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Johns Hopkins Researchers Found “Significant Problems” With Summit Learning Use in Providence Schools

By Henry Kronk
July 01, 2019

In May, Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green invited researchers from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy to review the Providence Public School District. Part of their investigation reported on the use of Summit Learning, a free platform developed by Summit Public Schools (a charter network in the Bay Area) and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The Providence Public School District has not been in great shape for some time. According to scores on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS), just 10% of Providence students scored proficient in math, while 14% were proficient in language arts, across grade levels. 87.7% of students enrolled in the 2017-18 school year qualified for free or reduced lunch.

Summit Public Schools Has a Track Record with Diverse and Low-Income Communities

The district, therefore, might make for an ideal candidate for Summit Learning. When Summit CEO Diane Tavenner launched her first school in Redwood City, Calif. in 2003, the school drew its first class from a student body where 90% were poor and 90% were English learners, according to Mother Jones. Tavenner and her staff managed to graduate 100% of Summit’s first cohort.

If 2019 was anything like past years in Providence, that likely did not occur. While some Providence schools report graduation rates in the high 90s, many others fall below 70%, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education. The Providence Public School District, like many urban American education systems, deals every year with numerous issues that amount to a steep uphill struggle.

When it comes to the act of learning and academic performance, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers led by Dr. Jay Plasman, Summit Learning has not helped. The team found “significant problems in the use of the Summit Learning Platform.” The researchers observed numerous occasions of plug-and-play teaching, where the instructor set every student to work individually on the platform without leading or engaging the class.

Researchers Find Plug-and-Play Teaching, Disengagement, and Burnout with Summit Learning Use in Providence

“In one school, we did not observe a single Summit math teacher engage in whole-class or even small-group math instruction,” the researchers write. “Instead, teachers either completed work at their desks, and/or answered questions when students raised their hand. Finally, the lack of teacher surveillance of student progress in some Summit classrooms meant that students worked very slowly through the material.”

This lack of teacher engagement allowed for numerous misuses of the platform. Many students were observed spending long periods off-task. Some worked on assignments for other classes. Others watched unrelated YouTube videos.

Plasman’s team also found another trait that has been reported elsewhere: students often don’t go through the material on Summit Learning, but instead skip right to the assessment and try to guess their way through to the next section.

“To paint a picture of one Summit classroom at a given moment during our visit: Four students were working on history, one student stalled on an index screen, one stalled on a choice screen, one focused on a screen with other (non-math) content, two doing mathematics well below grade-level work, and two doing mathematics at, or close to, grade level,” the researchers write.

The team found that the platform was “almost universally disliked” among students. Interviewees reported being bored, burnt-out, and uncomfortable with the amount of screen time the platform required.

Teachers and principals were also found to be skeptical of the use of Summit Learning. The researchers found only two principals who had a positive outlook on the platform.

They write, “A few teachers were also positive: ‘Summit makes students work harder. It brings themes to instruction.’ Other principals, and teachers, said mixed to negative things. The most common reaction was a variation on what one principal said: ‘In a way it has helped but there has been no training for it.’ From another principal: ‘Summit is used for grades 9 and 10 because of high teacher and student absenteeism.’”

The Providence Journal has published the investigation in full.

Featured Image: Shannon S, Unsplash.