Wednesday, February 27, 2019

What Is ‘Indoctrination’? And How Do We Avoid It in Class?

When I was a kid, my father used to tell me that most politics came down to the rich turning the poor against the smart. I was reminded once again that he was probably right when I reaKim Phillips-Fein’s recent essay in The Chronicle on the history of right-wing attacks on higher education. She details a century’s worth of accusations and scapegoating, showing that today’s right-wing provocateurs are carrying on a tradition nearly as old as the American university itself.
One of the most persistent accusations against academics is that we are guilty of indoctrination. Phillips-Fein quotes Jordan Peterson accusing professors of "indoctrinating young minds with their resentment-laden ideology." Last year in her book The Diversity Delusion, Heather Mac Donald accused colleges and universities of producing graduates who "bring their high-theory indoctrination with them into the federal and state bureaucracies and into newsrooms." A Google search of "indoctrination universities" brings up countless right-wing sites pushing similar claims.
I quote those critics not because I think they paint an accurate picture — on the contrary, I think it’s a fanciful caricature — but because the accusation reflects the fact that seemingly everyone, of all political persuasions, agrees that instructors should avoid indoctrinating their students. But what exactly is indoctrination? And how do we avoid it?
Indoctrination and education used to be synonymous. Webster’s 1913 dictionary defines indoctrination as "instruction in the rudiments and principles of any science or system of belief." It was well into the 20th century before the word widely took on negative connotations. Today, although we know that indoctrination is bad, the concept is often fuzzily defined.
Back in 2017, seeking to better define the instructor’s mission, I drew some guidelines for handling political issues in the classroom. "It’s not our job to change our students’ beliefs," I wrote. But it’s clear that we do try to influence our students’ beliefs, all the time — and quite rightly. What if they believe gravity doesn’t apply to short people? Or that electrons weigh more than protons? Surely one goal of education is to help students’ beliefs conform better to reality.
Writing in 2009, the philosophers Eamonn Callan and Dylan Arena noted that indoctrination "as the name for a species of morally objectionable teaching, has no more than rough conceptual boundaries." Since then, a number of philosophers of education have attempted to draw those boundaries more sharply and a broad consensus has emerged. To indoctrinate students in a classroom, Rebecca M. Taylor writes, requires two essential conditions:
  • First, that we use our authority.
  • And second, that we promote closed-minded adoption of a belief.
As professors, we have both intellectual authority (students’ perception that we are experts) and practical authority (the power — by virtue of our position — to set grades, enforce rules, etc.). There is no question that we have that power, to varying degrees. We cannot escape the fact of our authority; we can only choose how to use it. To avoid indoctrination requires that we remain aware of our authority over students, lest we abuse our power and infringe upon their autonomy.
Indoctrination is not just the promotion of certain beliefs in our students; it’s an effort to change their beliefs and instill a fear or reluctance to consider conflicting evidence. Indoctrination, Taylor writes, produces students who lack the motivation to pursue knowledge for themselves. They become "closed-minded agents," either because they’re intellectually arrogant (they downplay the potential that they could ever be wrong) or intellectually servile (they distrust their own intellectual capacities, and therefore defer to and rely on another authority).
Clearly, either outcome is bad. As instructors, we are looking to help students be more confident, competent, and informed. Arrogance and servility work against those goals.
So how do we guard against indoctrination? How do we make sure we are not encouraging closed-mindedness?
By focusing on its opposite — open-mindedness and intellectual humility — and modeling those intellectual virtues ourselves. If we admit when we’re wrong, discuss our failures, and let students know when we’re unsure about something, we can guard against closed-mindedness in two ways:
  • First, by modeling the kind of humility that we hope students will adopt, we encourage them to aspire to be something other than intellectually arrogant. We show that the best way to approach any academic activity is with an open mind.
  • Second, by knocking ourselves down a peg or two, we discourage students from seeing us as an all-knowing authority, someone to defer to at all times. As the Loyola Marymount philosophy professor Jason Baehr writes ihis guide to teaching the intellectual virtues, "The ‘stronger’ we are, the weaker they can feel, and therefore the more reluctant they can be to take the kinds of intellectual risks or to engage in ways that are crucial to their own intellectual development." Instead, by admitting in the classroom that we don’t have all the answers, we can help students develop the confidence to admit when they are unsure, and the autonomy to do something about that uncertainty.
The next step: Provide opportunities in class for students to practice open-mindedness. Regularly expose them to multiple perspectives, even those with which you disagree. In that vein, Baehr organizes class debates in which students argue, as convincingly as possible, against the view they actually hold. That kind of role-playing exercise shows students that their own view is just one of many, and that everyone has reasons for believing what they do.
But isn’t that kind of exposure to multiple perspectives a recipe for bothsidesism — the idea that all sides of a debate are equally viable? Doesn’t it teach students that there’s no way to sort out the truth? That some people think this way, and others think that way, and that’s as much as we can establish?
I don’t think it has to. We’re not looking to teach students that every possible perspective on an issue is equally true. Rather we need to teach them how to base their conclusions on argument and evidence — even if that evidence conflicts with their prior beliefs.
Teaching inductively — that is, by having students engage in problem-solving or case studies and asking them to induce general principles from what they learn — can help them practice this crucial skill. If you teach argumentative writing, stress that a thesis statement should change as the evidence does. If you teach the history of science, highlight those moments when our understanding of the world shifted because the evidence did.
The opposite of closed-mindedness is not a postmodern void in which there’s no such thing as truth. No, the opposite of closed-mindedness is open-mindedness — in which we seek the truth yet recognize that we could be wrong.
Emphasizing open-mindedness and intellectual humility can help ensure you won’t indoctrinate students, even on subjects you feel strongly about. Of course you have political views, and students know that. You can tell your students, as I do mine, that you will work to ensure that your views do not influence your evaluation of their progress in the course.
But it’s also important to tell them — and show them — that the content of their beliefs is far less important to you than the process they took to arrive at those beliefs. I tell my students that, technically, I don’t care what they think; I just care how they think.
Find him on Twitter at @dgooblar.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Counting Down to Thesis Completion

by Pat Thomson, Patter:

Many PhDers are under pressure to complete their research and thesis within set time frames.
In the UK where I work, studentships are generally only for three years with a fourth unpaid year of ‘thesis pending’. This roughly equates to: the first year getting ready for the research, doing courses, and literature and design work; the second year being the field work and some analysis: and concluding analysis and producing the thesis in year three.
So if you’re in the UK, it’s helpful to have this kind of shape in your head. But it’s actually much better to try to sort out the reading, researching and writing timing in more detail. And it’s good to do this no matter where you are or how long you’ve officially got to finish.
That’s because another reason for focusing on the finish line is that there is nothing worse than having only a few bits and bobs written and suddenly realising that you aren’t going to get done before your money, commitment, enthusiasm and energy runs out.  Well, of course, there are many worse things than this, but this is up there with bad.
And realistically, most of us can only do the doctorate for so long before we get tired of it. But I see too many PhDers doing four really risky things, things which potentially jeopardise completion:
  1. they underestimate how much time it takes to analyse data, and
  2. they underestimate how much time it can take to produce a good text, and
  3. they haven’t factored in how long it might take their supervisor to read whole drafts, as opposed to chapters and
  4. they actually haven’t worked out in detail how long they – as opposed to anybody else – will take to analyse and write.
It’s really good to try to sort out the time it will take to complete relatively early. Don’t leave it till late in the piece. This might take a conversation with your supervisor. And this is a conversation you might need to revisit. Regularly.
So, completing in a timely way. I reckon it’s really helpful to count backwards from the time of submission. You start with the actual date where you “hand in” and work out what you need to do to get there.
And in this post, I’m going to offer you a bit of help in working backwards.
Here’s a set of things you might need to think about, starting from the triumphant very end and then working backwards. Do remember that the things on my list won’t be exactly on yours. You need to sort out what goes in your very particular individual list: this is just an example to help you think about what could happen. So rewrite my list to suit your research and writing strategies.
  • Finessing the text – fixing up the layout, proofreading, finding missing references, last minute grammatical check
  • Corrections from supervisor
  • Supervisor reads draft with examiner’s headset looking for omissions, things that need clarification or extension, missing references that the examiner will expect to see, consistency in reference list style, thesis abstract
  • Corrections from supervisor
  • Supervisor reads draft looking for relatively small textual issues – small restructurings, additional readings, some reformatting, rewriting some sections, authoritative voice
  • Corrections from supervisor
  • Supervisor reads for major issues such as argument flow, structural glitches, additional sections needed, theorisations, claims, chapters that need major rewrites
  • Hand in whole first draft
  • Corrections to chunks, smoothing over the whole text, signposting, getting rid of repetition, moving things around, getting reference list together, contents page, revising thesis abstract, sort out appendices, illustrations and figures.
  • Supervisor sees discussion and conclusion, the last of the individual pieces
  • Write discussion and conclusion – 20-25k words
  • Corrections to introduction
  • Supervisor reads introduction
  • Write introduction – 8-12k words
  • Revisit abstract.
  • Corrections to second results chapter
  • Supervisor reads second results chapter
  • Write second results chapter 10-12k words
  • Corrections to first results chapter
  • Supervisor reads first results chapter
  • Write first results chapter 10-12k words
  • Revisit storyboard and abstract
  • Corrections to literatures chapter
  • Supervisor reads literatures chapter
  • Write literatures chapter – 12k words
  • Update your literatures
  • Corrections to methods chapter
  • Supervisor reads methods chapter
  • Write methods chapter – 10-12k words
  • Update your methods literatures
  • Write the thesis abstract
  • READY TO WRITE. Storyboard and write tiny texts for each chapter, sort out your written chunks and support materials into chapters
  • Supervisor reads results “chunks”as they are written
  • Analysis and writing “chunks” of results – add on a couple more months here than you think it will actually take
  • FINISH FIELD WORK – and you have been doing some preliminary analysis during this time
Now put dates against all of these items again starting from your target hand in date. Put the year, month, day and date against each and every one.
Once you’ve done that, go back and be honest with yourself.
  • How long does it really take you to write 12k words?
  • Have you organised this so that you will actually be onto the next writing task while your supervisor is reading?
  • Have you built in any down time? Do you think you might need and deserve a break at any point in this schedule? Where are the holiday seasons? Parenting and caring?
  • Are there conferences you need to put in here? Or courses?
  • Have you thought about where writing retreats and thesis boot camp might be helpful?
  • Can you schedule in shut-up-and-write sessions with colleagues to help break the back of initial chapter writing?
  • Have you accounted for how long it realistically takes your supervisor to read and respond?  When might they be away?
  • Is there anything that might disrupt this schedule that you might be able to plan contingencies for?
  •  Is your space and technology going to last this distance? Do you need to plan for changeover?
Once you have finished thinking and charting you may be surprised by how close you already are to having to do analysis and writing. But you can now calendar your target dates, perhaps incorporating them into your diary or making a big timeline to pin on your office wall. And/or you might draw yourself a Gantt chart (play with this Gantt chart appto see if this approach works for you).
And don’t forget. Plans do go astray. We have lives, loves and bodies that call us to do to other things. So having a bit of slack in the schedule is helpful. But it is important to revise your timelines when they slip so that you always have a realistic idea of what is ahead.
And do remember this is just A version of how to complete. It is not THE version. My point here is simply not to leave completion to chance – work out what you need to do, when, and plan to make that happen.
Photo by Heather Zabriskie on Unsplash

Monday, February 25, 2019

Five Top Tips to Succeed in Your First Year of University

by Maria Chisari, University of Sydney, The Conversation:

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University can – and should – be fun.

This week, thousands of new students from around the country will be starting their first year at university. For many students and their parents, transitioning to university is an exciting but daunting experience. Here are five tips to help students succeed in their first year.

1. Find support services

All universities offer student counselling, mental health, sexual health, disability services, careers centres, accommodation and financial support.

One of the first places to look for these services is on your university’s website under the heading, Current Students. Students should also attend presentations during orientation week, ask their tutors and course coordinators or contact their student centre to get more information.

The best way to get information is to talk to other students. New students should take every opportunity to join peer-mentoring groups. These are often fun-filled sessions run by senior students who can offer first year students tips and insights in how to tackle their assignments and exams.

First year students should also become familiar with the university library and centres that focus on developing literacy and numeracy skills. These learning centres can help students develop their writing, maths and study skills by conducting a range of free workshops, including academic writing, reading strategies, making oral presentations and time management.

2. Manage your time well

Learning how to juggle social and academic commitments is one of the most difficult challenges for new students. One of the best ways to manage study workloads is to draw up a semester plan. This can take the form of a timeline or calendar.

Students should start by entering in all assignments and exams on their semester plan and then work backwards to allocate time for researching, draft planning, proofreading and checking references.

In this semester plan, you should also account for other commitments including work, socialising, sport and exercise and perhaps even a good’s night sleep.

3. Keep up-to-date with readings

One common theme across different faculties is that a good assignment is one where arguments have been debated and claims supported by evidence. In order to do this well, students need to do the weekly readings assigned in their individual courses.

You also need to read beyond the required list. Lecturers are not interested in students’ personal opinions. They’re interested in students’ opinions that are informed by evidence. That is, supported by the readings and research the student has done.

But new students may feel overwhelmed by the volume of readings they’re expected to do. The good news is you don’t have to read every word in a text. You need to skim and scan sources for relevant information.

4. How to avoid plagiarism

Learning how to reference reading sources correctly, to avoid plagiarism, is an essential skill. At the start of semester, most students have to complete online modules which explain the complexities of academic integrity.

Students caught plagiarising risk failing a course or being expelled from their degree. What this means for students is everything you read which has informed your thinking must be included in your reference list.

Students shouldn’t only provide a reference for each work they’ve cited. You also have to make sure the formatting of the reference is accurate. Depending on what you’re studying, you may be asked to reference in different styles. Check which one you need to use before you start.

Proper referencing demonstrates to lecturers (and potential employers) you can pay attention to detail, and that you’re part of an academic community and respect the rules of this community.

Students can adopt good habits from the beginning of their studies by recording all details of the reading source in their notes, including the author’s last name, title of the text, year of publication and page numbers.

5. Enjoy university life!

If you’re not happy with your course or subjects, you should get advice from your faculty. Students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning progress, but you should still talk to your lecturers about any concerns.

It’s acceptable to transfer to another course, but students should be aware any course changes must be made by the census date in order to avoid financial penalties. You can check your university’s census date on the university website.

Finally, university is not just about studying hard in order to achieve one’s career goals. It’s also about making life-long friendships and connections.

The best way to do this is for students to pursue their talents and interests and get involved in clubs and societies. The new friendships you form will become part of your support network and ensure that you make the most of your university experience.The Conversation

Maria Chisari, Lecturer, School of Education and Social Work and Learning Centre, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

"Mr Innocent" Mark Zuckerberg Is Trying to Transform Education: This Town Fought Back

Last year, several classes in Cheshire, Connecticut’s elementary and middle schools switched to a new classroom model, where lessons were supposed to be tailored to every student. The kids and their parents were caught off-guard that first week of school. “We walked into math class,” recalled Lauren Peronace, now an eighth-grader, “and my math teacher said, ‘Everyone open up your Chromebooks. We’re going to go on a website — Summit.’”
Reactions were mixed. Most everyone in Cheshire, which is between New Haven and Hartford, is there for the public schools, which are among the area’s best. Some parents were skittish about the creep of more technology into the classroom, especially when they found out Facebook engineers had helped build the software and Mark Zuckerberg was spending millions promoting it. Others were at least cautiously optimistic. “My son initially thought it sounded cool,” said one parent, Theresa, who asked to have her last name withheld because of all the drama that followed. “The teachers told him, ‘You’re going to be on your own; you’ll be independent; you’re going to move at your own pace.”
The program had come with money for 130 Chromebooks, so every student could have one — courtesy of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Zuckerberg’s philanthropic LLC, and Summit’s other wealthy backers. But to hear the administrators explain it, the technology would be only one piece. The Summit Learning Program, which originated at a series of West Coast charter schools between 2012 and 2013, is conceived as a comprehensive program of “personalized learning” that promises to put students in charge of their own education. It’s now being used in some 380 districts and charter schools nationwide. Rather than having a teacher stand at the front of the room and talk, it emphasizes group projects, dialogue between students, and one-on-one time with teachers, guaranteeing at least a ten-minute “mentoring” session for each student every week. It also makes use of specialized software for regular lessons and assessments. Cheshire’s teachers had gone to training that summer in Providence, Rhode Island, at an event also funded by Summit.
But the implementation over the next few months collapsed into a suburban disaster, playing out in school-board meetings and, of course, on Facebook. The kids who hated the new program hated it, to the point of having breakdowns, while their parents became convinced Silicon Valley was trying to take over their classrooms. They worried Summit was sharing their kids’ data (it is, with 19 companies at present, including Amazon and Microsoft, according to its website), or, worse, selling it. It isn’t, but given that the guy who’d helped buy them all laptops had created a $500 billion company out of vacuuming up data and creating economic value from it, it seemed reasonable to have suspicions that the learning platform backed by CZI might also be data-hungry. Concern turned into exasperation when bizarre and sometimes inappropriate images appeared on their kids’ screens on third-party websites used as reading assignments: a pot plant, a lubricant ad, and then the coup de grĂ¢ce, an ancient Roman statue of a man having sex with a goose.
Ultimately the superintendent halted the program, making Cheshire the only one out of hundreds to do so. To the program’s supporters, this makes it a fluke, the only one that never got past the learning curve. To detractors, the Cheshire parents are among the most articulate voices on Summit’s perils, the model of successful resistance.
At the beginning of 2017, kids in fifth through eighth grades were put on the program. For Lauren Peronace, the transition meant an hour of “personalized learning time” each week in math class, where they worked through “playlists,” watching videos and reading lessons, and then taking assessments whenever they felt ready. “Basically we would do the math work we would be doing with a teacher any other year — alone,” she recalled. She and I spoke in September at a coffee shop in downtown Cheshire, while her mother, who is the assistant superintendent of a neighboring district, sat beside us, tapping out emails on her phone. “I found that odd,” Lauren continued, sipping a hot chocolate. “But I was like, ‘Maybe it will work.’” But as the weeks went on, and a blue line inched across her screen showing her progress, she became more and more sure it wasn’t working.
She was outpacing many of her classmates, and so the lessons they did on other days, as a group, weren’t matching with her homework. She also felt she was retaining less than before. “It was like, Wow, I kind of miss having my teacher here to do this with me.” The mentoring sessions didn’t help, because most of the teacher’s time, understandably, went to kids who were struggling the most. Peronace says she only met with the teacher directly once a month, and even then only for a few minutes (she and her friends timed the sessions, she admitted with a giggle). “That’s when we were starting to think, ‘Is the computer taking over? What’s going on?’”
They also noticed the computer was easier to trick than a teacher. They could skip the lessons and pass the multiple-choice tests, if they were so inclined, either by making educated guesses, or by working the odds, retaking them until they answered eight out of ten questions correctly (even though the teacher would get pinged after a few consecutive failures). Other students realized they could open two separate browser tabs, one with the questions and another with the answers, and cheat their way through.
Peronace’s experience wasn’t universal — it fell in the middle of the spectrum. Another parent, Lucy Kampf, says both her son and daughter loved the program. Her daughter, a perfectionist, likes to work rapidly, then nitpick over details once the bulk of the work is done — and Summit gave her flexibility. “She didn’t feel like she was being taught by a computer, whatsoever,” Kampf said.
Then there were some horror stories. Heidi Wildstein, a pediatric nurse at Yale, said her sixth-grade son and his friends referred to the progress marker as the “blue line of death.” Sometimes it was impossible for her son to answer a test question correctly, due to glitches in the software, and as an A+ student, these moments freaked him out. “He completely — completely — fell apart,” she said. “He was clinically upset.” Some mornings, it was a battle getting him to school. Wildstein showed the software issues to the assistant superintendent, who ultimately found a solution. The situation improved, but Wildstein says the software still made her son’s class anxious and competitive.
Nothing about the platform said Silicon Valley more than the open-source approach to the “playlists.” Teachers were encouraged to customize them, to add and subtract — and Cheshire’s teachers were working on this, Superintendent Jeff Solan said in an email — but the base material was often just a bunch of links, to sites ranging from Kids Encyclopedia to SparkNotes to the BBC. I interviewed several educators who were involved in developing the platform in 2014, and when I mentioned this to one, he agreed they were “shoddy.” “We knew it,” he said. They were in such a hurry, he said, “we were just throwing things in there, that, at least from a Google search, looked reputable.”
And there was the question of data. Summit is clear about the 18 partners it shares its data with, and subjects itself to its own strong privacy agreements in addition to the legal protections around student data already in place, but parents and other locals were nonetheless concerned. “The Chromebooks were free. Nothing’s free. There’s always a reason,” said Mary Burnham, a retired educator who was part of the campaign against Summit. “If somebody’s giving you something free, chances are, they want something back, or they’re already getting something from it. As best I can tell, with Summit, it’s data.”
The Cheshire schools’ information sessions didn’t ease troubled parents’ minds. “They just tried to hush it away,” Theresa said. “I went away feeling like I had been in an infomercial — like somebody was selling me a set of knives I didn’t want or need.” (Solan told me the district planned all along to evaluate the program, via feedback from families and teachers, in addition to test scores.) A sense of urgency kicked in. If the program wasn’t suspended soon, at least until it could be assessed better, the concerned parents thought, it would spread to every grade.
These clearly aren’t the reactions Zuckerberg pictured when he started backing the program roughly four years ago.
Like several other tech barons, the Facebook CEO donates heavily these days to various “personalized learning” projects. The modern notion of personalized learning, in which lesson plans are adapted for each individual student, dates back to the Progressive era, and is the general basis for Montessori- and Waldorf-style education, but has never taken hold broadly in the U.S. It has always required teaching resources most schools simply don’t have. Zuckerberg and his colleagues believe technology can cover that gap. Zuckerberg told an audience in Lima, Peru, two years ago that he hoped to “upgrade” a majority of the country’s schools within a decade, then take the model overseas. “When you visit a school like this, it feels like the future — it feels like a start-up,” he said. “You get the feeling this is how more of the education system should work.”
His involvement with Summit started in 2014, after his wife, Priscilla Chan, toured a secondary school in Sunnyvale, California. It was part of a network of charter schools — branded Summit Public Schools — which are concentrated in the Bay Area and Washington State. Chan, a pediatrician and onetime science teacher, was intrigued by the network’s high achievement rates and by the diversity of its students.  “I walked into the school and I didn’t recognize where I was,” she told an audience at the George W. Bush Center in Dallas last year. “My question was like, ‘What is this? Where am I? Because this is what I see folks actually doing in the workplace: problem-solving on their own, applying what they’re learning in a way that’s meaningful in the real world.’”
The Summit schools are the brainchild of Diane Tavenner, a former teacher. “Every element of our schools has a deep root in research,” Tavenner told me over the phone. They aim to prepare kids for college and the job market by making them self-starters, skilled at solving problems and teaching themselves. To that end, they focus on “inquiry-based, authentic, and hands-on” methods. The software is supposed to let kids set their own pace, while the teachers give them individual coaching.
In 2011, Newsweek named Summit Preparatory Charter, the first of 11 Summit schools, one of the country’s ten “miracle high schools” for “taking students at all skill levels, from all strata, and turning out uniformly qualified graduates.” By 2014, Tavenner said, other schools had already been asking how they could replicate Summit’s model. They said, “We don’t have the tools and resources that you have,” she recalled. “How can we get what we need to do similar work?” So her staff had been working on resources they could export. Chan, after her visit, urged Zuckerberg to see the schools for himself. He was so impressed, he has said, that he immediately offered to help on the technology front.
One teacher involved in the program development, who has since left the Summit network, told me he and his colleagues loved working with the network’s original software engineer, Sam Strasser. “All of a sudden, Sam had a team with him, and it was a Facebook team,” the teacher said. “We were like, ‘Great! Sam is awesome. Give him more people.’” But as the software took shape, he said, he and his colleagues began to feel the administrators were excluding them from the conversation.
I spoke with several educators from that early group, all of whom now feel disenchanted. Some of the problems that Cheshire families would later notice were apparent early on. One teacher estimated that 30 percent of his students excelled on the new platform; they loved working at their own pace and going deeper into their favorite subjects. But near the end of the year, he said, the other 70 percent of students hadn’t advanced far enough to pass. The teachers started holding “Thursday Night Lights” sessions, where they’d stay until about 8 p.m., helping students rush through the playlists and take assessments while the information was fresh in their memories. To make up for the rest, he said, teachers found “workarounds,” like rounding up half-points in students’ grades, or coming up with reasons to excuse students from certain segments. (The other educators confirmed this.) “Looking back,” he said, “it was grade inflation, and it was cheating the system that we had spent the whole year trying to figure out and couldn’t make work.”
Another teacher told me she felt confined as an educator. She was banned, for instance, from incorporating outside reading assignments into the assessment model. “It didn’t allow me to be responsive with students,” she said. “I think it’s really ironic, because it felt like the people aspect, the relational aspect, was really taken out.” She felt uncomfortable with how much time kids were spending on screens, but she found it necessary if they were going to keep up.
Summit maintains that these early problems were simply growing pains. “When Summit Public Schools first piloted an entirely new way of doing things in the classroom, we were building a model of education that was new and different, not only to our teachers but also to our parents and students. Since those early days, the model has been refined and perfected and now, demand by teachers and families drives our growth,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “They report improvements in students that until now, have been largely missing in public education — skills like self-direction, strong work habits, and a joy of learning — all of which will serve to set students up for success long after they’ve left school. Change can be uncomfortable, but it is the only way to make important and impactful innovations.”
Nevertheless, after that bumpy first year, the model began spreading: first to a total of 19 schools besides those in the Summit network; then to 100 more in 2016. Since then, responsibility for the software tool has been transferred from Facebook to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (Summit, the charter-school group, technically still owns the software, along with the rest of the educational program, including the curricula and the teacher-training regimen.) The Summit model is now in more than 380 schools, reaching some 72,000 students. Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and the Bezos Family Foundation have also joined the donor pool.
As the school year in Connecticut went on, some parents tried to move their kids into classes that weren’t using the platform — but administrators said they couldn’t, because it would disrupt the distribution of students to teachers. A few reportedly pulled their kids from the district. And a cadre of others committed to getting the program suspended.
They created a group on Slack, the workplace messaging system, and a private forum on Facebook, where they could share links to relevant news articles and social-science research. Several posted about inappropriate material in their kids’ lessons. Often it was tame — a time-lapse image of a marijuana plant growing; a speaker in a video saying, “Now for the fun part,” before he talked about sexual reproduction — but others were worse, like the advertisement for K-Y Jelly, a lubricant, that popped up on Theresa’s son’s screen. One parent joked that they should be on the district’s payroll, for all the time they were spending screening their kids’ curricula. (To others, it all seemed overblown. “In this day and age, we can’t keep our kids from that kind of stuff,” Lucy Kampf said. A seventh-grader, she said, could learn anything she wanted about sex with just a few keystrokes.)
As controversy spilled over into the town’s primary Facebook forum, school-board meetings became packed and increasingly volatile. At a December meeting, the district asked a cop to stand guard. Theresa and others also contacted the town council, their state legislators, and the State Board of Education. “We just found ways to put pressure on and expose things,” said Mike Ulicki, who had a daughter in seventh grade. “We were trying to shine a light, as professionally as we could.”
Then Ulicki found the photo.
One evening in December, he was clicking through lessons for the coming semester. Much of his daughter’s social-studies curriculum consisted of links to websites she could read. Ulicki opened a link for the website, which is run by a veteran blogger who teaches English overseas. (“I am not professor (sic) or an expert on the subjects I write about but I have done a fair amount of reading about them,” the About page reads. “I want to apologize for the small errors and editing mistakes … I am currently a one man operation, producing a huge volume of material and editing it myself.”)
As Ulicki scrolled down the page, one picture of a statue caught his eye. He leaned closer. It was a naked man face-to-face with a massive bird, connected at the man’s crotch. Lest anyone mistake what was happening, the caption explained it: “sex with a goose.”
Ulicki posted the image on Facebook. As outraged comments multiplied on the thread, a school-board member announced he would call for a vote at the next meeting on whether to keep the program in place. But before the meeting could happen, they all received a letter from the superintendent’s office, announcing that Summit was being removed by executive order. The letter blamed “misunderstanding and misinformation within the community,” in addition to “issues in the platform.”
How much this one district’s experience speaks to the Summit project overall is debatable. To date, it’s the only one, out of several hundred districts and charter schools, that has yanked the program in response to parent protests — though at least two others, in Wisconsin and in Pennsylvania, have also introduced a non-Summit option for the disgruntled families. Jeff Solan, the Cheshire superintendent, said he wishes he’d given everyone a choice from the start. “If we had it to do over again,” he said, “we would have taken much more time to explain the change and solicit family volunteers for participation.” This seems to have helped in other districts. Lisa Prouty, a parent in San Diego County who’s become an evangelist for the program, said her son’s charter school started with just 36 students voluntarily trying it out. “We all wanted it to succeed, and we all saw that it could — and then it did,” she said. “It was just the biggest blessing for us to find it.” But having universal buy-in, she said, was critical.
Tavenner said the learning curve can be just as steep for parents as for students and teachers. She described to me how her own husband struggled when their son started the program. He was accustomed to working through math problems with their son in a textbook. “That felt comfortable, because he knew what his job was as a dad,” Tavenner said. “He knew what it meant to be a parent in the former model.” It took time to get used to watching online videos with his son and learning side by side. That initial frustration, Tavenner believes, drives a lot of of the parents’ angst. She said similar complaints usually cease after a semester or two. “It’s a very small number who are concerned,” she said, but social media can make their numbers seem inflated.
Tavenner said the organization does conduct research on outcomes, but it has never done aggregate surveys of families’ and teachers’ opinions — let alone had aggregate independent surveys done — because it’s more focused on helping schools meet their individual goals. Nor is there much empirical, independent research on how Summit is working in terms of student achievement, mental health, and other metrics — but then, this is true for all the “personalized learning” programs being pushed by tech billionaires. John Pane, a scientist at the RAND Corporation who has studied the matter more extensively than anyone, said the conditions haven’t been ideal yet for a large-scale test. In general, Pane has noticed some slight improvements in math learning among personalized-learning classrooms, but in some schools he’s seen drops. Still, he said, as these programs go, Summit appears to be better than most. He appreciates that it’s transparent about the science that went into its design, and that it offers schools an array of resources.
As for the data concerns, it does seem reasonable for parents to worry, because whatever legal protections a given tech company offers, you only need to read the news to know how often even major companies suffer damaging data breaches. Summit deserves credit for listing the 18 “partners” with whom it shares children’s information and for promising that schools and parents “own” the data at the end of the day. It has signed on, along with CZI, to the Student Privacy Pledge (which holds both organizations to legally enforceable standards). I asked Elana Zeide, a leading expert on student privacy and a visiting scholar at UCLA, to scrutinize the current agreements, and she concluded that they’re about as strong as anyone could hope for. She pointed out that Summit is also subject to state and federal privacy laws that apply specifically to groups that receive students’ personal information from schools. “I do think they’re acting in good faith,” she said. She sees no reason to think they’re selling data.
But any connected classroom poses security risks. In 2017, the FBI announced major security lapses at two large education-technology companies, leading to the release of millions of students’ data. In one case the data was accidentally opened to the public, and in the other it was posted for sale on the dark web. And last month, nearly 50 million Facebook users had their accounts hacked, the biggest breach in the company’s history. Tavenner said Summit takes pains to protect data, and only shares it with companies that make similar commitments. Time will tell how secure it really is.