Dear members of the Board,
I am writing to you today about the grave concerns I and many other parents and community members have regarding the adoption and use of the Online Summit Learning Platform as the curriculum and modality to teach the four core courses of Science, Math, ELA, and Social Studies to our 6th grade class of 2024. You are already aware of many of our parent concerns, but I am providing a bullet point list at the end of this letter as a reminder for your considerations.
Members of the board: In this, my open letter, I will do my best to avoid being redundant in my concerns. I wish to address an issue ignored so far: the educational and socioemotional well-being of our children.
We have yet to hear from experts in the fields of Education and Educational Psychology on this issue, as they have yet to be invited into the public forum of this conversation by the board or the superintendent (or perhaps they too have been intimidated into silence). It will probably not happen, so I will just bring what I have to the table. My background is in child development, psychology, education and mental health and I have spent the last 25 years working with children and families in one capacity or another. I have done a lot of reading on these subjects, and while pursuing my Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling over the last two years, I have had access to a University database of Academic resources and respected Journals.
Self-Directed Learning is Not Age Appropriate for Junior High Students
I began researching journal articles on self-directed learning as well as online learning platforms back in September and found a girth of information on online learning and outcomes, with mixed results all around. A disturbing discovery, however, was all the evidence-based reports of learning outcomes are on college student populations. There is little to no research on the age group of our district’s students using the Summit Platform. This makes perfect sense when you understand that self-directed and online learning are not appropriate modalities of learning for children, and actually flies in the face of all we currently know about child development, brain development, and learning styles, especially as they pertain to public education.
Research on brain development continues to show us consistently that 11-12 year olds do not yet have the executive functioning skills necessary to manage their own learning, and will not for some time. Executive functioning skills include mental processes such as planning, focusing attention, working memory, organization, self-regulation, self-control, and multitasking. These skills and abilities are still under-developed and several years from operating at full capacity. In case you are imagining these skills can be built by immersing (or thrusting them overnight) into self-directed learning programs, that would be an inaccurate assumption. According to experts, children build these skills by practicing them with others before they must perform them alone, and adults facilitate this by “creating routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships”
Decades of research in education and cognitive development tells us that children are social learners. Educators know the name and the work of Lev Vygotsky, one of the founding theorists on cognitive development. Vygotsky stressed “the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition.” He believed that meaning-making and comprehension come from communal experiences.
(found at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html ).
What this means for our children is that they are not independent entities or sponges that can be set before a computer and spoon-fed content by clicking on a screen. They learn naturally and best within the context of their classroom communities and the individuals within it – through relationships. They learn complex concepts and new or challenging material best with guidance from a teacher, mentor, or parent. It stands to reason that computerized materials or programs are best utilized as supplementary tools in a teacher-led learning environment. But that is not what Summit truly offers. Summit IS the modality, Summit IS the curriculum, and the teacher is reduced to mere facilitator.
The Uses and Abuses of “Screentime”
We have mentioned “screen time” as a concern before, but we have not delved into it very deeply. This is mainly because the research and findings are sparse. We are still in the experimental phases, knowing very little of long-term outcomes. But lack of evidence does not give us “a pass” to proceed without caution, and the truth is we have many clues that do not bode well when it comes to heavy uses of technology and our children’s educational or socioemotional wellbeing.
This study seemed particularly relevant. The findings revealed that students learn more effectively when reading content in printed textbooks as opposed to on screens; comprehension was higher when reading printed content.
I found several other articles citing high correlations between excessive screen uses and negative mental health outcomes such as depression and ADHD, aggression and self-regulation. While causation is difficult to prove, correlations are still very telling. One study that stood out for me showed how more hours of electronic screen time per day (which included educational and non-educational content experienced on computers, the internet, chat rooms, and TV) correlated strongly with severity of depressive symptoms. The authors of this article link this to the social isolation that goes hand in hand with facing a screen instead of a person (Yang et al, 2013).
Yang, F., Helgason, A. R., Sigfusdottir, I. D., & Kristjansson, A. L. (2013). Electronic screen use and mental well-being of 10–12-year-old children. European Journal Of Public Health, 23(3), 492-498. doi:eurpub/cks102
Think about it this way: If I go into my room for 30 minutes a day and shut the door, we might call this “alone time.” However, if I go into my room and shut the door for 4-7 hours a day, and I do this 4-5 days a week, the mental health profession would call this “socially isolating.” This is linked with (if not one cause of) depression.
My Child’s Experience
I would like to cite the disconnect that occurred between my son and his teachers when he began using the Summit Platform, and I will use math class as an example. There have been numerous times when my son had trouble understanding a word problem in math or had tried to solve it and couldn’t get the answer right. Before Summit, he would raise his hand, catch his teacher’s attention, and ask a question. His teacher would answer it, not just for him, but for the entire class. They all could benefit from this learning moment of one child’s confusion and the teacher’s clarifications, and this would all happen in the span of five minutes. Now, with Summit, he will message his teacher on his screen and “request feedback.” He must wait, sometimes overnight or the weekend, to receive a message back from his teacher. The message would attempt to clarify the problem he was having. Sometimes it was enough to get through to the next problem. Sometimes it just confused him further, and he had to either write back or find his teacher later and try and ask again. These days he finds it easier to call up a friend, google it or just give up. While he waits, he expresses that he feels “stupid” and like he is “falling behind”. This disconnectedness is taking its toll on my son. I know he is not alone.
My son can make wild inferences, at times, when presented with just a handful of facts. Sometimes we (or his teachers) have had to rein him in, walk him back through the information and logic, and help him tie it together and make meaning. (This is age-appropriate, by the way). Now, in all four subjects, he is left to his own devices (and inferences). He’s been handed a long playlist of data to sift through – ranging from cutesy videos to 100 page power point presentations, and is told to take notes and make his own sense of it all. If he gets 8 out of 10 questions right, we declare his “learning” a success, and off he goes to the next self-directed section. This is not learning. And there is no real way to assess his learning outcomes until this little experiment on our children is measured later, after the damage has been done.
My son misses facing his group and facing his teachers while learning new material. Teachers used to be able to see if he was confused by a question, curious to learn more, excited about a new concept, or frustrated by it after a third try. They could see that he was exhausted and bored and they could interrupt, clarify, invite, re-frame, explain, and open up to the group to discuss. This was teaching, and it was also social learning. Now my son is left to teach himself – Summit and other Personal Learning Programs call it “self-directed learning.” It sounds empowering, but it is not. It is isolating, unleashed, disconnected, and out of context content absorption.
My son is a curious and social lover of learning. He has always been a strong student, an engaged member of the classroom community, and a happy learner. He used to come home chattering happily about his teachers, his recent projects and assignments, his readings, and his classroom lessons. Now, when I inquire, he mainly sighs. I get flat responses about his core courses. Homework was never an issue for us before - he used to come home from school and got right to it with very little prompting. Now, after school, the idea of going back onto the computer and Summit to catch up or finish up work in the evenings makes him argue, grumble, and even cry. This has NEVER happened in the course of his education before, and I can literally see the joy of learning being sucked slowly out of him. It is quickly becoming unacceptable to me.
Facilitating is not Teaching
You must be wondering why some teachers have high praise for Summit, when so many children and parents are so frustrated and disappointed. The Summit Platform does have a lot to offer teachers. They get handed organized workers who can walk in and get right to work. Teachers no longer deal with lost homework, broken pencils, missing or damaged books with ripped pages, or students’ excuses. They see every student engaged on their screens at once, which means the quiet and the clarity to find the ones who are behind and go help them out. They get a computer screen of their own with 131 names all lined up in front of them, with graphs and data telling them who is falling behind, who is in yellow or red, who is not scoring that all important 8 out of 10. They can return feedback screen messages to confused children. They can direct their students digitally, approve content assessment requests, require more notetaking, and turn someone’s work from yellow to red or red to green. But I must argue that this is not teaching, it is facilitating with efficiency and it is streamlining, and it comes at a grave cost. There is a lot teachers cannot see on Summit. They cannot see looks of confusion, and stop a lesson to clear it up. They cannot see looks of joy at an interesting concept, and smile and nod, and then add more depth to the lesson. They cannot see looks of boredom, and re-engage the student. They cannot see the dark furrowed brow of frustration, and ask what they can do to help. They cannot see kids guessing answers just to get through it. They cannot see the joy of learning being sucked out of my son. And they cannot see the future impact or what all this missing interaction will mean for the future.
Personalized Learning and student well-being
I have one final report I would like to share with you: there was a recent study called the RAND study (funded by the Gates foundation) conducted on students at schools with “Personalized Learning.” The students reported that overall, they were “less likely to feel safe in their school, less likely to say there was at least one adult at the school who knew them well, and less likely to feel they were an important part of their school community, compared to similar students at matched schools.”
(Leonie Haimson, Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, found at: https://www.studentprivacymatters.org/)
What I am telling you with all due respect, members of the Board, is that there is scientific evidence that learning on the Summit Platform will not only impede our children’s learning and comprehension, but also is proving to make them unhappier in their own schools (and possibly unhappier people in general). These are serious issues our district should have had time to consider and evaluate before the Summit Program was implemented in haste, and un-vetted, to the detriment of our kids.
Ethics and Experimenting on our Students
In the counseling profession, we are bound by a code of ethics, the most important of which is non-maleficence, which means “do no harm.” We also have an inside joke in the profession that goes like this: “There is nothing more dangerous than a counselor fresh off of a 3-day training seminar.” Why the danger? Because we are excited! We just spent 3 days learning about an innovative new intervention that might help our clients. We talked and learned about it for 3 days straight with a group of other talented, brilliant helpers and colleagues, and it was presented by some of our leading mentors in the field. The danger is in the fact that it is new, and new to us. We must take time to learn more and invite critical inquiry. We must learn how to implement it properly. We must because our clients are not our guinea pigs. And with anything we do, we are ethically bound to get their “informed consent” as it is not our job to come home with a newfangled idea and start rolling out our new intervention on our clients willy nilly, and especially against their will. That is what they mean by “harm”.
The Summit Platform, in addition to containing poor and discombobulated content, was adopted and implemented in haste and without transparency. It was not vetted and parents were not consented before our children were elected as participants in the pilot. It is not an evidence-based, tried and true educational program, it is a corporate product. Free or not, it is being sold to us. Corporate America/Facebook nation is selling our school district a “free trial offer” of “academics-in-a-can” called the Summit Platform. There is no ethical code of conduct guiding the Zuckerberg/Chan Foundation who created this Platform and is selling the idea across the nation. No one is overseeing the philanthropists. While educators and social service agencies must adhere to laws and ethics around best practice that answer to the best interests of children, corporate America does not. According to author, David Callahan, “making a bundle in software or short trading doesn’t mean you’ll know the first thing about, say, K-12 education, and it’s easy for misguided philanthropists to do a lot of damage.”
(David Callahan, author of the Givers, rseeing the philanthropists. Educators and social service agencies must adhere to laws, ethics, around best practice that answer to the best interests of children. Corporate America and Facebook entrepreneurs are not bound at all. They are also not in any knowledgable position of best practice teaching methodology, and most importantly, “Making a bundle in software or short trading doesn’t mean you’ll know the first thing about, say, K-12 education, and it’s easy for misguided philanthropists to do a lot of damage.”r.. found at: http://www.livingindialogue.com/silicon-valley-philanthropy-opens-classrooms-de-personalized-learning)
We cannot know the extent of the damage in an experiment, until the experiment concludes. We do not want to wait and learn the outcomes of this poor product and its impact on our children. We do not want our class of 2024 to be the “guinea pig class” year after year as you continue to expand this poor and problematic platform. We do not want the Summit Platform in our schools - not for one core class, and certainly not for four. Speaking for me and my family, the Summit platform is a deal breaker; if it remains, I will be forced to consider other more palatable educational options for my child. Please do not place us in this difficult position.
M.A. candidate, Clinical Mental Health Counseling
IASD Parent of a 6th grade student