Silicon Valley came to Kansas schoolchildren. This led to protests.

Original author: Nellie Bowles
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Seeds of contention were sown in school classrooms and sprouted in kitchens, living rooms, in conversations between students and their parents. When 14-year-old Collin Winter, an eighth-grader from the Kansas-based city of MacPherson, joined the protests, they culminated. In neighboring Wellington, high school students staged a sit-in, and their parents gathered in living rooms, in churches and in the yards of car repair shops. They attended mass meetings of the school board. “I just want to take my chromebook and tell them I'm not going to do this anymore,” says 16-year-old Kylie Forslund, a 10th grade student in Wellington. In neighborhoods where there were never political posters, improvised banners suddenly appeared.

Silicon Valley came to provincial schools - and everything went awry

Eight months ago, public schools near Wichita switched to the Web platform and Summit Learning courses, a curriculum for “personalized learning,” which uses online tools to personalize education. The platform for Summit was created by the developers of Facebook, it is funded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. As part of the Summit program, students spend most of the day sitting at laptops, studying subjects online and passing tests. Teachers help children, work as mentors and lead special projects. This system is free for schools except laptops, which are usually purchased separately.

Many families in Kansas cities where underfunded public schools test scores worsened, at first rejoiced at this innovation. After some time, schoolchildren began to come home with headaches and cramps in their hands. Some said they became more nervous. One girl even asked her father's hunting headphones not to hear her classmates, who distracted her from her studies, now done alone.

A survey was conducted among parents of MacPherson High School: 77 percent of them are against teaching their children using Summit Learning, and more than 80 percent said their children are unhappy with learning on the platform. “We let computers teach children, and they looked like zombies,” said Tyson Koenig of MacPherson after attending the lessons of his ten-year-old son. In October, he took him out of school.

“Change rarely goes smoothly,” said Gordon Mon, McPherson County School Superintendent, ““ students started to learn on their own and are now showing great interest in their studies. ” John Buckendorf, principal of Wellington's school, claims that "the vast majority of parents are happy with this program."

Kansas protests are just part of Summit Learning's growing discontent

The platform came to public schools four years ago and now covers 380 schools and 74,000 students. In November in Brooklyn , high school students transferred after their school switched to Summit Learning. In Indiana, the school council first reduced and then refused to use the platform after a survey in which 70 percent of students asked to cancel it, or use it only optionally. And in Cheshire, the program was curtailed after protests in 2017. “When the disappointment appeared, the children and adults managed to overcome it and move on,” said Mary Burnham, the grandmother of two grandchildren from Cheshire, who launched a petition to abandon Summit, “no one put up with it.”

Despite the fact that in Silicon Valley itself, many people avoid gadgets at home and send their children to high-tech schools, she has long been trying to remake American education in her own image and likeness. Summit has been at the forefront of this process, but protests raise questions about the strong dependence on technology in public schools.

For years, experts have been discussing the benefits of self-directed interactive learning compared to traditional teacher-led learning. Proponents of this idea argue that such programs give children, especially in small towns with poor infrastructure, access to high-quality curricula and teachers. Skeptics are worried about too much time that children spend behind the monitor, and argue that students are losing important interpersonal lessons.

John Payne, a senior researcher at RAND, has studied training customization programs, and believes that this area is still in its infancy.

“Too little research,” he said.

Diana Tavenner, a former Summit teacher and CEO, founded the Summit Public Schools network of private schools in 2003 and began developing software that would enable students to “discover their strengths on their own”. The resulting program, Summit Learning, switched to a new non-profit organization - TLP Education . Diana argues that the protests in Kansas are mostly related to nostalgia: “They don’t want change. They like schools for who they are. Such people actively resist any changes. ”

In 2016, Summit paid Harvard Research Center to study the impact of the platform, but did not pass it.. Tom Kane, who was supposed to draw up the results, said he was afraid to speak out against Summit, as many educational projects receive funding from the charity organization of the founder of Facebook and his wife, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Mark Zuckerberg supported Summit in 2014 and identified five Facebook engineers to develop the platform. In 2015, he wrote that Summit would help “meet individual student needs and interests and free teachers time for mentoring — what they do best.” Since 2016, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has allocated $ 99.1 million in grants to Summit. “We take the issues raised very seriously, and Summit works with school leaders and parents on the ground,” commented Abby Lunardini, CEO of The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, “many of the schools that use Summit have loved and supported him.”

This love and support is best seen in the Kansas cities of Wellington (8,000 people) and MacPherson (13,000 people). They are surrounded by wheat fields and factories, and residents work in agriculture, at a nearby refinery or aircraft factory. In 2015, Kansas announced that it would support "moonlighting" in education and introduce "personalized training." Two years later, he chose the “ astronauts " for this project : MacPherson and Wellington. When parents received brochures with the promise of “individualized learning,” many were delighted. School district leaders chose Summit.

“We wanted equal opportunities for all children,” said Brian Kinaston, a member of the school board. With Summit, his 14-year-old daughter felt self-reliant.

“Everyone judged it too quickly,” he added.

With the start of the school year, children received laptops to use Summit. With their help, they studied subjects from mathematics to English and history. The teachers told the students that now their role is to be mentors.

Parents of children with health problems immediately ran into trouble. A 12-year-old Megan, suffering from epilepsy, a neurologist recommended limiting the time behind the monitor to 30 minutes a day to reduce the number of seizures. With the start of using web-based tools, seizures occurred with Megan several times a day.

In September, some students received dubious content when Summit recommended sources on an open network. In one of the lessons on the history of the Paleolithic, Summit included a link to the article of the British newspaper The Daily Mail with spicy advertising for adults. When searching for the Ten Commandments, the platform sent to a religious Christian site. To these claims, Tavenner replied that the training course was created by open sources and an article in The Daily Mail suited his requirements. “The Daily Mail writes at a very primitive level and it was a mistake to add this link,” she said and added that the Summit curriculum does not direct students to religious sites.

Summit has divided teachers across the country. He freed some from planning and evaluating tests and gave more time to individual students. Others said they were in the role of outside observers. While Summit required schools to have a lesson with teachers lasting at least 10 minutes, some children said that classes lasted no more than a couple of minutes or none at all.

The question arose about the protection of students' personal data. “Summit collects a huge amount of personal data about each student and plans to keep track of them in college and beyond,” resented Leoni Hameson, co-chair of the Parental Coalition for Student Confidentiality. Tavenner replied that the platform is fully compliant with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

By winter, many students from MacPherson and Wellington were fed up.

The 16-year-old Maryland French began to tire of her eyes and did not have enough conversations with teachers and students in the classroom. “Now everyone is very tense,” she said. Eighth grader Colleen Winter, participated in the January strike along with 50 other students. “I was a little afraid,” he said, “but I still felt good doing at least something.”

In the backyard of the workshop of one of the parents, Tom Henning, held an organizational meeting. Chris Smalley, the father of two children, aged 14 and 16, put up a sign in front of his house against Summit: “They described everything to us very nicely. But it was the worst lemon car we have ever bought. ” Deanna Garver also made a sign in the courtyard: "Do not drown with Summit."

At McPherson, the Koenig couple saved money and transferred the children to a Catholic school: “We are not Catholics, but it’s easier for us to discuss religious lessons at dinner than Summit.” According to Kevin Dodds, a member of Wellington City Council, after the fall semester, about a dozen parents in Wellington have already transferred their children from a public school and another 40 are planning to pick them up by summer.

“We live on the periphery,” he laments, “and we made experimental rabbits out of us.”

PS The answer from Summit Learning is here .

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