” Those numbers might suggest decent if modest growth, but also if we assume that Summit has spent the $99 million, the spending equates to $26,000 per school, or $1375 per student.

I visited a Summit school years ago and was very impressed with what I saw. The organization is run by experienced people, and I assume they have a plan for how the platform becomes financially sustainable over time. But while the debate in the media seems to be about whether the platform is good and students are happy with it, I think the larger question is—assuming that schools and students are happy—will the schools pay for it when the grant funding runs out.

Because it will.