Academic journal article Education Next

Pacesetter in Personalized Learning: Summit Charter Network Shares Its Model Nationwide

Academic journal article Education Next

Pacesetter in Personalized Learning: Summit Charter Network Shares Its Model Nationwide

Article excerpt


A group of 7th graders discuss their ideas.

Nearby, a student named Ferdinand is modifying a swallow so the bird can survive in the video-game fantasy world he's designed on the computer. "I'm giving it spiked feathers," he says with a grin. "My world has insane predators."

Some students are working in pairs. Others are on their Chromebooks. The classroom is abuzz with activity.

"They know what to do," says Brandy Holton, who teaches 7th-grade science, social studies, and English at the Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Irving Park, which serves grades K-8. "That never would have happened before."

What accounts for the change? The charter's middle school is one of 130 schools nationwide piloting the Summit Learning Program (SLP), developed--and offered entirely free--by Summit Public Schools, a high-performing charter network based in California. Summit's eight schools, two of them in Washington State, are known for an approach that emphasizes both project-based and self-paced learning as well as the development of cognitive skills. In 2015, the network started sharing its model with schools throughout the country in an effort to improve their methods and spread their ideas.

The tech mainstay of Summit's model is an online platform that the network developed with engineering help from Facebook. It comes loaded with a comprehensive, teacher-created curriculum, ideas for student projects, and assessments for grades 5 through 12 in core academic subjects.

Students master academic content through personalized learning, choosing from "playlists" made of such learning tools as Khan Academy videos, BrainPOP animations, guided practice problems, interactive exercises, websites, and texts. They take tests when they feel ready, moving on to new content when they've achieved mastery. A blue line on the student's dashboard shows whether he or she is progressing at the expected pace.

Technology is only part of Summit's model. Students spend most of their time learning cognitive skills and concepts through individual and collaborative "deeper learning" projects. Ninth graders create scientific experiments to measure the impact of technology waste on the environment; 7th graders explore the Civil Rights movement by examining injustices in their own communities.

Teachers work one-on-one with students, helping them set short-term and long-term goals and develop "habits of success," such as self-management, responsible decision making, and persistence.


Compared to her students of past years, this year's pupils are much more mature and self-directed by midyear, says Holton, a fourth-year teacher. They no longer act as if "the only way to learn is through the teacher."

Holton has changed, too. "I step back and let the students do the heavy lifting," she says.

Preparing for Change

In the summer of 2016, CICS Irving Park sent its middle-school teachers to Summit's Everest Public High School in Redwood City, California, for a week of intensive training. This, too, is offered free of charge, as is mentoring for teachers and school leaders and technical support throughout the school year.

In exchange for the free services, partner schools are testing how the platform works in a variety of settings, adapting it to their needs, and sharing their improvements. About 70 percent of participants are traditional public schools, 25 percent are charters, and 5 percent are private schools, said Lizzie Choi, chief program officer at Summit, who runs the SLP. There are pilot schools in 27 states, from Rhode Island to California. Some serve prosperous communities, others enroll primarily immigrants, and a few serve only special-needs students. Summit started with 19 partner schools in 2015-16 and added more than 100 new schools the following year. Typically, schools begin by implementing the Summit model at a single grade level, then add another grade the following year. …

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