November 26 th , 2017

Open Letter to the IASD School Board Members

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are asking the favor of your time and attention regarding the implementation of the Summit Learning Program within our school district. We feel very strongly that it is a poor educational product and that it is important to eliminate it from our school system altogether, as quickly as possible. We realize that it may be too late for that to occur during the current school year and unfortunately, this year’s 6th grade students may have to continue to struggle with it, but we believe that it would be a disaster for it to be continued beyond this school year.

To begin with, it appears to us that it has been introduced under false premises. It has been stated by Mr. Kirsch that the program has been a success in other school districts. A quick Google search indicates that this statement is not entirely accurate. There is no actual measure of “success” given , and the program’s implementation seems to follow an unfortunate pattern: it is offered “for free” to districts who may be struggling financially, it is implemented suddenly, without proper vetting, without the parents’ consent or even knowledge, and there is no possibility to opt out. When the parents finally become aware of the shortcomings of the program, their protests and concerns are met with condescension or even open hostility. Their complaints are painfully similar to ours. It appears that the need for consent was initially part of the program, but as parents’ opposition mounted, it was conveniently abolished.

Additionally, there are serious privacy concerns by parents nationwide. These are indicated through newspaper articles and blogs addressing student data access. A Washington Post article highlighted these privacy concerns by parents whose children’s data would be shared with Google and Facebook. Sharing which, we as parents, were never given the opportunity to approve or disapprove. Does the school board have full understanding of the types of data being shared and what exactly is being done with it? What guarantees are being offered that such data will not be misused?

The issue of the Summit Learning Program’s rejection is not a problem of miscommunication or insufficient communication. The program’s content is simply of such a poor quality, that no amount of communication can compensate for it. It lacks context and cohesion, it is inappropriate at times, and it is often presented as a fast-paced succession of factoids reminding very much of an infomercial. It reduces knowledge to soundbites. The so-called “resources” are not entirely equivalent and the student has no way of knowing which and how many of them one has to study in order to gather the necessary information.

For example, when it comes to American History, the materials provided are openly biased. We do not favor sanitizing history, and we believe that a healthy nation should face the mistakes of the past in order to avoid them in the future. However, there is a difference between that approach and openly channeling anti-national sentiment directly through the public-school system, especially when its target is a population of 11-12 year-old children without any prior understanding of how the world looked and behaved in one particular time period. The students are encouraged to judge historical figures by today’s societal standards rather than within their own context. There is no consolation or reassurance that some of the questionable videos were “taken down” when the parents protested. This indicates that apparently nobody has actually reviewed them ahead of time. The program is a very fluid one. A video can be removed today and reappear in a different place. This has happened.

The statement that this process is self-guided is again, not accurate. The students only have access to the materials provided by the platform, they still have deadlines, and they are not really in control with respect to their testing time. Students who have free access to computers at home and have been allowed to play video games, have done better in terms of grade stability and stress level. Interestingly, many of these kids do not like the platform. Some of them essentially play it like a game, and they game the system, learning how to exploit its features to get by with the minimum amount of effort. For some students, they learn just enough to pass the questionnaires, understanding that passing eight out of ten questions is enough to get through the system. Their grade does not reflect whether it took them one time or four times to pass. Also of concern is the lack of feedback on answers that are incorrect. A teacher can point out why an answer is incorrect, but Summit simply asks the student to retake a questionnaire, without immediate or clear feedback. If the score is eight out of ten, i t simply moves the student on to the next task. Extra intervention by a teacher is required for a student to learn from mistakes, and it does not always occur.

It has been stated that the most advanced students will benefit the most, because they can go as fast as they want. In theory that is possible, but practically unlikely to happen. Most of the families of the students in the gifted program from Eisenhower School have been an active part in the effort to stop this program. Our children are unhappy, they feel that they learn about a quarter or a third from what they used to learn in the same time in 5th grade and there is no real incentive to move ahead.

One of the most unfortunate consequences of this program is a startling change in the behavior of some of the teachers. The amount and quality of the actual teaching has dropped at an alarming rate, considering that the program has been in place for only three months. What will happen if this program is continued and complacency settles in? How is it beneficial for students when their teachers are reduced to the role of glorified proctors?

The more we have learned about the program, the more concerned and disappointed we have become. If we wait three years to see results, it means that three classes of students will only get this type of education, which we find to be inadequate. For our child’s class, it means that one-fourth of their entire learning experience before college will be dictated by a Facebook by-product, which is what the Summit Learning Platform really is. They will become captive audiences to a social media’s product. If the program is allowed to become more entrenched within the IASD curricula what can we really know about what lies ahead?

The program cannot be “improved” because the flaws we have presented here do not represent a mistake. The program is meant to be this way. This program is essentially a very effective indoctrination tool. It effectively removes the parents and, to a great extent, the teachers from the educational process and promotes only the information that its makers have decided to put there. Content in the Summit Learning Program runs counter to many of the values shared by families of both political spectra. This is not a liberal or conservative issue. It is a fact and methodology issue in which our children are being used in a learning experiment without their or our consent.

We have been told that “this is inevitable” and “this is the future. We disagree with both these statements. This program was brought into our district for various reasons, and it is not the future unless we make it so. As a Nobel Prize winning economist once stated, “There is no such thing as a free lunch", and our experience with things which are “free” is that they are never really "free”. And often, not very good. What does Summit, and by proxy, Facebook get in return for “free” learning programs? The answer is likely to be our children’s data. We do not believe it should be available to anyone, for any reason, at any savings.

We are not sure what exactly the Board of Directors voted for last summer, but we are respectfully asking this newly elected Board to use this opportunity t o eliminate this program from our district in its entirety. Returning to the classical style of teaching does not mean “same old, same old”. It gives the students a real learning experience, instead of being part of an experiment which is likely to end badly. It also empowers the teachers who have dedicated their careers to making a difference in children’s lives instead of leaving them to administer a computer program.

Sincerely,

Mihaela Nowak, M.D. and Michael S. Nowak, AIA

(Parents of a 6th grade student)