‘Dear Mr. Zuckerberg’: Students Take Summit Learning Protests Directly...

Student Voice

‘Dear Mr. Zuckerberg’: Students Take Summit Learning Protests Directly to Facebook Chief

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Nov 15, 2018

‘Dear Mr. Zuckerberg’: Students Take Summit Learning Protests Directly to Facebook Chief
High school students protest in Brooklyn on Nov. 5

Earlier this month, a group of high school students in New York City took to the streets to protest their school’s online program, Summit Learning. On Thursday, hoping to send a stronger message, they took it all the way to the top, with a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Students at the Secondary School for Journalism in Brooklyn had become increasingly frustrated with Summit Learning. Several told the New York Post that they would spend hours a day “staring at one screen” and had to teach themselves the material. Some described the content as too easy—and easy to cheat on.

They had tried before to address their concerns with the program, says Kelly Hernandez, one of the organizers of the protest. But no matter how many times they talked to their principal, or how many calls their parents made to the school to complain, nothing changed.

“We wanted to fight back with a walkout,” Hernandez, a 17-year-old senior, tells EdSurge, “because when we tried to voice our concerns, they just disregarded us.”

The Secondary School for Journalism is one of about 380 schools nationwide using Summit Learning, a personalized learning program that involves the use of an online instructional software, called the Summit Platform. This program grew out of Summit Public Schools, a network of 11 charter schools based in California and Washington, and soon caught the eye of Facebook, which lent engineers to help build the software. The platform was later supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Earlier this year, Summit Public Schools announced it would be spinning the program out as an independent nonprofit in the 2019-2020 school year.

This is not the first time that the Summit software has attracted questions and protests. Around this time last year, a Connecticut school district suspended its use of the software just months after implementing it.

For Hernandez and her classmates, the breaking point came the week of Halloween, when students got their report cards, she says. Some weren’t showing any credit for the courses they’d taken and passed—courses that were necessary to graduate. Others had significant scheduling errors. “It was just so disorganized,” Hernandez recalls.

So she and her friend, senior Akila Robinson, began asking around to see who might participate in a walkout. A few days later, on Nov. 5, nearly 100 students left the school to protest Summit.

“We didn’t necessarily want attention,” Hernandez says, even though they got plenty from the media. “We wanted the changes we felt we needed.”

Some changes have come. The school dropped the learning program for 11th and 12th grade students, because teachers of those grades didn’t receive any professional development for Summit. It is still using it with 9th and 10th graders, which Hernandez wants to change.

She believes a lot of the problems with Summit fall on her teachers and administrators, who were not properly trained in using it. Summit Learning officials, in an email to Education Week, also attributed the problems described by the students to poor implementation and a lack of professional development for teachers.

But fundamental issues with the learning system, as well as concerns over the data Summit collects and shares about its students, must be addressed with the people behind Summit, Hernandez feels. That’s why she and Robinson drafted and sent a letter to Zuckerberg on Thursday.

Below is the full text of the email the students sent to Facebook’s chief executive. Diane Tavenner, CEO of Summit Public Schools, is also copied on the note.

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:

Students at Secondary School For Journalism have suffered and faced many hardships because of the Summit Learning program. We urge you to cancel this program immediately for our 9th and 10th grade students now that it has been dropped for the 11th and 12th grades, and fundamentally redesign it before implementing it in any more schools. On the job postings for the Chan Zuckerberg LLC, this statement is made:

“We engage directly in the communities we serve because no one understands our society’s challenges like those who live them every day.”

We would appreciate if you engage with us by meeting with us, as well with the students and parents in the other states who are fighting against the Summit Learning system, so you could hear our concerns before implementing it into any other schools.

Unfortunately we didn’t have a good experience using the program, which requires hours of classroom time sitting in front of computers. Not all students would receive computers, the assignments are boring, and it’s too easy to pass and even cheat on the assessments. 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.

Unlike the claims made in your promotional materials, we students find that we are learning very little to nothing. It’s severely damaged our education, and that’s why we walked out in protest. See the New York Post article from November 11 for more details: "Brooklyn students hold walkout in protest of Facebook-designed online program."

Another issue that raises flags to us is all our personal information the Summit program collects without our knowledge or consent. We were never informed about this by Summit or anyone at our school, but recently learned that Summit is collecting our names, student ID numbers, email addresses, our attendance, disability, suspension and expulsion records, our race, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status, our date of birth, teacher observations of our behavior, our grade promotion or retention status, our test scores and grades, our college admissions, our homework, and our extracurricular activities. Summit also says on its website that they plan to track us after graduation through college and beyond. Summit collects too much of our personal information, and discloses this to 19 other corporations.

What gives you this right, and why weren’t we asked about this before you and Summit invaded our privacy in this way?

After you meet with us, and improve the program with the input of students and parents, we urge you to conduct an independent evaluation of Summit involving students who have given their consent before re-imposing it on thousands of unwilling public school students. We also ask that you give all students the right to consent from now on before collecting their data.

This is important given all the revelations about the numerous times that Facebook has experienced major data breaches and users have had their privacy violated over the past two years. How do we know that our personal information will be any better protected than it has been by you and Facebook in the past?

As the New York Times recently stated, there is a huge class divide, with the children of the wealthy having small classes and real personalized learning in schools that minimize screen time, while public school students like us are expected to learn by a computer in front of our faces for hours at a time with educators only there to “facilitate.”

As one parent said, “These [edtech] companies lied to the schools, and they’re lying to the parents … Our kids, my kids included, we are subjecting them to one of the biggest social experiments we have seen in a long time.” We refuse to allow ourselves to be experimented on in this way.

Yours sincerely,

Akila Robinson and Kelly Hernandez, student leaders at the Secondary School of Journalism

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