This month marks the four-year anniversary of Summit Learning, a program that aims to personalize learning for students with an emphasis on projects, mentorship and technologies that help them build skills and self-initiative.
Grown out of a small pilot in 2015, the program began as an experiment. Few were sure how it would be received or who would want to adopt it. In that first year, 19 schools gave it a try. Today, as the program enters its fifth academic year, 380 schools across 38 states and Washington, D.C. have adopted the model.
Accompanying that growth is a bigger spotlight—and louder detractors. Over the years, Summit Learning has encountered resistance as opposition among parents and students in Brooklyn, Connecticut and Kansas attracted plenty of coverage. Chief among their concerns is that the program relies too heavily on the technology platform, resulting in extra screen time for students at the expense of face-to-face time with teachers.
Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University who has documented his many visits inside Summit Public Schools, says the critiques are not unique to Summit. “When there is a lot of support for some kind of innovation that makes a big splash in the media, and then other districts clamor for it and school boards want it, then all of a sudden there is opposition that arises,” Cuban tells EdSurge. “That pattern is what I see in Summit.”
Cuban says that what everyone loved about Summit Public Schools—the network of charter schools launched in California and Washington in 2003 that helped build the Summit Learning program—in those early days was not fully captured in the platform that arose from it.
“A lot of people wanted to take what apparently is a success at Summit [Public Schools] to spread that success to other schools,” he says. “So they take a piece of the entire Summit experience and disseminate it” with the help of an online instructional platform. “But the Summit experience is far greater than the platform itself.”
Summit Learning is also not for everyone. As Chalkbeat reported, about 18 percent of schools that tried it one year dropped it the next. But by and large, says Andrew Goldin, who now oversees the program, schools that stick with Summit are satisfied.
In 2018, Summit Public Schools announced it would spin off the Summit Learning program as a separate nonprofit, TLP Education. (The acronym stands for Teachers, Learners and Partners). Goldin, who previously served as the chief program officer at Summit Public Schools, became the executive director of TLP on June 1, when the nonprofit officially launched, and now leads its team of 90.
Andrew Goldin took the helm of TLP Education on June 1. (Summit Learning)
As they enter this next chapter, Goldin recently spoke with EdSurge about the future of Summit Learning, and how the organization plans to address the challenges and concerns that have emerged. What follows are highlights from the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Help me understand the launch of TLP Education. Is it merely a rebranding?
Andrew Goldin: This transition is not semantic. It’s not about branding. TLP is a separate organization that formed in fall 2018 to partner with teachers and schools who are using the Summit Learning program.
It’s not affiliated with Summit Public Schools. If there’s a connection, it’s that there is some licensing that we do of some of the materials to run the Summit Learning program. And Summit Public Schools continues to be participants in the Summit Learning program. But as a completely separate organization, that’s what this transition is. So I’m in a new role at a new organization overseeing it.
As the Summit Learning program has grown so much in the past four years, how are you thinking about growth for the upcoming school year? Do you expect to scale even faster?
The program has grown entirely based on educator demand. So we want to make sure that for schools and districts that have made the commitment to Summit Learning, who have done the work to get their teams ready, that we’re there to support them and think through what it takes to set them up for success. Setting those conditions for success has been such a huge part of our learning. We’ll be a guide, if at all possible, through that process.
We don’t do any real, proactive sort of growth initiatives because with the growth that we have, it’s enough to keep us busy. Also, it’s important for us to make sure that we’re seeing how the materials that we’re developing based on what we’re learning from educators are received in new schools.
We’ll continue to try to be responsive to schools that seek us out. That’s how this program was started, with schools asking, “How can we do what you guys have learned how to do?” We’ll continue to ask a lot of questions about their readiness, what they’ve done to create a vision for innovation at their school, and how they’re thinking about bringing their community on board with Summit.
That does take some resources to make sure we can effectively prepare them. We want to make sure that they’re really able to execute and make summer training worth it, and make it as valuable as possible. Our daily focus is on providing the best support for the strongest implementation across the schools. No one on the team who focuses on working with schools to implement has to balance their time with thinking about the future of how many schools we’ll have.
In the future, maybe we’ll have a different answer. But right now that’s where our focus is.
What are the important questions that you ask every school before they commit to the program?
When districts come to me and say, “Hey, I’m interested in learning more,” I ask, “How did you hear about us? Why are you interested?” I want to understand that because I want to make sure that they’ve done really strong internal work as a district team or a school team to decide what they want to be in the next few years.
Education is something that we all are used to looking like and sounding like a particular way.
What is it about their school that they’re looking to keep the same? What do they want to change? How do they envision research-backed approaches fitting in with their local vision? I want to make sure we are hitting on those points when people ask us questions.
People say, “We’ve had this internal conversation, we’ve researched what programs exist, and it seems like, preliminarily, Summit Learning fits the bill. How can we find out more?” And, like I said, it’s typically around, “We want to shift to project-based learning,” or “We really want to have a focus on differentiation; we’ve tried other things but it hasn’t become a robust set of practices.”
Again, every school has its own tune here, but those are the things I’m probably hearing most often.
Some schools are not taking as well to the program. What is the source of these flare-ups that we hear about?
The vast majority of schools are taking to the implementation, finding success, and creating plans that keep everyone onboard and understanding the pieces of the program.
Education is something that we all are used to looking like and sounding like a particular way. It is certainly hard, comprehensive work to explain the differences to folks and make sure our implementations are as strong as possible. We have spent time really trying to hone in on the conditions that make a school ready to kick this off successfully. We’ve learned a lot about those conditions, and we’ve made adjustments to our application, prework and training to be as responsive to that as possible.
We also want to make sure that school and district leaders are equipped to explain to the community the changes that they’re making. Because it’s understandable that people are going to have questions when things are changing. And we want to make sure that teachers and district leaders and principals alike feel equipped to answer those questions so that parents, students and teachers can stay connected to the central vision for the change that they’re doing. And when they do have concerns, there’s someone on campus who can talk them through those and understand them in as much detail as possible.
So there’s lots to learn there, there’s lots of diversity of experiences. But we are feeling like we have learned a ton about the conditions that let schools be successful, and a lot about how our support can make sure that this is translatable, smooth and consistent.
Have you changed the criteria for accepting a school that is interested in adopting the program? Have you raised the bar or added steps to make sure each school is ready?
We have certainly refined the application, onboarding, training and support process based on what we have learned about how a school can be set up to do this most effectively. We have spent more and more time trying to understand the district’s local vision for their community. We want to make sure that they have a clear vision and understand the ways in which Summit Learning can be part of that vision.
We are feeling like we have learned a ton about the conditions that let schools be successful.
We didn’t ask that question as specifically when we started. Remember, we started with schools knocking on our door saying, “Hey, we’ve heard about what you all are doing. Can you share it?” And we’ve really tried to transition into saying we’ve learned a ton about what an effective implementation takes.
If we’re going to be that partner for you down the line, we want to be really upfront and honest about what we think it’s going to take to get there and what questions you need to have asked and answered within the community in order to do this effectively.
Have you ever pulled the program from a school? Or how do you handle it when it’s not working? What sort of remedies do you put in place?
I get to lead a team of educators—former teachers, school leaders, district leaders—and if we’re having conversations with a school that is committed but struggling, we have a shared language and a shared understanding of what it takes to lead that school. We aspire to be the type of partner that can say, “This is what it takes to do this fully. Are you in a position to be able to do this?” We ask those hard questions. We try to ask them before the implementation starts, but things change.
This is a complicated sector. Unfortunately, principals shift and teachers leave and things happen in a district. We’re working in a system that is constantly changing, and as a result, we are constantly trying to be responsive. When it is relevant, we do ask the questions: “Is this still working for you? Is this still your vision, and are you feeling set up to execute this program right now, the way that it was designed and the way that we talked about doing it in the past?”
We have that as an open, clear conversation. We have those conversations throughout the year, and then in the winter and spring when schools are making decisions about the future. “Are we going to stick with this? Are we going to grow? How are we going to scale?” We try to give a really clear dose of feedback at that point. Our intention is that’s not a surprise; we’ve been talking to you throughout the process.
The last thing I’ll say: We sign an agreement with the school in which we articulate a set of expectations that we have, and we make it clear that we expect those programmatic features to be in place in order for us to stay in the partnership. It’s important for us to articulate an agreement so that schools understand where we stand and that is never shifting.
The thing I never want a school partner or a principal or a district leader to feel is that we have changed who we are, what we’ve asked of them, and what we can support. We try to be super consistent about that throughout the process.