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Inside the debate over Summit Learning in Wellington and what it means for other school districts

The use of Summit Learning, an online platform with ties to Facebook, became contentious last school year in the Wellington school district. It’s the most visible dustup in relation to a much broader effort encouraging Kansas schools to redesign themselves. What broader lessons does one district’s debate offer as the drive for web-assisted self-directed learning expands in Kansas?

When the Wellington school district piloted the use of a web-based personalized learning platform called Summit Learning in a few grades last school year, the goal was to begin graduating students who become more skilled at collaborating and thinking critically.

What it got was a rocky start and biting criticism. It also got a reminder that as laudable as its objective might be, technological change is still change. And when altering institutions as prized as the local schools, some old lessons are still quite relevant.

Among them: 1. Substantive changes can ripple through every level of the educational process. 2. Innovation can be unsettling, and it can take a while for teachers and students to find their footing. 3. There is no uniform method of teaching that resonates with every child. 4. Parents can be unflinchingly fierce advocates for their children’s educations.

To understand why Wellington chose to use Summit, it’s necessary to appreciate what the district set out to achieve.

The process began when district representatives met with local business leaders to learn more about what they wanted and needed from graduates.

The answers “were pretty surprising,” says high school principal John Buckendorff. “It wasn’t that they wanted to know facts and content. They want them to be able to collaborate, to think critically, be self-directed, even show up on time.”

The transition to Summit “is in reaction to what the community was asking for,” Buckendorff says.

Administrators in the district say the transition to personalized learning is less about the need to adopt technology than to find innovative ways to help students improve their performances and prepare them for the modern workforce.

“We’ve needed a change for a while,” says Jennifer Kern, director of curriculum for Wellington schools. “Our scores were lower than they should be.”

So low, in fact, that 77% of Wellington’s students scored below their benchmark on state assessments, Kern says.

“Most of our students taking the ACT did not score high enough to get into four-year colleges without remedial courses,” she says.

Even students who did get into college often dropped out because they couldn’t handle the academic rigors, Kern says.

Wellington was one of 10 school districts around Kansas that participated in the Summit Learning pilot program, and even then it was only a small sample. Freshmen and sophomores at the high school and fifth graders at Kennedy Elementary School were the only students using the platform as part of the trial.

Summit was developed by Facebook engineers and is being financed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan. The online program relies on personalized learning rather than the traditional lecture-memorization style that has been the standard for decades.

The purpose of the personalized learning platform is to create more opportunities for students to learn at their own pace, achieving daily objectives that move them on a path toward their long-term goals. It does so, in part, by making the computer-based web a pivotal conduit for learning. Students study online material, take quizzes and watch videos.

As they work, teachers move through the classroom and help students work as individuals or as part of small groups. They might introduce more challenging concepts to the whole class. Students, teachers and parents  alike can keep track of how students are progressing through Summit Learning. Use of the platform is linked to the Kansans Can School Redesign Project.

Michaela Washington-Adkins had problems early in the school year adapting to the Summit Learning platform. But as she and Wellington High School’s teachers gained familiarity with the curriculum, “things worked themselves out,” she said.

Early problems in Wellington included students experiencing longer-than-desired wait times to have their projects reviewed and approved by teachers. Teachers were overwhelmed by the prospect of providing feedback to 100 students a day while still performing all of the other tasks they were required to do.

A handful of students and parents told this reporter that they would have preferred to have more information about how to use Summit Learning as the school year started and less detail about why shifting to the personalized learning platform was important.

A Tough Learning Curve

Early on, the shift to Summit Learning pushed some students and parents beyond their limits of tolerance for change.

Students “spent days on end … waiting on feedback from teachers that are so overwhelmed they can’t keep up,” says Kevin Dodds, a Wellington City Council member who is one of the most vocal opponents of Summit in the community.

In the process, Dodds says he watched his son go from doing well in school and enjoying being there to struggling in ways that left his freshman year in ruins.

He wasn’t the only parent expressing concerns. Tom Henning pulled his high-school-age son from the district early in the second semester and enrolled him at nearby Belle Plaine. The Hennings’ younger son will start his freshman year at Belle Plaine this fall.

For students such as McKayla Nichols, the stakes felt high. She dreamed of earning a scholarship to play softball at the University of Iowa, near where her grandmother lives.

She wasn’t old enough to drive – she wasn’t even in high school yet – but her goal seemed within reach. She was a 4.0 student and her play on the softball diamond was earning praise even from rival coaches.

But when McKayla started her freshman year last fall, her grades plummeted. No matter what she tried, her struggles continued. She started to fear she’d lose out on her dream of playing college softball.

“She went from being an ‘A’ student to ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t want to be doing this,’” says Christina Nichols, McKayla’s mother.

At first, McKayla figured her struggles were part of adapting to a new system. But her grasp of how to progress never improved.

“I started giving up on it,” McKayla says. “I couldn’t do it. The teachers weren’t helping.”

Students were allowed 10-minute sessions each week with a teacher to ask questions or seek clarifications. But McKayla had far too many questions to be handled in those brief sessions. Video mini-lessons designed by Summit Learning to assist struggling students rarely helped her.

The district’s clunky start with Summit Learning hasn’t passed without consequences. At least nine students left Wellington’s schools over Summit, seven from the high school and two from Kennedy Elementary, according to Kern. The Doddses will send their son to the nearby South Haven school district this school year. The Nichols family enrolled McKayla in an online homeschooling platform called Acellus Academy.

At least a dozen parents became vocal opponents of Summit Learning, and they contend that concerns about the program resonate much more broadly across the district.

Opposition to Summit Learning in Wellington, as well as McPherson, eventually attracted national media attention from The New York Times, the “Today” show, the BBC and the online magazine Slate. Those media outlets tended to cover the Summit Learning controversy by focusing on the increased role that technology plays in public education and whether Silicon Valley titans such as Facebook are pushing the use of computer-based learning in the classrooms at the expense of good teaching and the students’ best interests.

Yet as Wellington’s school year ended in May, district officials could point to indications that Summit was working well for many students.

Buckendorff, the high school principal, says a survey conducted at student-led conferences in the spring showed 80% of the students giving positive feedback on Summit Learning. The district remains committed to the platform and juniors at the high school will be added to the list of grades using Summit Learning this fall.

At the beginning of the school year, though, “we were still learning” – teachers and students alike, Kern says. “Some of the complaints that were the loudest were just growing pains trying to figure it out. Now our teachers are doing really well with it; therefore the students were doing better with it.”

At first, McKayla Nichols figured her struggles with Summit Learning were part of adapting to a new system. But her grasp of how to progress never improved.

 

Michaela Washington-Adkins’ experience with Summit Learning echoed what Kern says.

“In the beginning, it was rough and hard to adapt to. But as I went through the school year, things worked themselves out,” Washington-Adkins said in an e-mail response to questions.

She relishes being able to work at her own pace now, instead of enduring the sense of being held back. As challenging as the change to Summit Learning was, she says, she’s convinced it was the right thing to do.

“The world is constantly changing, and our education has to keep up in some way,” Washington-Adkins says. “Can I completely say that Summit Learning program may be our best way of learning in today’s world? Maybe not. Yet I believe it’s a step towards what we’re aiming for in our school system today.”

In Summit Learning, students work on assignments at their own pace but can’t advance to the next step until it’s been assessed and approved by a teacher.

“Our students were used to coming to class, cramming for a test, taking a test and moving on,” Kern says. “Summit doesn’t let you move on until you master the content. That’s a whole new concept.”

That meant some students had to retake tests numerous times. Parents say it also meant students sometimes waited for days before their teacher had a chance to review their assignments and give the approval to move on.

One of the early challenges for teachers, Kern says, was that in Summit they weren’t grading multiple-choice tests; they were assessing learned skills. That was more time-consuming.

“Summit teaches you how to think and solve problems,” Kern says. “It is scary. It’s scary for kids.”

The new way of completing assignments meant more students didn’t get it right the first time.

“There were so many kids that really struggled with having the ability to persevere in something, and if they didn’t succeed the first time, they just wanted to quit,” Kern says. “They did not have that perseverance or ability to keep trying new ways to solve the problem. It’s OK not to get it right the first time.”

Buckendorff called the change from the lecture format to personalized learning on the Summit Learning platform “a paradigm shift, and that’s where a lot of the pushback is.”

“There are 4.0 students that are struggling with the new way of doing things,” he says.

The district is trying to apply what it learned from last year’s launch to make things run more smoothly this fall. This coming school year’s schedule will create space for teachers “so they have more time to give feedback during the school day.” The district is also offering an opt-out choice this school year for parents who don’t want their children in the Summit program to help ease the transition.

But opponents are not going away. They’ve organized closed groups on Facebook to discuss the issue. Wellington Parents for Education, which opposes Summit Learning, had nearly 250 members as the school year neared its end.

Another Facebook group, which calls itself Kansas Communities for Quality Education Without Summit, has nearly 650 members, some of whom hail from the McPherson, Wellington and Newton districts.

Critics are also taking their concerns to voters.

Henning filed to challenge incumbent Angie Ratcliff for a seat on Wellington’s school board this fall. Another vocal Summit Learning critic, Deanna Garver, has filed to run against incumbent Jackie Glasgow for an at-large seat on the board. According to Henning, there is at least one Summit Learning opponent running for each one of the four seats on the seven-member Wellington school board up for election in November.

Although student and parent struggles kindled opposition to Summit Learning, ongoing conflict is multifaceted.

Parent concerns include the amount of information the district is sharing with Summit Learning and that teachers aren’t getting to spend enough time interacting with students. Others are concerned about too much screen time for students or because they see Summit Learning as an unproven system. Similar concerns are being echoed in districts across the country, where distrust of Summit’s ties to Facebook CEO Zuckerberg’s philanthropic organization is a recurring theme. 

Wellington district officials say many of the parents’ concerns are unfounded. Personal information, for one, is safe and used for educational purposes only. And they say the quality of student-teacher interaction increases under Summit Learning.

But get beyond factual disputes, and the heart of the matter is that some parents have been deeply disturbed by how attempting to learn through Summit Learning has made their children, and sometimes themselves, feel frustrated, vulnerable and lost. They watched their children struggle and felt rebuffed when school and district officials didn’t share their concerns or respond in the ways they hoped.

Kern says she understands why some parents were upset. Teenagers – especially freshmen – struggle with time management, she says, and that can create challenges in platforms like Summit that encourage working at your own pace.

“When kids have problems with that and they’re unhappy, that’s why we have parents who are also unhappy,” Kern says. “They’re worried about the grade. We want them to do well, too.”

After talking with other school districts around the country that have been using Summit Learning for a couple of years, Kern says she feels better about what lies ahead.

“Some of our struggles are the exact same ones as a lot of the others had,” she says, and they improved significantly as the districts moved forward.

But the rift that has opened up between disappointed parents and district officials over Summit Learning might take a long time to heal. And at least some of the dispute is linked to process and communications issues.

Parents such as Dodds say they feel like they don’t get honest, straightforward answers from the district to their questions and that the answers they do get come wrapped in promotional rhetoric touting the benefits of Summit Learning. He urges parents in districts where Summit is being adopted to ask questions and demand direct answers from officials about why a platform is the best choice for students. And district officials should give them, he says.

Henning says that he wished he would have listened to his son’s concerns earlier and gotten involved. He suggests that parents who are concerned about Summit Learning will continue pushing the district on its use of the platform.

“The difference of opinion on the Summit curriculum has turned up the heat on several here in Wellington who have never been involved in things before, but now that the heat has made them uncomfortable, they are getting involved,” Henning wrote in an email.

From Kern’s perspective, the disagreements over Summit’s use in Wellington – and the McPherson district, where there’s also been strife – simply reflect a difficult truth: When you make a big change, it’s impossible to get everyone on board.

She urges parents to be patient as schools roll out the platform. It’s more important now that students develop habits of success that support learning in and out of school than earn good grades, she says.

“Every parent wants their student to be self-directed, to think critically, to solve problems and to manage their time wisely,” Kern wrote. “It’s hard to see them struggle, but it’s a good struggle. It will help them be more successful when they are on their own.”

Communities across the state would be well advised to take note of what’s happened in Wellington, because in one key area it represents what the average Kansas school district looks like: From 2012 through 2016, the Wellington district posted an 89% high school graduation rate, which slightly exceeds the state average of 86% over the same time frame, according  to state education department reports.

But just 40% of the district’s students achieved benchmarks for postsecondary success within two years of graduation. That’s not far off from the state average of 46%, but it’s a long way from the 70-75% target that the redesign wants districts to hit. Just three districts in the state reached that average for 2012-16.

Even with the redesign, curriculum decisions are made at the local level in Kansas, a fact a spokeswoman for State Education Commissioner Randy Watson pointed out in declining to comment for this story.

While Summit Learning is hardly the only option for the types of mentoring and project-based learning that school districts looking to increase personalized student learning and the post-secondary success of their students are likely to employ, it’s likely to be an attractive option for many districts.

So, as the state’s redesign efforts progress, Summit Learning and other resources like it are likely to continue to be a topic of discussion, if not debate, among educators, students and parents throughout the state.

 

The community division that resulted from the Wellington school district’s adoption of the Summit Learning system has led to raised voices, school board rancor, storefront protests and national media attention.

Summer Journal Cover

A version of this article appears in the Summer 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit  https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.

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