How We Approach Research at Summit Public Schools

Every spring, Summit’s Research & Development team meets with Summit Public Schools’ teachers, school leaders, and leadership team to answer one question: “How can we best close the gap between where Summit is now, and where we need to be for all kids?”

As a public school system first and a research-driven nonprofit second, Summit has a unique set of resources that allows its R&D team to go beneath the surface and find out whether its program design and outcomes are working for all students and teachers. There’s a unifying drive across the team to explore questions and opportunities for improvement that promote equity in education.

Why Does Research Matter at an Education Nonprofit?

Compared to other fields of science, education on the whole doesn’t see much investment in R&D. According to historic data published by the Organisation for Economic and Co-operation Development, R&D investment for all social sciences in the U.S. has held steady at the bottom of the sciences for over a decade.

In the eyes of Summit’s Senior Director of Research Ross Lipstein, this is all the more reason for Summit, an organization built around continuous improvement, to have in place an R&D team. A team that learns over time and improves the validity and quality of its own personalized learning and teaching model — Summit Learning.

“We recognize that public education is not nearly where it should or could be, and we aim to close the gap of where public education should and can be,” Lipstein says.

How Does Summit Decide What to Research?

Summit’s research process starts with a grassroots approach — ideas for research projects are gathered from all corners of the Summit organization and the greater Summit Learning Community, from teachers to school leaders to other team members.  “Any question with no good answer gets added to a running parking lot,” Lipstein says.

Finding answers to these driving questions starts with a whole-team review. Questions are prioritized based on an open discussion about whether launching a particular research project will help Summit better align its learning and teaching approach with student outcomes and close gaps for learners. The final meeting with and approval by Summit’s leadership team is the green light for moving ahead on a project.

The R&D team is especially interested in pursuing projects that will lead to continual improvement in schools, from how best to help students who start out behind grade level to determining what gaps still exist — and how to close those gaps — for students who don’t complete the transition from high school into college and careers.  

Where Did Summit’s R&D Team Come From?

Summit’s R&D team started out as part of a conventional academics team, which at the time also included the curriculum and assessment, professional development, and platform teams. When the number of Summit’s partner schools more than doubled across the U.S. in 2016, the R&D team realized a need for focusing on improving Summit’s approach on a broader level.

The newly-independent team set an initial course by narrowing down the large parking lot of questions into 10 ongoing research projects, each driven by key research questions that range from family engagement to Summit’s student outcomes: Cognitive Skills, Content Knowledge, Habits of Success, and Sense of Purpose.

Summit Public Schools Research & Development Team
Members of Summit Public Schools’ R&D team (from back left to front right): Lisa Goochee, Adam Carter, Betty Chen, Kyle Moyer, Katie Wilczak, Pam Lamcke, Ross Lipstein, Molly Posner

Since 2016, the R&D team has grown from nine to 14 team members, with plans to add another three members by end of 2017. Over the past two years, they’ve formed partnerships with many leading research organizations and thought leaders, including Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Todd Rogers’ Student Social Support R&D Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, all of whom extend Summit’s research efforts and expertise.

This year, one of the team’s most exciting projects was an collaborative study with FSG. The ongoing project involved identifying specific factors and environmental conditions that allow schools to be successful in implementing Summit Learning and adapting it to their local community context. In May 2017, FSG and Summit filtered down more than 60 factors into the 12 most critical for a school’s successful implementation of all three key Summit Learning pillars: one-to-one mentoring, real-world projects, and individual pathways.

“When school leaders focus on these 12 implementation factors, backed by  data, it really helps them build on their school’s particular assets while addressing key needs,” says Matt Wilka, a Director at FSG. “Just as Summit Learning teachers use data to help individual students improve, these 12 factors can help customize supports at the school level.”

The three Pillars of Summit Learning create a learning environment where students achieve Summit Learning Outcomes — Cognitive Skills, Content Knowledge, Habits of Success and Sense of Purpose.
The three Pillars of Summit Learning create a learning environment where students achieve Summit Learning Outcomes — Cognitive Skills, Content Knowledge, Habits of Success and Sense of Purpose.
Summit will continue its partnership with FSG in the 2018-2019 school year as it continues to build its understanding of the Summit implementation journey and explore ways to help set all Summit schools up for success.

Continual Improvement at Summit: Present and Future

Ongoing Research Projects

While it can be hard to choose just one project to spotlight, Lipstein is especially enthusiastic about Summit Learning’s new Habits of Success framework, developed by Education Consultant Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard (now director at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) in collaboration with Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization that creates researchbased tools and strategies for schools with populations impacted by adversity.

Habits for Success embodies the mindsets, behaviors, and values that make up a whole individual in every context, from home to school. The framework is built around the belief that a student’s social-emotional learning and support is inseparable from academic success; teacher facilitation of student behaviors, such as learning how to set goals, is as important and directly related to students’ success in developing cognitive skills. Summit’s ultimate goal is that all students graduate from high school with the framework’s top-tier of habits: self direction, curiosity, and civic identity.

Summit has made habits of success a priority, and in the fall of 2017 schools will begin to implement and track the success of specific routines and supports, including developing professional development tools that help mentors better facilitate student goal-planning to best practices for making habits of success “stick” within a whole school environment — from routines like class transitions to cultural practices like whole-school vision.

What’s most important, as with any initiative, is to make sure that what’s being expressed in words is also being practiced in action at every level of a school. “We can learn from best practices implemented across the organization, and in turn build these lessons into tools and supports for teachers,”  says Lipstein.

Long-Term Visions

Whereas mid-term projects revolve around continual improvement and evaluation of Summit Learning’s current initiatives, Summit’s long-term research division focuses its efforts on developing ambitious new programs.  Alongside Summit’s CEO Diane Tavenner and CAO Adam Carter, Summit Public Schools’ Director of Credentialing Pam Lamcke began working on the Summit Learning Teacher Residency program just over two years ago.

When Summit first decided to establish a teacher residency program of its own, Lamcke was tasked with figuring out the accreditation process for first- and second-year teachers. The team applied for accreditation from California in 2016 and is launching the program this August with its first cohort of teacher residents, a diverse group of 23 educators from across the U.S.

“Summit’s R&D team gives us a space to grow this new (residency) program and the support to ensure that our approach is truly effective in preparing teachers for the personalized learning classroom, which is a pretty unique opportunity,” says Lamcke.

Summit recruited its initial cohort from the former Summit Tutoring Corps’ program, a collaboration with Americorps, providing its full-time tutors with a pathway to unique certification in Summit’s personalized learning and teaching approach. Of the initiatory cohort, 58 percent of Summit’s teacher residents identify as people of color, 42 percent are male, and almost all come from different colleges from across the U.S. The diverse group also includes two Summit alum.

Limited to 30 teachers each year, the program’s pilot curriculum mirrors Summit’s own personalized learning pedagogy. Graduates will be prepared to teach at a Summit school or expand their personalized learning expertise into any school nationwide. Summit’s Teacher Residency will begin accepting applications for 2018-2019 residents this November.

This article is part of the Science of Summit Series, which examines the science and research base behind the Summit Learning approach to teaching and learning. Want to learn more about the science behind Summit’s approach? Download our new Science of Summit white paper. 

About the author

Lauren Faggella
A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community's stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, Lauren was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island. She earned her MEd from the University of Rhode Island and BA in English from Elon University.