Summit Learning reports highlight big ambitions for personalized learning, struggles to prove academic success

Leaders behind the Summit Learning technology platform and curriculum once set a goal that it be used in half of U.S. public schools by 2025.

That was always a long shot. But now it seems especially so, as Summit’s growth has slowed to a near halt. Catherine Madden, a spokesperson for TLP Education, the nonprofit that now administers Summit, says the organization expects to have a similar number of partner schools this year as it did last year — about 400.

It would take roughly 50,000 schools adopting Summit for the program to meet the ambitious 50% goal, which was briefly mentioned in a 2016 grant report to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. These numbers suggest a change in strategy, circumstances, or both for the high-profile initiative backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a way to improve American schools.

“The Program has grown entirely based on educator demand,” said Madden. “At TLP Education, our priority is to provide schools that ask for our help with effective training, tools, and ongoing support to implement Summit Learning.”

In addition to the 2016 report, Chalkbeat also obtained, through public records requests, reports from 2017 and 2019 that detail how Summit Public Schools, the charter network that developed the Summit model, used large grants from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (CZI is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Those reports also highlight how Summit has struggled to show clear evidence of academic and non-academic success. In initial reports, Summit indicated plans to release external research on the program’s effectiveness. That hasn’t happened, and in its most recent report, Summit offers a tepid description of its academic impact.

“Across the entire Program, Summit Learning Schools performed as expected on traditional measures, which is no small feat based on Summit’s own experience,” reads a January 2019 report. “On average, Summit Learning students achieved an academic year’s worth of growth in math and reading.”

Madden said TLP is working to expand the research base on Summit.

Summit’s growth plans, and questions of its effectiveness, are noteworthy because CZI is now one of the country’s largest education philanthropies. It has staked its vision for improving education on the model, which combines a technology platform for students and teachers, one-on-one mentoring, and project-based instruction. CZI has given at least $99 million directly to Summit in addition to providing a team of engineers — allowing the program to be made available free of charge to interested schools.

CZI declined to comment.

To Josh McGee, a research professor at the University of Arkansas and former executive at the Arnold Foundation, the reports reflect the scale of ambition that philanthropies often want to see and that startups often aspire to.

“It is the goal of philanthropies to find things that make a difference and get them to scale,” said McGee, who also noted that much communication between grantees and their funders is not captured in grant reports.

“It’s still a challenge to build any evidence based around a particular program,” he said. “You see in these grant reports Summit struggling [with] how to do that and how to do that in a way that doesn’t disrupt their model.”

2016 and 2017 grant reports highlight Summit — and CZI’s — far-reaching ambitions

Summit describes “personalized learning” as a way to tailor instruction to individual students’ needs and interests — with technology making this feasible.

“After a lecture or classroom discussion, different students within a single class could be completing different projects about the topic, each tailored to their learning style,” explains a recent Summit blog post. “Technology in a personalized learning classroom supports each student in owning their learning path.” (Proponents increasingly downplay the technological side of personalized learning, and the CZI’s grantmaking includes tech-focused investments as well as others focused on things like social-emotional skills.)

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have said they want to spread the idea to teachers everywhere. In line with that vision, the $20 million grant issued by CZI to Summit in 2016 had a sweeping goal: “scale personalized learning nationally.”

Summit described a marketing plan featuring Facebook Live videos, a podcast, and efforts to collaborate “with key influencers, researchers, and thought leaders.” Summit envisioned a growing movement where people became “convinced that their school(s) should be doing Summit Learning” and that “being a Summit Learning graduate is a competitive advantage for hiring by America’s top 100 employers.”

Rand Quinn, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied education philanthropy, said a vision for rapid growth can come from both sides. “It’s not necessarily solely the result of the ambitions of the grantee, as much as it’s this interplay between the funder and the grantee trying to demonstrate and achieve the broadest impact,” he said.

The report also shows that Summit wanted to prove that its approach and personalized learning more broadly are successful. “Our ultimate goal is for the Summit Learning community to be able to confidently and accurately answer the question, ‘Does Summit Learning work?’” the 2017 report says.

But on both counts — creating demand, and showing its effectiveness — Summit and the personalized learning movement have faced setbacks.

High-profile news stories have featured complaints from parents and students in schools using Summit, some expressing fear that children are spending too much time in front of screens. Other parents and educators have praised the program, and there’s not good data to support sweeping statements about Summit’s popularity.

The research on tech-based personalized learning remains thin, and is virtually nonexistent for Summit in particular. Summit decided not to move forward with a study that it paid Harvard researchers to design a few years ago.

Summit Public Schools has published a report titled the “Science of Summit,” which details the research that informed the design of its approach.

2019 report strikes different tone

The most recent report was issued in 2019 for a $23.8 million grant. This one had a less far-reaching purpose: “To support the Summit Learning Program, with a specific emphasis on partner school success.”

This report includes two case studies of schools using Summit but no details on the overall performance of schools using the model, beyond stating that students had made an average of a year’s worth of growth on math and reading tests. Part of that may reflect Summit’s philosophy that “the definition of student success varies depending on the school.”

In one middle school in Massachusetts, Summit has expanded to all grades and “parents have been largely supportive” because of clear communication by the school, the report says. Another case study describes a charter network in Chicago that has seen growth in math and reading scores since adopting Summit.

McGee said that evidence is not particularly strong, but that this isn’t unique to Summit. “None of that is all that rigorous, but it is indicative of the type of evidence that is often provided by providers of education interventions,” he said. “That kind of information tells you something, but it can lead you to the wrong conclusions.”

The latest report does not mention the research described or proposed in the prior reports, or describe how Summit hopes to show external audiences that its approach works. Madden, the TLP spokesperson, said that the organization has recently “prioritized expanding research to help measure the long-term impact of our Program.”

This report also suggests Summit has changed its approach to working with partner schools, which are now required to implement all the three major components of the program.

“During the first few years of the Summit Learning Program, we supported schools in tailoring the Summit Learning instructional approach to their community’s needs,” the report reads. “However Summit Learning is a comprehensive approach to teaching and learning — not an add-on or technology intervention.”

This spring, Chalkbeat reported that 25% of schools that had adopted Summit before the 2018-19 school year were no longer using it.

It’s not clear how many schools added or dropped the program since. But the fact that Summit expects net growth to halt is consistent with the shift in grant priorities from rapidly scaling up to working with existing schools.

“There’s lots of diversity of experiences,” TLP Education head Andrew Goldin said in a recent interview with EdSurge. “But we are feeling like we have learned a ton about the conditions that let schools be successful.”

Read the full grants reports here.