Connecticut School District Suspends Use of Summit Learning Platform

Personalized Learning

Connecticut School District Suspends Use of Summit Learning Platform

By Tina Nazerian     Dec 20, 2017

Connecticut School District Suspends Use of Summit Learning Platform

A Connecticut school district announced this week that it is suspending the use of the Summit Learning Platform, an online educational tool that "helps students set and track goals, learn content at their own pace and complete deeper learning projects,” according to its website.

A letter signed on December 18 by Jeff Solan, the superintendent of schools at Cheshire Public Schools, cited “issues with content in the platform and a substantial degree of misunderstanding and misinformation within the community” as a primary reason for the district’s decision to suspend using the Summit platform.

The letter states that the suspension will be effective on December 22. Solan stresses that the decision “in no way reflects the work” of the educators.

In an interview with EdSurge, Solan said the district learned about Summit Learning in spring this year, as his team looked for ways to “leverage personalized learning” and give students opportunities to “grow as complex thinkers.” A team of administrators and teachers visited a school in Massachusetts that was using the platform and were impressed by what they saw. Over this summer, a team of teachers went to a Summit training session in Providence, Rhode Island; another group of administrators went to a session in Oakland, Calif.

Five schools in the Cheshire district—four elementary and one middle school—began using the Summit Learning Platform this fall. “We went through implementation this fall, had a number of informational nights [which were] not really incredibly well attended,” Solan says. But “there was pushback online from a small but vocal and coordinated group” of parents.

One concerned parent is Michael Ulicki, who has a child in the district who was using the Summit Learning Platform. He claims he’s seen no long-term data that suggest the platform works, and in the absence of evidence worries that the pilot is “an experiment on our children.”

Ulicki also raised concerns about the appropriateness of the content. One of the websites that the platform linked to, he says, was a list of ancient Roman literature and poetry that included some sexually explicit art.

Starting in November, parents circulated an online petition that asked the district to suspend the pilot of the Summit platform until there could be a more detailed review of the content.

Ulicki, who signed the petition, stresses that the group’s effort was to suspend the platform so that it could go through a transparent curriculum review that involves the public, and then, if there’s a decision to move forward, have a comprehensive evaluation plan in place. To date, the petition has more than 450 signatures.

Another prickly issue—one that superintendent Solan believes has been misunderstood—concerned how the district and the Summit Learning Platform would collect and share data.

Ulicki says parents like him wanted clear answers about what kinds of student data would be collected by and shared with Summit Learning, and believes the contract between the school district and Summit was “very poor” in terms of protecting student privacy. Yet Solan disagrees, saying the school district’s attorneys reviewed the contract twice.

Solan acknowledges that the district shares with Summit students’ names and email addresses—and “yes, Summit can see the performance of how kids are doing on any sort of online content assessments that they’re taking related to the coursework to improve the program.” But the contract, he says, explicitly states that Summit “cannot sell the data.”

“But you know, some people, you couldn’t convince them that, even though the contract was ironclad,” Solan says. “They felt like because Facebook was involved, then the contract wasn’t valid in some way, shape or form.”

Summit Learning is supported by The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited liability company created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. The platform was born from Summit Public Schools, a network of charter schools that has refined the software and teacher training model over the years. (Facebook had lent some engineers to help build Summit’s early personalized learning software.)

In 2015, Summit invited a handful of schools and districts to try its personalized software, and provided professional development, through a program called “Basecamp.” Results published in 2016 showed that students who used the program showed gains in reading. Since then, more schools signed up for the program. According to its website, Summit Learning claims users in more than 330 schools.

Solan says that the decision to suspend the use of the Summit Learning Platform wasn’t a matter of “acquiescing to parent pressure,” as much as the district needing to take a step back. There were issues with the content, and the “misinformation…was hampering” the district’s credibility and ability to function.

Cheshire Public Schools was not the only district to suspend its use of the Summit Learning Platform. The Indiana Gazette reported on Monday that the school board of Indiana Area School District, in Pennsylvania, “ordered a rollback” of the tool “at the urging of district parents and in part at the recommendation of District Superintendent Dale Kirsch.”

As far as whether the Summit Learning Platform will resurface in Cheshire Public Schools, Solan says he wouldn’t rule out using it again. He says within 30 minutes of sending the letter Monday, he got numerous calls and emails from people expressing anger, frustration and concern that the district wouldn’t be continuing with Summit.

“I think what we need to do is come together as a community, look at what it is that we are doing, look at where we want to go and make decisions based on that,” Solan says. “And it may include Summit, it may not.”

We reached out to Summit Learning but officials did not respond with a comment about the matter.

Update: After publication, a spokesperson speaking for Summit responded with a statement from Summit Public Schools that said, in part:

"In our experience, educators in Cheshire Public Schools are professionals who put students first and have a powerful vision for their district. We’ve been inspired by their commitment, and honored to support their work.

In collaboration with our partner schools, we are constantly working to improve the Summit Learning Platform and the teacher-developed resources and content to better meet the needs of teachers and students."

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up