The Summit Learning Program: Big Promises, Lots of Money, Little Evidence of Success

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Key New NEPC Research Brief Takeaway: Despite a lack of evidence that it is effective, the Summit Learning Program, propelled by a flood of Silicon Valley money, continues to spread.

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Virtual learning and personalized learning have been at the forefront of education reform discussions for over a decade. One leader of this sector, Summit Public Schools, has been backed by almost $200 million philanthropic dollars from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation, and others. Summit Public Schools has aggressively marketed its Summit Learning Platform to schools across the United States since 2015. As a result, the Summit Learning Program is now one of the most prominent digital personalized learning programs in the United States.

In Big Claims, Little Evidence, Lots of Money: The Reality Behind the Summit Learning Program and the Push to Adopt Digital Personalized Learning Platforms, Faith Boninger, Alex Molnar, and Christopher M. Saldaña, of the University of Colorado Boulder, provide a thorough analysis of Summit Public Schools, an 11-school charter network operating in California and Washington. Summit Public Schools began marketing its proprietary Summit Learning Program to potential “partner” schools in 2015 as a free, off-the-shelf, personalized learning program; it is now used in nearly 400 schools nationwide.

The marketing message of Summit Learning Program trades on the alleged success of the Summit Public Schools. Summit claims to have developed a “science-based” personalized learning model of teaching and learning that results in all of its students being academically prepared for college. It further claims that its students succeed in college and are prepared to lead successful, fulfilled lives. These successes, it claims, are the result of its unique approach to personalized learning and the use of the digital platform at the heart of its approach.

None of these claims made by Summit Public Schools have been confirmed by independent evaluators. In fact, other than scant bits of self-selected information provided by Summit itself, Boninger, Molnar and Saldaña found no evidence in the public record that confirms the claims. Nor did Summit Public Schools provide the information that the authors solicited in a California public records request.

Despite the lack of evidence to support the claims made by Summit Public Schools, the Summit Learning Program has been adopted by nearly 400 schools across the country. While Summit has offered positive anecdotes and some selected data, there is no solid evidence that “partner” schools are experiencing the promised success; to the contrary, there have been a number of reported incidents of problems and dissatisfaction. Further, the student data collected pursuant to the contracts between Summit and these partner schools presents a potentially significant risk to student privacy and opens the door to the exploitation of those data by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and possibly by unknown third parties—for purposes that have nothing to do with improving the quality of those students’ educations.

Virtual education and personalized learning are at the top of the education reform agenda in large measure because of hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and advocacy by philanthropic organizations (e.g., the Gates Foundation), large digital platforms (e.g., Facebook and Google), and venture capitalists anxious to access the school market.

Exacerbated by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the country are struggling to find safe ways to educate their students. The rapid spread of the Summit Learning Program, despite its risks and lack of transparency, provides a powerful example of how policymakers are challenged when faced with a well-financed, self-interested push for schools to adopt digital personalized learning programs. Boninger, Molnar and Saldaña provide policymakers with recommendations to protect the public interest by establishing oversight and accountability mechanisms related to digital platforms and personalized learning programs.

Find Big Claims, Little Evidence, Lots of Money: The Reality Behind the Summit Learning Program and the Push to Adopt Digital Personalized Learning Platforms, by Faith Boninger, Alex Molnar and Christopher M. Saldaña, at:
http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/summit-2020

This research brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (greatlakescenter.org).

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: https://nepc.colorado.edu

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William J. Mathis

Faith Boninger
University of Colorado Boulder
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