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Janresseger: Chalkbeat Disputes Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative’s Claim that Summit–“Personalized”–Learning is Research-Based

“Personalized learning” is how the creators and promoters of computer driven education at school describe their programs, which they claim are advanced enough to tailor education to the particular needs of each student.  One of the biggest “personalized learning” platforms is Summit Learning, developed by Facebook engineers and now engineers at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as one of the philanthropy’s largest projects.  School districts can use Summit Learning for free, courtesy of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

In November, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss described Summit Learning: “The free platform, which offers online lessons and assessments, was developed by a network of 11 charter schools in California and Washington known collectively as Summit Public Schools, and Facebook engineers helped develop the software. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, back the learning platform with engineering support through their… Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The Summit website says the platform is a ‘personalized, research-backed approach’ to teaching and learning.”

The contention that Summit Learning is research-based is challenged, however, in a report last week from Chalkbeat.  Matt Barnum reports: “Summit Learning, a fast-growing ‘personalized learning’ system, touts a partnership with Harvard researchers even though Summit actually turned down their proposal to study the model… The program ‘is based on collaboration with nationally acclaimed learning scientists, researchers and academics from institutions including the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research,’ Summit’s website says. ‘Summit’s research-backed approach leads to better student outcomes.'”

Barnum continues: “Schools have used that seeming endorsement to back up their decision to adopt the model.  In fact, though, there is no academic research on whether Summit’s specific model is effective. And while Summit helped fund a study proposal crafted by Harvard researchers, it ultimately turned them down.”

Thomas Kane, one of the Harvard education professors who helped design a possible study of Summit Learning told Chalkbeat: “All I can say is that the work that we did for Summit involved planning an evaluation; we have not measured impacts on student outcomes.”

Barnum describes the reasons why Summit Learning’s founder, Diane Tavenner, says the proposed Harvard study was declined: “The organization had a number of reasons for not moving forward with the proposed study, including its potential to burden teachers and to limit the platform’s ability to change or grow… Tavenner said the organization had learned a lot from the process of developing a potential study… More broadly, Tavenner says she is skeptical of the usefulness of large-scale research of the sort the Harvard team proposed, saying the conclusions might be of interest to journalists and philanthropists, not schools.” Tavenner also said that a study designed as a blind comparison of students using Summit Learning with students not using the program would deny the students in the control group the opportunity to have benefitted from use of the platform.

The researchers designing the study, Thomas Kane and Martin West of Harvard, expressed concern in an e-mail to Chalkbeat: “The evaluation we proposed would have assessed the impact of the model at that point in time, even if the model continued to evolve.  When a model is still changing so radically that a point in time estimate is irrelevant, it is too early to be operating in hundreds of schools.”

Barnum describes the concern of Sara Reckhow, a Michigan State University professor who has studied the impact of philanthropy on education policy: “(S)he worries that school districts might be less likely to carefully examine programs that are offered free of charge, like Summit. ‘If you reduce that barrier, you’re making it potentially more likely to adopt something without as much scrutiny as they otherwise might do… That increases the obligation of Summit and CZI to evaluate the work.'”

The platform’s use has rapidly expanded from the original 11 charter schools where it was developed to 380 schools today, with 72,000 students, Barnum reports.

But Summit Learning hasn’t always been popular in the schools and school districts which have adopted it. The school district of Cheshire, Connecticut dropped the program when parents complained.  And in November, students at Brooklyn’s Secondary School for Journalism walked out of class in protest and sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg challenging the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s promotion of the program.

Valerie Strauss published their letter which said: “Unfortunately we didn’t have a good experience using the program, which requires hours of classroom time sitting in front of computers… Students feel as if they are not learning anything and that the program isn’t preparing them for the Regents exams they need to pass to graduate.  Most importantly, the entire program eliminates much of the human interaction, teacher support, and discussion and debate with our peers that we need in order to improve our critical thinking.”  Strauss reports that the Brooklyn Secondary School for Journalism stopped using Summit Learning in courses for juniors and seniors but continued its use in ninth and tenth grade courses.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...