Making Schools Business-Like: The Case of Summit Charters (Part 3)

Many educators use business-speak. Students are customers. Principals and superintendents are CEOs. School board members ask staff what the return on investment is. Another common phrase educators use borrowed from the corporate community, especially when seeking dollars from donors, is “scaling up.”

Going to scale is what occurs when an innovation “works” (in quote marks for the word has different meanings to different people) and donors or high-ups want to spread the “success” (ditto for this word also) to other schools in the district, state, and nation.

The history of diffusion of innovation–that is the phrase that academics have used–is a checkered one. Some innovations have, indeed, spread (think of the mid-19th century age-graded school and early 20th century kindergartens, and small high schools later in the century) but when an innovation is complex with many moving parts, permeable to outside forces, and dependent on relationships with teachers, students and parents for the program to work, then scaling up is damn hard to do. Variation in putting the innovation into practice occurs frequently making it difficult to impossible to assess whether the new model or innovation caused changes in student and teacher outcomes. Recall what has happened to the innovative New Math in the 1960s or the Common Core standards in the past decade.

And that is the story captured by recent articles on what has happened to the Summit Learning Program for “personalized learning” (ditto again) that Summit charter schools have given away free to many schools and districts. Donors gave a pile of money to Summit schools to prepare the high-tech tool and transfer the model elsewhere in the nation. Keep in mind that these pieces come from an intricate, organic, and complex operation deeply dependent upon teachers, a complicated weekly schedule, mentoring, a software tool that becomes a dashboard for each student’s work, and frequent enrichment activities. Also that parents choose to send their sons and daughters to the schools (see David Patterson’s comment below). Teachers’ expertise and relationships with students are at the core of the 11 Summit Charter Schools. The Summit Learning Program–the components and tools given away to schools and districts–is the skeleton of the program bundle. Unbundling a complex operation into its constituent parts of an interconnected whole  and claiming that it can individualize learning and make students “successful” (ditto again) is as close to magical thinking as any prior effort to “scaling up” innovations, what business-driven entrepreneurs strive for.

The Summit Learning Program

The program promises personalized learning:

Summit Learning gives every student:

  • Support from a caring mentor
  • Life skills that they can apply to real-world situations
  • An ability to use self-direction to develop self-confidence, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and prepare themselves for life after graduation

What is the program?

Summit Learning seeks to replicate each aspect of the Summit high schools in California and Washington. Or as the website says:

Creating a Summit Learning environment requires a fundamental change to the way teachers and students approach learning, so enthusiasm and a growth mindset are critical. Everything from grading policies and assessments to bell schedules and how teachers and students spend their time will need to be thoughtfully designed to create the conditions for successful implementation.

Subject matter embedded in the projects within which students work span four academic subjects. Directions and help to introduce teacher mentoring of individual students, altering the calendar and schedule, and providing student self-direction are part of the package given to schools.

Student self-direction comes from a software platform (using Clever software) that provides teachers and students with nearly 200 projects connected to the world outside the classroom (see here), a dashboard that shows each student’s goals, and their individual progress in completing current projects. The platform dashboard is accessible to parents also (see overview video).



To achieve the Summit model’s transfer of content knowledge, skills, and personalizing of learning to schools enlisting in the program, each school/district has to make an explicit commitment to Summit Learning, make the requisite changes in how the school (or pilot) is organized and, move expeditiously to putting the program into practice. Summit Learning trains teacher teams a few times a year and provides coaches to help teams implement the new program, schedule, and use of software (see here).

The rollout of the program has been documented extensively (see here and here).

As of 2018, according to the Summit Learning website, it is in 330 schools  working with nearly 2500 teachers and serving 54,000 students. Promotional videos show its entry and use in, for example, the Pasadena (TX) district serving 56,000 students (see here).

Media accounts, of course, also describe those schools and districts where parents and students object, walkout, or dump the program (see here, here, and here). Keep in mind that program implementation of innovations adopted in schools within a district and  across other districts historically has encountered stumbles and disasters. No news there. In this instance, thus far, donors’ deep pockets continue to fund Summit Learning to “scale up” and spread the Summit model across the U.S.

So what is Summit Learning’s effort to replicate its apparent success in high schools and “scale up” a case of?

Is it the business model of franchising McDonalds or 7/11s across the country? No, it is not. Franchisees have to invest their money into franchise and must follow the requirements of the franchiser or risk losing the investment.

Summit Learning is free to schools and districts. Schools and districts have to agree to follow terms but there are no penalties for adapting program components.

Is it the careful, tightly controlled expansion of “Success for All,” an elementary school program located in low-income and minority neighborhoods to insure fidelity to the model (see here)?. No, it is not.

Success for All requires fidelity to the model dropping sites that omit components, adapt elements, and, in general, do not follow the implementation plan.  Success for All has a blueprint that expects schools entering the program to follow.

So what is Summit Learning’s effort to “scale up” a case of?

As I read the background and history of Summit Learning and its launch, the outreach program to replicate Summit High Schools in many other U.S. schools is a case of seeing the problem of personalizing learning in schooling, especially for low-income minority youth as a technical problem that can be fixed inexpensively by adopting a working model that seemingly “succeeded” in 11 high schools in two states.

The cost of replicating the entire model of Summit schooling with its many inter-connected components to many schools is extremely high (the Summit network has not released actual and total per-pupil costs of running the program). Summit Learning then–donors and boosters believe–is an inexpensive way of solving the problem of high schools individualizing teaching and learning and reaping the benefits of increased academic achievement, graduation rates, and college admissions as has occurred in the original model in the San Francisco Bay area. Summit Learning is a low-cost, efficient ways of transforming teaching and learning.  It reeks of the Silicon Valley magical thinking that any social, political, economic problem can be solved technologically.

But I could be wrong. The growing resistance to Summit Learning documented in media articles could just as well be a case of schools and districts coming face-to-face with the historic and persistent grammar of schooling that has pervaded U.S. public schools for nearly two centuries. The next series of posts examines the possibility that resistance to Summit Learning involves the grammar of schooling.









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6 responses to “Making Schools Business-Like: The Case of Summit Charters (Part 3)

  1. David J Patterson

    The Summit approach is significantly different, on purpose. Those parents and students who attend Summit Schools do so because they choose to do so. No one is forced to enroll. And the schools are clear about what is needed from a student to be successful. As I have read about students and parents that are protesting in other places, it appears that students are being placed in a Summit style learning environment, without it being their choice.

    The Summit learning approach may or may not be the “right” choice for one student or another. What is clear to me that parents and students need to be able to CHOOSE an educational choice they believe is best for their student. I have seen too many times a district or school impose a new program, approach or structure without having buy in from teachers and families – and impose it on all students (and teachers) – even though, in my experience, no one approach meets the needs of all students.

    Educate teachers and families about the approach, get buy in, and provide choice, that seems to me to be a better approach.

    • larrycuban

      Nice point, David. Much of the resistance to Summit Learning noted in media may well be due to simple fact that school officials adopted the program before parents were fully informed and had a choice.

  2. Grace M. Hoagland

    So glad to see this! Hope you sent it to the NYT as a corrective to their extraordinarily irresponsible reporting from two midwestern farm towns. And I think you are right about the grammar of schooling – which goes into visceral territory.
    Bless you!

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