Facebook Charter School Collaboration Draws Fans and Skeptics

A $120 million investment in Bay Area schools by Mark Zuckerberg has spawned a national teaching platform Facebook offers schools for free. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is three years into his second big investment in education reform, after his first investment of $100 million in Newark public schools was widely criticized as being a waste of money. He’s given $120 million to invest in Bay Area schools, but this time he’s choosing to work with programs already claiming success. One is a Bay Area-based network of charter schools called Summit that says it’s redefining how teachers teach.

Summit founder Diane Tavenner founded the first school in Redwood City in 2003 after spending 10 years as a teacher. After having grown up in a poor town near Lake Tahoe and seeing many of her classmates not graduate from high school, she wanted to create a school where students would be engaged in their learning and finish successfully.

Her idea was to create a program where students meet grade-level goals, but manage their own time and learn lessons to hit those goals -- basically taking tests and completing projects when they feel ready.

“Personalized learning, at its heart, is about a student owning and driving their own learning," Tavenner explains. "And  connecting their future to  what they’re doing every day."

It was a fresh idea, but it started out with a low technology threshold to support it.

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“Over the years we got better and technology got better. Those Word docs became PDFs and then Google Docs," she says.

At first, Summit teachers were personalizing learning the old-fashioned way -- using worksheets to keep track of students' progress.

As her charter network expanded from its single Redwood City location to more locations in California and Washington, they needed a better way to share data. In 2012, she hired an engineer to create a platform all her schools could use -- students, teachers and parents alike, from anywhere.

Then in 2014, lightning struck. Mark Zuckerberg showed up to tour a Summit school.

“Mark said to me, 'Can I meet your engineering team?' And I said ‘Oh, sure, here’s Sam,’ and he said, 'Just one?' " Tavenner recalls. “And he said, ‘What you’re doing is really important, and I’d love to help you. What Facebook does well is engineering, so how about we give you some engineering support so you can make this better?’ ”

Students mill about the atrium of Summit Prep in Redwood City.
Students mill about the atrium of Summit Prep in Redwood City. (Sarah Tan/KQED)

Zuckerberg put a team of engineers to work inside Summit. Today, the schools can process student data on the spot. Teachers get up-to-the-minute feedback about how quickly students are learning, and they can also talk directly to the engineers about how they’d like the program shaped to better meet their classroom needs.

In National Rollout, One Size Does Not Fit All

Today, more than 100 schools across the country use the Facebook-Summit platform free of cost. Oakland Urban Promise Academy is one of those schools.

Veteran Oakland teacher Lisa Hiltbrand said the program has given her more time to respond individually to students, but it hasn’t been without problems.

"The majority of our students are second-language learners, and many of them are reading multiple years below grade level,” Hiltbrand says. “So we’ve had to do a lot of modification around that.”

For students, the program can take some getting used to. Edgar Anaya is a senior at a Summit school in Redwood City who has been working in Summit’s personalized learning setting for three years.

“In middle school, my teacher kind of told me what to do. There was always that guidance there. Transitioning to Summit, it was more on me to do my work,” Anaya says. "I was falling behind, and it wasn’t really anyone’s fault but mine.”

He adds that he will definitely continue to use the skills he’s learned at Summit after he graduates.

“Next year, I’ll be a freshman in college, and I think it’s a great way to hold myself accountable,  focus my learning on what I want,” he says.

Facebook isn’t the only company helping schools develop programs to connect parents, students and teachers. Companies like Blackboard and Khan Academy offer ways for students to learn online at their own pace, and also give teachers and parents a way to check in on a student’s progress. Some charge schools to use their platform; some don't.

Critics Worry About Student Data Mining

Michael Feldstein, an education technology consultant at MindWires Consulting, says the term “personalized learning" is overhyped.

“The first thing you need to understand about the industry is 'personalized learning' is a marketing term,” he says.

He adds that although Facebook’s intentions with Summit seem well-meaning, the program does collect a lot of data about students.

“It’s important with any system like this to have a very clear, legally binding understanding of what will and will not happen with that data. And it’s even more important where the company’s motivation isn’t clear,” Feldstein says.

His business partner, Phil Hill, likewise cautions people against thinking of the Facebook-Summit platform, or any personalized learning platform, as a silver bullet.

“Technology shows a lot of promise: real opportunity, real need,” Hill says of classrooms today. But the technology should serve the needs of excellent teachers. “This isn’t magic technology, it’s technology enabling teaching.”

While both agree that they believe Facebook’s venture with Summit is philanthropic at the moment, they say it’s good to keep a healthy amount of skepticism as this new education platform is rolled out across the country.