[Marxism] Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 21 17:21:15 MDT 2019

NY Times, April 21, 2019
Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion.
By Nellie Bowles

WELLINGTON, Kan. — The seed of rebellion was planted in classrooms. It 
grew in kitchens and living rooms, in conversations between students and 
their parents.

It culminated when Collin Winter, 14, an eighth grader in McPherson, 
Kan., joined a classroom walkout in January. In the nearby town of 
Wellington, high schoolers staged a sit-in. Their parents organized in 
living rooms, at churches and in the back of machine repair shops. They 
showed up en masse to school board meetings. In neighborhoods with no 
political yard signs, homemade signs with dark red slash marks suddenly 
popped up.

Silicon Valley had come to small-town Kansas schools — and it was not 
going well.

“I want to just take my Chromebook back and tell them I’m not doing it 
anymore,” said Kallee Forslund, 16, a 10th grader in Wellington.

Eight months earlier, public schools near Wichita had rolled out a 
web-based platform and curriculum from Summit Learning. The Silicon 
Valley-based program promotes an educational approach called 
“personalized learning,” which uses online tools to customize education. 
The platform that Summit provides was developed by Facebook engineers. 
It is funded by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and his 
wife, Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician.

Many families in the Kansas towns, which have grappled with underfunded 
public schools and deteriorating test scores, initially embraced the 
change. Under Summit’s program, students spend much of the day on their 
laptops and go online for lesson plans and quizzes, which they complete 
at their own pace. Teachers assist students with the work, hold 
mentoring sessions and lead special projects. The system is free to 
schools. The laptops are typically bought separately.

Then, students started coming home with headaches and hand cramps. Some 
said they felt more anxious. One child began having a recurrence of 
seizures. Another asked to bring her dad’s hunting earmuffs to class to 
block out classmates because work was now done largely alone.

“We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like 
zombies,” said Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, who 
visited his son’s fourth-grade class. In October, he pulled the 
10-year-old out of the school.

“Change rarely comes without some bumps in the road,” said Gordon Mohn, 
McPherson’s superintendent of schools. He added, “Students are becoming 
self-directed learners and are demonstrating greater ownership of their 
learning activities.”

John Buckendorf, Wellington High School’s principal, said the “vast 
majority of our parents are happy with the program.”

The resistance in Kansas is part of mounting nationwide opposition to 
Summit, which began trials of its system in public schools four years 
ago and is now in around 380 schools and used by 74,000 students. In 
Brooklyn, high school students walked out in November after their school 
started using Summit’s platform. In Indiana, Pa., after a survey by 
Indiana University of Pennsylvania found 70 percent of students wanted 
Summit dropped or made optional, the school board scaled it back and 
then voted this month to terminate it. And in Cheshire, Conn., the 
program was cut after protests in 2017.

“When there are frustrating situations, generally kids get over them, 
parents get over them, and they all move on,” said Mary Burnham, who has 
two grandchildren in Cheshire’s school district and started a petition 
to end Summit’s use. “Nobody got over this.”

Silicon Valley has tried to remake American education in its own image 
for years, even as many in tech eschew gadgets and software at home and 
flood into tech-free schools. Summit has been part of the leading edge 
of the movement, but the rebellion raises questions about a heavy 
reliance on tech in public schools.

For years, education experts have debated the merits of self-directed, 
online learning versus traditional teacher-led classrooms. Proponents 
argue that programs like Summit provide children, especially those in 
underserved towns, access to high-quality curriculums and teachers. 
Skeptics worry about screen time and argue that students miss out on 
important interpersonal lessons.

Diane Tavenner, a former teacher and Summit’s chief executive, founded a 
series of public charter schools starting in 2003 called Summit Public 
Schools and began developing software to use in the classrooms so that 
students could “unlock the power within themselves.” The resulting 
program, Summit Learning, is spinning out into a new nonprofit called 
T.L.P. Education. Ms. Tavenner said the Kansas protests were largely 
about nostalgia.

“There’s people who don’t want change. They like the schools the way 
they are,” she said. “The same people who don’t like Summit have been 
the sort of vocal opposition to change throughout the process.”

Summit chose not to be part of a study after paying the Harvard Center 
for Education Policy Research to design one in 2016. Tom Kane, the 
Harvard professor preparing that assessment, said he was wary of 
speaking out against Summit because many education projects receive 
funding from Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan’s philanthropic organization, 
the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Mr. Zuckerberg backed Summit in 2014 and assigned five Facebook 
engineers to develop the software. In 2015, he wrote that Summit’s 
program would help “meet the student’s individual needs and interests” 
and that technology “frees up time for teachers to do what they do best 
— mentor students.” Since 2016, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has 
committed $99.1 million in grants to Summit.

In a statement, Abby Lunardini, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s chief 
communications officer, said, “We take the issues raised very seriously, 
and Summit has been working with school leaders and parents on the 
ground to address them.” She added that many schools that used Summit 
“love and support the program.”

Few places better illustrate the reaction to Summit than the central 
Kansas towns of Wellington (population 8,000) and McPherson (population 
13,000). The towns are surrounded by wheat fields and factories. 
Residents work in farming, at a nearby oil refinery or at aircraft parts 
manufacturing plants.

In 2015, Kansas announced that it would support education “moon shots” 
like “personalized learning.” Two years later, it picked school district 
“astronauts,” including McPherson and Wellington. When parents received 
brochures promising “personalized learning,” many were thrilled. The 
school districts’ leaders selected Summit.

“We wanted to get every kid on an even playing field,” said Brian 
Kynaston, a dentist in McPherson and school board member, adding that it 
helped that Summit was free.

He said he liked Summit’s program. His daughter, Kelcie, 14, said she 
felt self-directed. “Everyone is judging it too quickly,” he said.

Mr. Koenig, the factory supervisor, said: “You want your kids to be 
innovators. You want them to be on the cutting edge of what’s next.”

When this school year started, children got laptops to use Summit 
software and curriculums. In class, they sat at the computers working 
through subjects from math to English to history. Teachers told students 
that their role was now to be a mentor.

Parents of special-needs students noticed problems immediately. Amy 
Jackson, a night-shift nurse in Wellington, has a daughter, Megan, 12, 
who has epilepsy and whose neurologist recommended she limit screen time 
to 30 minutes a day to reduce seizures. Since the school started using 
Summit, Megan has had seizures multiple times a day.

In Wellington’s town square, residents wrote their opposition to Summit 
on storefront windows.CreditAnna Petrow for The New York Times
In September, some students stumbled onto questionable content while 
working in the Summit platform, which often directs them to click on 
links to the open web.

In one class covering Paleolithic history, Summit included a link to an 
article in The Daily Mail, the British newspaper, that showed racy ads 
with bikini-clad women. For a list of the Ten Commandments, two parents 
said their children were directed to a Christian conversion site.

Ms. Tavenner said building a curriculum from the open internet meant 
that a Daily Mail article was fair game for lesson plans. “The Daily 
Mail is written at a very low reading level,” she said, later adding 
that it was a bad link to include. She added that as far as she was 
aware, Summit’s curriculum did not send students to a Christian 
conversion site.

Around the country, teachers said they were split on Summit. Some said 
it freed them from making lesson plans and grading quizzes so they had 
more time for individual students. Others said it left them as 
bystanders. Some parents said they worried about their children’s data 

“Summit demands an extraordinary amount of personal information about 
each student and plans to track them through college and beyond,” said 
Leonie Haimson, co-chairwoman of the Parent Coalition for Student 
Privacy, a national organization.

Summit says it complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

By winter, many McPherson and Wellington students were fed up. While 
Summit’s program asks schools to commit to having students meet weekly 
in person with teachers for at least 10 minutes, some children said the 
sessions lasted around two minutes or did not happen.

Myriland French, 16, a student at Wellington’s high school, said she had 
developed eye strain and missed talking to teachers and students in 
class. “Everyone is more stressed now,” she said.

“Everyone is more stressed now,” said Myriland French, 16. She developed 
eye strain while using Summit’s program, she said, and misses talking to 
teachers and students in class.CreditAnna Petrow for The New York Times
Collin Winter, the eighth grader in McPherson, said he had joined the 
January class walkout with about 50 other students. “I was scared a 
little bit,” he said of participating. “But I still felt good to be 
doing something.”

One recent evening in Wellington, a dozen parents and students held an 
organizing meeting in the back of a machine workshop owned by Tom 
Henning, a local parent. Chris Smalley, a machinist with two children, 
ages 13 and 16, attended. Mr. Smalley had put up bigger and bigger yard 
signs in front of his house, even though he knew Mr. Zuckerberg was 
unlikely to drive by and see them. They were red, with a slash across 
the word “Summit.”

“It sounded great, what they sold us,” Mr. Smalley said. “It was the 
worst lemon car that we’ve ever bought.”

Deanna Garver, a church secretary whose sons are in second and eighth 
grades, had also made a yard sign. It read: “Don’t Plummet With Summit.”

After the fall semester last year, about a dozen parents in Wellington 
pulled their children out of public school, said Kevin Dodds, a city 
councilman. In McPherson, Mr. Koenig and his wife, Meggan, enrolled 
their two children in a Catholic school, using money saved for a kitchen 
remodel and vacation.

“We’re not Catholic,” Mrs. Koenig said. “But we just felt like it would 
be a lot easier to have a discussion over dinner about something that 
they might have heard in a religion class than Summit.”

Nearly 40 more families plan on taking their children out of public 
school by this summer, Mr. Dodds said.

“We’re out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “So we’re the guinea pigs.”

Follow Nellie Bowles on Twitter: @NellieBowles.

Natasha Singer contributed reporting.

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