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Answer Sheet: New Concerns Raised About a Well-Known Digital Learning Platform


Over the past five years, the Summit Learning Platform has become one of the best-known online platforms and is now used in hundreds of schools. The closure of schools this past spring because of the coronavirus pandemic suggests that it could gain wide prominence.

The platform was developed by the Summit charter school network with help from Facebook engineers, and grew with the backing of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a for-profit business that started with a focus on individualized online learning.

The Summit platform markets itself on its website as a “complete, customizable, standards-aligned curriculum for grades 4 -12 in core subjects” that “comes with hands-on projects, teaching and learning resources, as well as assessments — all of which are customizable by educators.”

In recent years, concerns about student data privacy have been raised, and there have been protests in multiple places by students and parents objecting to the digital learning culture that it fosters.

On Thursday, the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder released a research brief that critiques the Summit platform, titled “Big Claims, Little Evidence, Lots of Money: The Reality Behind the Summit Learning Program and the Push to Adopt Digital Personalized Learning Programs.” 

The post below was written by Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger and is based on the new brief. Molnar is the publications director of the National Education Policy Center and a co-director of the center’s Commercialism in Education Research Unit. Boninger is also a co-director of that unit.

I asked Summit to respond to some questions raised in the research brief and its response follows the post.

By Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger

The covid-19 pandemic has intensified the focus on virtual education and digital technology in schools. Technology platforms are now being marketed as affordable solutions to the problems that have arisen as schools search for safe ways to provide high quality education programs.

The Summit Learning Program, including the digital Summit Learning Platform at its heart, is among the most prominent and widely promoted digital personalized learning packages in the United States. We have spent the past year studying Summit Public Schools and the Summit Learning Program (a/k/a “Summit Learning”) it created. Our findings offer a warning to communities, schools, and states currently exploring virtual learning, particularly in the form of “off-the-shelf” digital personalized learning programs.

We found no solid research evidence to support the claims Summit Public Schools makes related to the success of its whole-school digital personalized learning program. Instead, we found anecdotes and fragments of self-selected data served up by a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative-financed marketing program designed to “create the societal conditions” amenable to widespread adoption of personalized learning and to persuade potential and current “partner” school communities that “Summit Learning works.”

We also found a curriculum and assessment program that requires that massive amounts of student data be recorded by Summit’s proprietary digital platform. And finally, we found provisions in contracts with partner schools that provide for the transfer of the student data collected by its digital platform to Summit Learning and thereby also to its long-term technology partner, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for their use in perpetuity.

Summit Public Schools, founded in 2003, currently operates 11 schools enrolling approximately 4,675 students in California and Washington State. In 2013-2014, there was no Summit Learning Program or “partner” schools. Things changed quickly after a 2014-2015 agreement between Summit and Facebook established the goals of enhancing Summit’s self-created software platform and collaborating on a marketing strategy for its nationwide adoption.

Since then, Summit Public Schools has received extensive technical support from Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and almost $200 million in funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others.

Summit Public Schools claims that its educational program does an exceptional job of preparing students for college and that its graduates succeed in college. Its specific claims are that its students are “100 percent Eligible For 4-Year College,” that “98 percent [of its students are] accepted to four-year college,” and that its students graduate from college at “2X the national average.”

These claims are at the heart of the marketing pitch made to schools across the country by Summit Learning. Schools that agree to become “partner” schools agree to adopt Summit’s free off-the-shelf program, use its digital platform, and participate in the required staff trainings and Summit-organized support activities.

“Partner” schools are told that, as a result, their students will be equipped with the skills that colleges and modern workplaces demand; that their teachers will be freed from mundane tasks so they can mentor students; and, that student achievement and life competence will improve.

This marketing pitch has met with considerable success. By the 2018-2019 school year, nearly 400 schools nationwide, with nearly 3,800 educators and more than 72,000 students, were using the Summit Learning Program.

Summit Public Schools — and, since 2019, T.L.P. Education, an organization Summit Public Schools spun off to manage the Summit Learning Program — has persuaded schools to adopt a program based on largely unsupported claims of Summit Public Schools success, even as it gets millions of dollars of support from well-heeled backers.

This may be the reason Summit Public Schools leadership maintains a careful public face and assiduously avoids providing more or different information than it has chosen to share as part of that public face. Our experience researching Summit Public Schools and Summit Learning mirrors the struggle of some district officials and parents who have tried, with limited if any success, to obtain information about their schools’ use of Summit Learning.

We found Summit Public Schools unwilling to provide basic information about the educational program and platform that it created and has aggressively promoted. When we requested information from Summit Public Schools related to its claims of success, its instructional program, its curriculum, and its digital platform, Summit staff were unfailingly polite, but nonresponsive. They declined our request for an interview.

When we submitted our questions via a California Public Records Act request on Nov. 5, 2019, Summit Public Schools’s lawyer claimed that the Summit Learning Program and Summit Learning Platform, created and used by Summit Public Schools, had nothing to do with the operation of Summit Public Schools.

He declined to answer questions about the Summit Learning Program and the Summit Learning Platform, including questions about data security and the procedures Summit Public Schools followed upon receiving a request from a partner school to destroy its students’ data.

As of June 25, Summit Public Schools has failed to provide any of the information we sought in our public records request. T.L.P. Education, the nonprofit organization that currently administers Summit Learning, never responded to our many inquiries and is not subject to California’s Public Records Act.

We were able to obtain copies of a few contracts between Summit Public Schools and “partner” schools. What we learned was troubling.

The Summit Learning Platform collects a lot of data about “partner” school students. It obtains some of these data — such as English Language Learner information, school attendance information, state assessment data, and bus pickup and drop-off locations — from school data systems as part of Summit Learning’s contractually defined status as a “school official.”

It gets other data — such as project grades, student goals and mentoring notes — when teachers and students voluntarily enter them in the Summit Learning Platform. It collects still other data automatically as students work within the Summit Learning Platform. Among these are such details as students’ content assessment attempts and results, times and locations of activity, and IP addresses.

Particularly disturbing is the careful distinction the contracts make between personally identifiable “student data” and “de-identified data.” The contracts set limits only on the use of “student data,” and Summit’s privacy policy notes that it de-identifies “personal information” for uses including research and product improvement.

The 2018 contracts we examined allow Summit to retain and use “de-identified data” in perpetuity for any legal purpose. They also allow Summit to “destroy” the identifiable “student data” by de-identifying it. “De-identifying” student data does not “destroy” it in the sense that most people understand the term.

Nevertheless, the term “de-identified data” sounds reassuring. It seems to promise that anyone who possesses those data will not be able to identify individual students. This is, however, not the case. Computer scientists and data experts have known for more than a decade that so-called de-identified data can be easily reidentified.

The contracts we examined allow Summit to share de-identified data with third parties such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, its long-term technology partner. “Lawful” uses of those data may include analyzing it for insights about student learning and psychology using big data statistical methods, selling it to third parties or creating for-profit enterprises to exploit it — all of which may legally be done without the knowledge and consent of either students or their parents.

Given this context, it is concerning to note that compared to the 2017 contract we reviewed, the 2018 “partner” school contract we analyzed expanded Summit Learning’s (and thereby the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s) right to access and use de-identified student data.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have taught the world that data are fungible and can mean big money. And, also that data can be very dangerous when controlled by an opaque organization immune to public oversight. Regardless of who is named the owner of student data in partner school contracts, as Summit Learning’s technology partner, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has full access to the de-identified data and certainly has access to the technical expertise to re-identify it.

Though it is often thought of as a charity, it is important to note that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is neither a charity nor a philanthropic organization. It is a limited liability corporation. A business. As a result, although it may make charitable contributions, it may also make political contributions, engage in political lobbying, and invest in for-profit companies.

Among the things the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative can gain from its collaboration with Summit Learning is access to significant amounts of student data that it can convert into a considerable amount of money.

The Summit Learning Program is a slickly marketed digital personalized learning program that has provided no solid evidence that it can or has delivered on its promise to provide a higher quality education with superior student outcomes in the schools that adopt it.

Moreover, aside from any valid education purpose, its approach to assessment and collection of information about students through the Summit Learning Platform, coupled with enabling contract language, opens the door to the transfer of large amounts of student data to third parties without oversight or accountability. These concerns are compounded by the overall lack of organizational transparency of Summit Public Schools and now also of T.L.P. Education.

The rapid spread of the Summit Learning Program since 2015, despite the lack of convincing evidence that it can deliver on its promises, provides a powerful example of how schools, their leaders, and their communities have been outgunned and outplayed by a well-financed push to get them to adopt digital personalized learning programs.

There is now an urgent need for policymakers to move quickly to protect the public interest by establishing regulatory oversight and accountability mechanisms related to digital platforms and personalized learning programs.

Based on our research, we have made a number of recommendations to state policymakers. For example, we recommend that states create an independent government entity to evaluate and publicly report on the pedagogical approaches, assessment, and data collection embedded in digital personalized learning products before determining whether they may be used by public schools.

To avoid creating privacy threats to student data and undermining their pedagogical program we recommend that before state, district and school-level officials consider digital personalized learning programs they first define their values, goals, and practices and clarify how a proposed digital personalized learning approach would advance those values, goals and practices.

Establishing state oversight and conducting the kind of rigorous review we recommend is more complicated and more difficult than quickly adopting a slickly marketed, turnkey digital personalized learning program.

Summit submitted a lengthy response. Here is an edited version:

TLP Education has one of the toughest privacy policies in the field. Educators, students and families control their own data. … Protecting student privacy is our top priority and data is solely used for educational purposes. There are no exceptions to this, and we share our privacy policy on our website in our dedicated Privacy Center for full transparency.

Common Sense Media — one of the most trusted and objective independent evaluators — gave Summit Learning one of the highest possible scores in a recent evaluation. You can find their evaluation of the Summit Learning program on their website here. When you are referring to student data, it’s important to note that the only information we have access to is the academic information that teachers outside of our platform have been using for years to drive student progress — information like grades, progress, and attendance. School staff, parents, guardians, teachers and students own and control their own personal information.

In addition to having one of the highest possible privacy scores, we also go above compliance to ensure student information is safe. On top of our compliance with federal privacy laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), we voluntarily comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and are committed to the Software & Information Industry Association and Future of Privacy Forum’s Student Privacy Pledge …

We’re proud of the progress and positive data we are seeing in our partner schools across the country. Schools and districts across the country using Summit Learning have reported positive impacts of the program, including higher test scoresincreased student engagementstronger attendance rates and improvements in student behavior.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Alex Molnar

Alex Molnar is NEPC Publications Director, Director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit (CERU), and Research Professor at the University of Colorado B...

Faith Boninger

Faith Boninger is NEPC's Publications Manager and Co-Director of NEPC's Commercialism in Education Research Unit. She brings to her research a background in socia...