December 11, 2017
Dear Indiana Area School District School Board:
I attended my first school board meeting last week, Dec. 4th, and I appreciate that the board is taking seriously parental concerns about Summit Learning. I had hoped that by now the flaws in the platform and/or its delivery would be worked out and that my child would adapt. Instead, administrators seem to be in denial that there are serious problems (other than “a few parents’ complaints”), and when I told my son last night that it was time for bed because he had school in the morning, he said he didn’t want to go because “all I do is Summit all day.” That may be a tired eleven-year-old’s hyperbole, but my son has never actually disliked school until this year.
I’m going to focus on facts, along with my own informed experiences as an educator and a parent trying to support a sixth-grader adapting to this method of “mass customized” learning. I am the product of public education and of a parent who was a middle school teacher for over thirty years. I know how hard teachers work and how much they care, and I believe they’re well worth their salaries. I am also a university English professor currently carrying half my load in online, computer-based learning courses. I have taught online for several years now, and I served on the university’s curriculum committee when it vetted online courses to ensure they could effectively meet course objectives.
I know that Summit is more than the online “playlists” and multiple choice assessments. I’m impressed with what I’ve seen of the projects (though they’re not necessarily more innovative or engaging than what my child’s teachers have come up with throughout his years in the district; that is, I don’t see their value resulting from Summit itself). The content assessments, however, are another matter. I’ve gone through playlists in English and Social Studies while working with my son and agree with what other parents have said about the lack of coherence. Within a single topic, we’ve been directed to college websites with college-level definitions followed by a PowerPoint created for children much younger than sixth grade. While I have the experience that allows me to quickly figure out what’s important and what isn’t in these lists, my son doesn’t. As far as I can tell, no one at school is focused on teaching him how to process all this information. I’ve tried to teach him effective critical thinking and note-taking strategies, but he’s already tired and overwhelmed by the time he works with me after school.
Worse, once he’s read and studied the jumble of content, the assessments are, in my opinion, rather poor. When I returned from last week’s meeting, I went through the diagnostic for Point of View with my son. I am an English professor and a published fiction writer, so this is an area in which I claim expertise. What follows are two of the four questions in the diagnostic and my concerns with the questions themselves and how my son is learning to think about this kind of testing.
Which of the following is true of third person narrative? Select one:
Third person follows the thoughts and feelings of all characters Third person can be used in an autobiography
Third person can be used in a memoir
Third person uses "they", "she", "him"
First, none of these choices is false. Third person can be used in autobiography and memoir, and a quick search of the internet (where the playlists come from) reveals that. It’s an uncommon choice, and so I assumed it wasn’t what the question was going for, but it is true of third person narrative that it can be used in autobiography and memoir. Because the question doesn’t distinguish between third person limited and omniscient (though the playlist does), it’s hard to know how to determine the truth of the first answer. Omniscient third person can follow the thoughts and feelings of all characters (though that would be unusual to do with very minor characters), but limited third person stays generally with one character. So, since the first answer seems to sweepingly imply all third person does that, my son and I decided the best answer was the last one. I know test-taking is about the best, most likely answer, but I had to talk out with my son why other answers, which were in fact true, weren’t the one to select.
By the time I got to question three, however, I wasn’t able to reason to a single answer.
If an author chose to use third person omniscient point of view, the
reader... Select one:
Would experience the story through all the characters.
Would know the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story. Would get to know one character well.
Would know the thoughts and feelings of one character.
We knew to eliminate the last two answers, as omniscient point of view extends beyond one character, but as both an author and reader of fiction, I found the remaining possible answers problematic. Knowing the thoughts and feelings of all the characters helps you
experience the story through them. Part of experiencing the story is knowing the thoughts and feelings of characters and empathizing with their experiences. Thoughts and feelings are experiences. To say that an author’s choice of point of view leads the reader to only the first or second answer is a false distinction. I suspected that the question assumed experiencing came through first person, making the second answer “right,” but I really don’t know, and this is my field of expertise in both study and practice. I was frustrated that I was unable to help him reason effectively to an answer. He just guessed, figuring his odds were good, and he got 4/4 on the diagnostic. Then, two days later when he took the actual ten-point assessment, he got 7, meaning he didn’t pass.
I knew he could explain all aspects of point of view to me, as he’d already done so at home, but he’s at the mercy of which questions from the test bank come up and whether they’re written in a way he understands what is being asked. One question on an earlier assessment asked him to read a passage and answer a question on theme. The passage wasn’t actually visible to him, but he answered the question anyway and passed that test. My son is beginning to believe the assessments don’t actually assess what he knows but how well he figures out the intentions of the question writers. Sadly, I prefer that to his earlier sense that he was “stupid” and “just doesn’t understand” whatever subject he’s doing.
Being able to take standardized tests is a skill and a necessary one in our assessment- heavy culture, but I don’t know who is working with my son other than me to help him understand how to take these tests. The mentors don’t have that kind of time with each student or the specific subject knowledge of each assessment; their role is to keep the student setting goals for completing assessments. Most parents don’t have that kind of time. I know that when I give multiple-choice quizzes in the online classes I teach, I can look at which questions gave the class the most trouble and send out an explanation and/or write a better question next time. With the self-paced assessments, teachers in those subject areas aren’t able to go over the exam with the whole class and turn it into a learning opportunity.
Right now, those assessments equal 30% of the grade in a subject, and the students do this for four subjects. If students want an A, they have to do an additional area in the subject, which is, again, a playlist and multiple choice test. My son is continually frustrated, overwhelmed, and bored because of these assessments and their playlists. I am losing my usual ability to put a positive spin on this for him and don’t have time to keep going through everything with him at home.
Instead of videos marketing how well Summit works in charter schools elsewhere, I’d like to see evidence of what my child is gaining from its implementation in our district. Instead of citing self-published books by self-described “educational visionaries” (Charles Schwahn’s Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning is published through Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing platform, meaning it was not peer-reviewed prior to publication), I’d like the administration to also provide reliable, peer-reviewed resources about mass customized learning, preferably ones that differentiate this approach from student-centered learning, which is not a new concept. When asked about
the research that supports mass customized learning, Schwahn’s response on his now- defunct blog makes clear that he doesn’t have to provide research because mass customization has been successful in the corporate world:
“Mass Customization” in general is highly “researched” and has proven to be highly successful.
· Apple and iTunes used mass customization to take over the music industry.
· Amazon used mass customization to flip the book market.
· Wikipedia used mass customization to become the encyclopedia of choice.
· Google and Bing used mass customization to make libraries a place to store “print” books.
· Yahoo home page used mass customization to make the NYT just one of the newspapers we read in the morning . . . and it’s the digital version, for free.
(“The ‘Research’ Question.’ http://masscustomizedlearning.blogspot.com. Sept. 25, 2012. Accessed Dec. 10, 2017)
I hope the school district is basing its decision to implement mass customized learning on more than corporate marketing success with technology and Charles Schwahn’s vision. Even if we accept Schwahn’s belief that schools that don’t pursue MCL are assembly line, “one fits all” systems, his definition of MCL, as outlined in a rebuttal to an article in an e-journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, does not seem to be realized in our current use of Summit Learning. He writes, “
learning is about each learner becoming an active, engaged partner with real voice in how
he or she learns and how he or she demonstrates knowledge or skill.”
I like the idea behind this, and my son is getting some experience with self-directed,
engaged learning from his ELA Socratic seminar and in the choices he makes with
projects, but he has no voice in how he learns or demonstrates his knowledge with those
online assessments. The topic is selected for him, the playlist content is selected for him,
the format is multiple choice with the same bank of questions for all students. It’s simply
an electronic version of lecture material regurgitated through multiple choice exams.
There is nothing innovative about that, and the redundancy of doing this in all four core
subjects without adequate assistance in building note-taking and test-taking skills has left
my child both bored and frustrated. MCL advocate Schwahn claims in the previously
cited blog that we all agree that “learners learn best when they are challenged but not
overwhelmed or bored.” If that’s the case, something is seriously wrong with the current
implementation of Summit Learning, and I hope the school board will charge the
administration with acknowledging and fixing these problems as soon as possible. In the
meantime, I am researching alternative educational opportunities because I do not want
my other child, who is currently in fourth grade, to experience Summit Learning as it is
currently practiced in the district.
Thank you for taking the time to read this long letter. If it contains any misinformation, I
welcome corrections, and I apologize that the citations are not in a consistently
recognizable citation style. I’m in the middle of finals week at IUP and tired, but I do feel
my son’s education is too important not to get this letter out to you. I don’t know what
the solution can be at this point in the school year, but something needs to be done.
Printed with permission