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Parents cite student privacy concerns with popular online education platform


A year ago Washington Post reporters Emma Brown and Todd C. Frankel wrote a story about an educational tool called Summit Learning Platform. It started this way:

Caroline Pollock Bilicki felt uneasy about the new education program introduced this year at her children’s Chicago school.
Summit Basecamp, built with the help of Facebook engineers, was billed as a powerful tool that could reshape how students learn. Dozens of schools nationwide have signed up to use the program, which tailors lessons to individual students using software that tracks their progress.
But it also captures a stream of data, and Bilicki had to sign a consent form for her children to participate, allowing their personal data to be shared with companies such as Facebook and Google. That data, the form said, could include names, email addresses, schoolwork, grades and Internet activity. Summit Basecamp promised to limit its use of the information — barring it from being used, for example, to deliver targeted ads — but Bilicki agonized over whether to sign the form.
“I’m not comfortable with having my kids’ personally identifiable information going to I don’t even know where, to be used for I’m not sure what,” she said.

Things have evolved since then, and this post is an update about continuing concerns among parents about the Summit Learning Platform. This was written by Leonie Haimson, co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy and an education advocate, who successfully led the battle to stop nine states from disclosing their personal student data to inBloom. It was designed to be a massive student database, with the goal of more easily sharing this information with for-profit data-mining vendors and other third parties without parent notification or consent. She can be reached at the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy at

After repeatedly asking the high-performing charter-school network Summit Public Schools to answer questions about the platform, a spokeswoman pointed to a new student privacy policy on the website but did not answer any of the questions. A spokesman for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative referred me to Summit.

A longer version of this article with more comments from parents and students at schools using the Summit program is posted here.

The astonishing amount of data being collected about your children

By Leonie Haimson

In October, The Washington Post published an article on its front page about the “personalized” online learning platform that Summit charter schools and Facebook developed in collaboration. This platform, called Summit Basecamp, is a learning management system complete with a curriculum, including projects, online resources and tests.

Summit says that the program has been adopted in about 130 schools across the country, both public and charter schools. About 38 percent of schools using the platform are middle schools, 24 percent high schools, 13 percent elementary schools, and the rest are K-12 or K-8 schools. Summit was recently awarded a $10 million grant from the Emerson Collective, run by Laurene Powell Jobs, to “reinvent” the high school by starting a new school in Oakland that will run an expanded version of its online learning platform.

In March, it was announced that the operation and further development of the Summit online platform would be transferred from Facebook to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the for-profit LLC owned by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, with billions of dollars at its disposal. At about the same time, Summit decided it would no longer ask for parent consent before collecting and re-disclosing their children’s personal data. The Washington Post article reported primarily on parent concerns with their children’s lack of data privacy at these schools, as the Summit parental consent formPrivacy Policy and Terms of Service were astonishingly open-ended — essentially providing Summit with the ability to share student data with nearly anyone they choose.

Facebook-backed school software shows promise — and raises privacy concerns

Over the course of the 2016-2017 school year, some parents in several states rebelled against the platform, both because of its lack of privacy and because they saw a negative impact on their children’s learning and attitudes to school.

After The Post article appeared, I expanded on the privacy concerns cited in that piece, and pointed out additional issues in my blog. I included a list of questions that parents should ask Summit to clarify their data-sharing plans. Parents who sent them to Summit informed me that Summit failed to answer these questions. (I later added more questions, and Rachael Stickland, co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, submitted them to Summit representatives after personally meeting them at SXSW EDU conference in March 2017. She also received no response.)

On Aug. 1, Summit updated its Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, although confusingly the original versions remain online as well (here and here). The new Privacy Policy contains a long list of personal student data that they will collect and share with unspecified “Service Providers and Partners” who must comply with the terms of the privacy policy.

The data can be used by Summit and its partners for various purposes, including to “operate, develop, analyze, evaluate, and improve the educational tools, features, products, and services.” The personal student data to be collected is expansive, and among other things includes:

  • Contact information, such as full name, email address, username and password;
  • Course work in video, audio, text and images, as well as course progress;
  • Test scores, grades and standardized test results;
  • Narratives written by students, including their goals and learning plans, their communication with teachers and other students;
  • Teacher curriculums and notes and feedback to or about students;
  • Student records such as attendance, suspension, and expulsions;
  • Student demographic data, presumably including race, ethnicity, and economic status;
  • Outcome information such as grade level promotion, graduation, college admission test scores, college acceptance and attendance, and employment.

While the Privacy Policy promises that Summit “does not, and will not, sell student data,” it also claims the right to transfer data to other companies or organizations through an “asset sale,” which appears to contradict the Student Privacy Pledge that bars the selling of student data.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself made a point of emphasizing that Summit had signed this pledge, writing: “Summit subscribes to the White House-endorsed Student Privacy Pledge, so everyone working on this has strict privacy controls to protect student data in accordance with the pledge.”

Ironically, though, neither Facebook nor CZI has signed the pledge.

The right that Summit claims to be able to sell student data in an “asset sale” also appears to violate SOPIPA, the California privacy law that bars the sale of student data even more emphatically — although 36 California traditional public schools and charter schools were using the Summit platform last school year.

In its new Terms of Service, Summit says that schools and teachers are prohibited from changing any of the curriculums or the assessments in the platform without permission, and that if a teacher suggests improvements, Summit will claim “an  irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide license to use, modify, prepare derivative works from, publish, distribute and sublicense the Feedback without any compensation.”

Anyone using the platform gives up the right to sue, but must instead agree to resolve all disputes through confidential binding arbitration led by an arbitrator located in San Mateo — home of Silicon Valley, Facebook and CZI. The Terms of Service also bar individuals or schools from entering into class-action lawsuits or complaints. (Last month, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau prohibited banks and financial service companies from denying consumers the right to file class-action lawsuits.)

Finally, Summit also says it can change the Terms of Service at any time without prior notification, simply by posting the changes online, to be effective 10 days after posting.

The head of Summit Charter Schools, Diane Tavenner, is also the president of the California Charter School Association, raising the possibility that the work of traditional public school teachers could be used in their charter schools without recompense.

On March 3, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on the experience of parents in Boone County, Ky., whose schools had adopted the platform — many of whom did not want to consent to their children’s data being shared with so little specificity and so few restrictions:

At the beginning of the school year, parents had to sign a permission slip allowing Summit to access their child’s profile information. Summit uses the info to “conduct surveys and studies, develop new features, products and services and otherwise as requested,” the form states. The agreement also allows Summit to disclose information to third-party service providers and partners “as directed” by schools.  That, perhaps, is the biggest source of contention surrounding Summit. … “It’s optional. Nobody has to do Summit, Cheser said. … Summit spokeswoman declined to speak on the record with The Enquirer.”

Yet within weeks of the publication of this article, at about the time CZI took over, someone involved in the Summit initiative decided that parents would no longer be granted the right of consent — either for their children to be subjected to the Summit instructional program or for their data to be shared according to Summit’s open-ended policies. In fact, Summit claimed the right to access, data-mine and redisclose their children’s personal data — yet now, without asking if parents agreed to these terms.

In a post now retrievable only through the Wayback Machine, Summit explained this change in policy:

We heard directly from our partner schools and districts that they have established processes for making instructional decisions — such as adopting a textbook series or curriculum — to meet the needs of their students. The Summit Learning Platform is a teaching and learning tool that includes a comprehensive 6th-12th grade curricula in English, math, science, Spanish, and social studies — as well as all the tools and learning resources students and teachers need for the school year. We want to respect each school’s process. Therefore each school’s leadership and teaching team will determine whether to use Summit Learning on behalf of their community.

In other words, the crucial decision of whether students would be subjected to this experimental platform and how widely their personal data would be shared would no longer be made by their parents, but by Summit and their schools.

To some extent, Summit’s announcement that they would no longer ask for parent consent makes sense. Throughout the fall, winter and spring, parents with children at schools using the Summit platform in Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Virginia reached out to me personally and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy for help and advice. One grievance was that contrary to Summit’s public posture, their schools told them that if they did not grant their permission to have their children’s data shared in this way, they would not receive any other form of instruction.

By the end of the school year, because of their children’s disastrous experience with the Summit platform, some parents in these states decided to either move out of their school district, home-school their children or apply for a transfer.

Stacie Storms, a parent who lives in Boone County, Ky., said that when she withheld her consent, the response from her child’s school was that she would have to pull him out of the school. She chose to home-school her child, though she has gone to her elected local and state representatives to protest.

Other Boone County parents were concerned how the privacy agreement puts at risk not only their children’s privacy, but their own, as recounted in the Northern Kentucky Tribune:

The agreement gives Summit Learning permission to collect data from any devices used to access the program, which means parents accessing the program from home or work devices may be susceptible to data collection too. Some parents are upset with their students’ data, and potential their own data, being shared outside of the district.

According to the Summit system, each student is supposed to have dedicated one-on-one time with a teacher, to ensure they stay on track and are actually learning. Though the program only requires 10 minutes per week with their “mentor,” some students are not even provided with this amount of minimal time.

Students are also subjected to numerous ads via YouTube and the other websites assigned by the platform, which can be very distracting, especially for children with special needs.

Mirna Daniel-Eads, a Boone County parent, took her child out of the school and moved to another district because of the Summit platform. She explained her family’s decision this way: “Summit is all computer, most days the Internet was down so my son was learning nothing. The teachers were not teaching … a complete waste of time.”

Despite the widespread discontent, Boone County administrators applied to the state to be named as a “District of Innovation.” Part of the application involves waiver requests to allow teachers to teach outside of their certification areas — and to “allow teachers’ assistants (paraprofessionals) the ability to oversee digital curriculum and to allow them levels of instruction and supervision.” As the district explains, “There are many teacher assistants that are capable of assisting students with virtual and digital content.”

In response to numerous parent complaints, the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA) released three reports on Aug. 18, which found fault with the way in which the Summit platform and curriculum had been adopted in Boone County schools. The reports describe how the district was lured into the program, after principals attended a seminar at the University of Kentucky Next Generation Leadership Academy. Subsequently, the district sent 82 teachers and administrators to California to be trained at Summit’s expense, and three Boone County middle schools and one alternative school implemented the Summit platform.

Among the many problems outlined by David Wickersham, director of the Kentucky OEA, were the following:

  • No Boone district or school official attempted to determine if the Summit program was aligned with Kentucky state learning standards before adopting it, and several teachers reported that it was not aligned with the standards in social studies, math or science.
  • At least two of the schools implemented the Summit curriculum without the agreement of the School-Based Decision-making Council, made up of parents, teachers and the principal, in violation of Kentucky law 160.345. Nor was the curriculum approved or given a waiver by the State Textbook Commission or the state Digital Learning team.
  • Principals entered into contracts with Summit without the approval of the Boone district superintendent or school board, contrary to Kentucky law.
  • The decision to disclose personal student data to Summit was illegal once parental consent was no longer required, as Summit employees could not be defined as “school officials” under Kentucky law: “It appears that, to satisfy Kentucky law, the release or disclosure of records, reports, or identifiable information on students to Summit requires parental or eligible student consent.”
  • Finally, Summit’s open-ended permission to share data with additional third parties and for unspecified uses appears to conflict with Kentucky law 365.734, which restricts the use of personal student data by a “cloud computing service provider” such as that employed by the Summit program.

Meanwhile, an intense PR campaign has begun by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to expand the use of the Summit program. In a Facebook post on March 13, Jim Shelton, the head of the initiative’s education division, signaled that CZI would continue to push for even more schools to adopt the platform:

“Over the course of this year, we’ll begin work on a free online tool called the Summit Learning Platform, which empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ individual needs and interests. … We could not be more excited by the platform’s potential.”