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Inside DC Schools: The Struggle to Develop Personalized Learning’s Independent Learners

By Jenny Abamu     Feb 21, 2018

Students in class at Truesdell Education Campus in Washington D.C., Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

Sitting in front of a laptop, Chris Pozo, a sixth-grade student at Truesdell Education Campus in Washington D.C., opens his Summit calendar to show his daily goals. “My goal is to do my task and get 50 percent or more,” it reads.

Like every other student using the Summit Learning platform, Pozo must start each class by setting his goals before doing activities. The goals are either typed or picked by the student from a drop-down list of options created by the teacher.

“Every morning I change it, and we type our goals right here,” explains Pozo, pointing to his screen. He then opens up an assignment on a Google Doc and a grading rubric, reviewing the comments and feedback his teacher has left on his work.

This goal-setting feature is part of the Summit Learning Platform, an online tool used in a personalized learning program created by Summit Public Schools. Core to the charter network’s vision is a belief that students can be empowered to make choices that direct their learning, with guidance from teachers and access to real-time data. Information from students’ activities on the platform is combined with qualitative feedback from educators to inform teachers, parents and most importantly, students themselves about their learning progression.

Yet getting students to make choices and direct their own learning is no easy task, even with the assistance of an online platform that has more than 50 software engineers maintaining it.

A recent visit to two schools in Washington, D.C. shows that implementing technology is only part of the struggle for public schools seeking to make the switch to personalized learning models. School administrators must lead complex organizational changes to create environments that nudge students to be self-directed learners. And inside the classroom, educators still wrestle with behavior issues, short attention spans and all the distractions that come with online tools.

What Is Summit Learning?

Summit Public Schools currently operates 11 charter schools in Washington and northern California. Its Summit Learning Platform, originally called Summit Basecamp, was first designed by the schools’ leaders using Google spreadsheets. In 2014, Facebook appointed a team of six engineers to help the organization build a more robust tool. Last year, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the “venture philanthropy” affiliated with the Facebook CEO, took over building the technology platform. Summit officials say more than $20 million was invested into the program in 2017 alone.

Now, the Summit Learning Platform is used by about 56,000 students in approximately 330 campuses across 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Across the country, the Summit Learning Program is one of a number of different “personalized learning” models that schools and districts are increasingly trying out. Personalized learning, according to many educators and organizations championing its message, is about making education fit the needs of students.

Like other personalized learning technology tools, the Summit Learning Platform involves collecting data on student work and sharing that data back with the student and teacher. Unlike most personalized learning platforms that use algorithms to queue up the next steps or learning modules to help students make progress, Summit officials say their technology does not use algorithms or "adapt" on its own.

The technologies enable students to go through content at their own pace. Some programs also give learners options about the subjects they choose to master and how they want to work (with a teacher, in groups or independently online).

What sets Summit apart is how they combine the technology and an instructional model around a belief that students such as Pozo can become self-directed learners. They do this by preparing a curriculum that includes helping students develop critical thinking skills, academic knowledge, and a set of habits that Summit leaders say will help students become successful. For example, they support students seeking challenges and help them learn persistence. To do that involves far more than technology. That’s why Summit leaders insist that educators can’t just adopt the online platform--they have to change their school. And that change can, at times, be painful.

“One of the lines in the sand that I have drawn from the very beginning is that this is not an edtech tool. It’s a program for schools that are like us,” says Diane Tavenner, founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, in an interview. She notes that in order for Summit’s online platform to be successfully integrated, leaders must adopt a school-wide approach to personalization.

In Washington, D.C. EdSurge visited two public schools where leaders had to make some cultural and operations changes before implementing Summit Learning. According to Summit officials, these are the core tenets required for schools to implement the approach successfully:

  • Enabling 1:1 mentorship for groups of about 15 students who meet outside of class hours, during lunch, breakfast or other unstructured periods to offer students guidance;
  • Embedding “project-based learning” activities, where students address real-world problems through projects, into all course curricula;
  • Changing grading practices from a letter scale (A through F grades) to a competency-based system where students only progress when they demonstrate mastery of a topic or subject, and;
  • Ongoing professional development opportunities from Summit personnel, who offer free training throughout the year via a mentor or coach, as well as convenings for educators.

“The first sign that we can’t or won’t work with someone is when a school comes up to us and says, ‘Oh, we are really looking for a technology platform,’ and we say, ‘Oh, well, we are not your thing,’” explains Tavenner. “That is not who we are, and that is not what we do. This is really about a whole belief, a way of educating, thinking and learning. This [platform] is just a tool.”

Inside DC Schools: Takes a Village to Personalize

The approach to integrating Summit Learning’s Platform and Program varies based on the school context. The Summit charter network, though public, has more flexibility to change certain core school features such as the bell schedules and the hours teachers work, flexibility that few traditional public schools have because of laws and contracts. Yet, traditional public schools have adopted the platform and made changes—where possible—to do it.

Truesdell was one of the first public schools outside of Summit’s own charter network to adopt the Summit Learning platform in 2015. The school serves 364 students, all of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The school is in its third year of integration with the platform, which is used in grades 3 to 8.

When EdSurge visited Chris Pozo’s sixth-grade science class at Truesdell, the student was reviewing comments left by his teacher, Courtney Grant, on his writing assignment. He glanced back and forth between his Google Doc and the grading rubric on the right side of his screen. This is how he decides what to do to get a 4 (equivalent to an A) on this assignment.

“I have to add more transition words and make it organized,” Pozo explains as I visit his class. “This is what they are going to be grading us about,” he continues, pointing to the rubric on the screen.

Getting students and educators to use the online platform as seamlessly as Pozo is now was an uphill battle. More than a few tears were shed by teachers and some resigned, says MaryAnn Stinson, the principal at Truesdell.

For some educators, it was difficult to shift away from the tradition of creating a single lesson plan or activity for the entire class. In the personalized learning program that Summit distributes, teachers are expected to work closely with all students, whether they’re at, below or above the average. Even with the help of technology, school leaders say making sure every child in a classroom learns is a big ask— requiring extra time from teachers.

“We add in more time to keep them on track. [Students] go to Intervention Block, Saturday School and Lunch Bunch,” says Stinson, noting that she put in several extra activities to help students improve their reading scores in her school. “Our belief is, the research says, that everyone can learn how to read, so we have to be held to that accountability.”

“People cried, people left,” says Stinson, describing staff changes she has made to ensure educators buy into her vision. “Now this group of teachers is like, ‘If you come into my class, I am teaching you how to read.’”

Since she arrived in 2010, her school has been undergoing reforms and transformations with technology and school culture. She is regularly applying for grants and sending staff to training and fellowships.

Before using Summit, Truesdell already had mentorship groups, used project-based learning, had teachers differentiating instruction, and worked with a competency-based grading system called Mastery Connect. These practices, says Stinson, laid the necessary foundation for a successful implementation of Summit’s Learning Platform.

“We were very much about personalized learning—not the buzzword, but differentiated instruction to meet the needs of every child,” says Stinson about her early days at Truesdell.

Taking on the Summit platform has helped bring all their practices together, says Stinson, making the techniques and terminologies teachers were using consistent across classrooms.

In an interview with EdSurge, Truesdell’s Assistant Principal, Michael Redmond, explains the importance of having consistent terminologies across classrooms. “The consistent language— when a kid is in my English class, they go to Veronica’s math class and they go to Ms. Courtney’s science class— the expectation for kids to be successful is very clear. it's not subjective; it is very objective,” he says, pointing out the rubric students use on the Summit Platform.

Using the Summit system, educators at Truesdell are frequently updated on students’ progression and mastery of content through a data dashboard. But Stinson is adamant that simply observing data on a screen is not enough for teachers. Her school also practices what she calls “aggressive monitoring” to ensure teachers catch student issues the system cannot show.

“If you are asking kids to do an assignment, independent practice, or a ‘do now,’ you must be immediately walking around, seeing, observing, and marking their paper. You should be telling them ‘yes, go on’ or ‘no, go back.’ Otherwise, you’re wasting their time,” Stinson explains.

One result has led Stinson to believe that her school’s effort has been fruitful. Eight years ago, only 20 percent of students were reading on grade level. Today that number is around 80 percent.

“The school has made gains over the years, not big leaps and bounds, but nice, consistent gains. Last year we had the highest [district] growth in English Language Arts for a Title 1 school,” says Stinson. A Title 1 school is an institution that receives extra government funding for having a high population of economically disadvantaged students.

Getting Middle Schoolers to Guide Their Own Learning

Less than three miles away, Howard University Middle School is in its first year of using the Summit Learning platform. Like Stinson, Kathryn Procope, the principal at Howard, has sent her teachers to several trainings (with Summit and other organizations), received multiple grants and transformed her school’s operations to smooth transition to using the Summit platform to support personalization.

She hesitates to give too much credit to Summit for the progress her students have shown at Howard, saying her the concept of personalizing learning is something her school has been working to cultivate for years. “It is not a new concept,” says Procope, of Summit’s personalized learning philosophy. “What Summit has done is take a concept that already existed and put a framework around it so that it assists every student.”

She finds that the Summit program has helped create a guide for personalizing learning at her school, mapping out the details teachers and administration need to take to make sure everyone is on the same page. She is also pleased that Summit allows students to set goals, work to meet goals, take assessments and— most importantly—allows students to try again when they fail.

“A lot of times teachers have very hard and fast ideas about, ‘I teach you, you take the test, you fail the test, you get the grade, I move on.’ That fails urban children every single time,” says Procope. “Where in life don’t you get another chance? You can take the SAT 20 times, and they take the best score. I can fail my driver’s test and take it again. I didn’t understand why we had those hard and fast rules here because that’s not what society does.”

But Procope is careful to attribute the school’s improvements to verbal communication and personal relationships between teachers and students. Her teachers, she says, have been what helped her students become self-directed learners.

These relationships are observed on EdSurge’s school visit where, teachers stand in the hallways greeting students, one-by-one, as they enter classrooms. Procope makes herself available to staff and pupils, taking time to listen to their personal needs and concerns. In the future, she plans to customize the school schedule so students can come early or stay late as needed.

Yet, in spite of these efforts, and buy-in from her teaching staff, integrating the Summit Learning Platform and Program into the school has been a steep learning curve.

Procope has caught students using their “personalized learning time” (which averages about 30 minutes in a 55-minute class period) to do things such as going on YouTube and listening to music. To curb this behavior, she has set up meetings with teachers, students and parents to learn how to help learners stay on task while using the platform. Some students, she notes, need constant reminders to stay focused.

“Sixth-grade students can barely put their pants on. They lose their stuff all the time,” says Procope. “It takes a lot to help them start setting their own goals. It’s a lot of repetitive processes.”

The spectrum of sixth grade behaviors are on display is displayed in the classroom, where some sixth grade math students, needing no guidance at all, begin setting their goals and completing work on the Summit Learning Platform, while others swivel in their chairs and wait for direction from their teacher, five months into the school year.

Procope notes that simply providing students with technology tools without putting in supports to make the systems work, is a recipe for disaster.

“You have some students who have a very structured life at home, and so it was not difficult for them, but that’s not most of the students that we serve,” Procope explains.

Her observation—that students with disciplinary issues and unstructured home environments struggle to direct their own learning using personalized tools— is consistent with observations from researchers.

Dr. John Pane, a senior scientist at RAND Corporation research group, recently published findings from a large-scale evaluation of over 150 schools that have adopted personalized learning models. Among his observations were that students who performed worse on achievement tests after using educational software also struggled with self-discipline and were easily distracted online.

“We saw a lot of problems with students being on-task in those classes,” says Pane in an interview with EdSurge about his study. “They were basically using the freedom that came with using the an opportunity to slack off and not really stay on topic. We think that was one reason the tool was not working very well.”

To encourage students to stay on task each morning, Nyah Reese, a sixth-grade math teacher at Howard, reads out each student’s name and thanks them as they set their goals in the system.

“Thank you Mayana, Malaysia, Anya, Amarie, thank you,” says Reese to the class.

Students in her class do not sit idly or quietly in front of their computers the entire class period. Her teaching style is hands-on, showcasing for students what they must do within the Summit platform before assigning work. She is constantly walking around to observe and answer their questions.

“I show this to them all the time,” says Reese, as she makes sure each student sets their daily goal. “They act like it is brand new every single day.”

“It’s not a silver bullet,” says Procope, referring to Summit. “Sometimes we look and see kids who haven’t started checkpoints (assignments). We really have to pay attention to students. They don’t need unsupervised technology time. They are still young people learning to make good decisions.”

In the schools EdSurge visited, the amount of time students spend on Summit’s online platform varied from teacher to teacher. Procope estimates that in the four (out of eight) class periods where Summit is used, students spend about half of class time on the platform. At Truesdell, the school’s principal estimates that students are engaged, in some capacity, (taking notes from videos, reviewing feedback, making edits or taking an assessment) with their devices for about half the school day.

Stinson says the idea of a students spending all their time on computers is one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding personalized learning programs.

“I am a teacher. I don’t want my kid on a computer all day,” says Stinson. “The teacher is still the—I don’t want to say the center of the classroom—but more of the facilitator, the designer of the learning, the assessment person. There are a lot of pieces to that. But the classroom still centers around the teachers as the architect of what going to happen.”

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