6 Lessons Learned From the Summit Learning Program’s First Two Years

As educators, we encourage the continuous learning and improvement of our students. It’s no different when we reflect on the progress of our collective work in the Summit Learning Program.

On Tuesday at the 2017 iNACOL Symposium in Orlando, Florida, Summit Learning team members in collaboration with partners at research non-profit FSG, presented at a session called “Research and Insights from the First Two Years of Summit Learning.”

In front of an audience who, by a raise of hands, indicated they were familiar with Summit Learning, the panelists discussed lessons learned about implementation, iteration, and improvement for schools participating in and the Summit Learning Program as a whole. FSG and Summit have been partnering to research and evaluate the work of Summit and the Summit Learning Program for the past six years, and also reflected on the unique collaboration.

Facilitated by Matt Wilka, Director at FSG, the panel featured:

Over the course of the session, the panel discussed key learnings from the first two years of the Program as it grew from a pilot of 19 to more than 330 schools.

Summit Learning FSG Panel
Summit Learning and FSG presented a panel at the 2017 iNACOL Symposium. From left, Matt Wilka, Tyler Sussman, Ross Lipstein and Francesca Mazzola.

6 Lessons Learned From the Summit Leaning Program’s First Two Years

Schools have jagged profiles and require individualized support.

Early attempts to categorize schools by type and demographics, such as “urban charter” or “rural high-poverty,” and then customize support for each of these groups, were abandoned because this approach did not provide enough differentiation. Instead, certain factors, such as available technology, mindsets, and administration support were substantially more predictive of the kind of support a school would need rather than the type of the school.

“Variation within type exceed[ed] variation across type,” said Wilka. Similar to the way Summit Learning incorporates the work of Todd Rose and the science of individuality, the Summit and FSG researchers found that schools have their own jagged profiles and require supports better tailored to their unique assets, needs, and context.

Variation in school implementation depends on the context-embedded choices that schools make.

The variation in “context-embedded choices” that schools have made lead to the vastly different manifestations of Summit Learning in the classroom, even though the core pillars of Summit Learning remain consistent. For example, schools may choose to adopt, adapt, or abandon the base curriculum that Summit provides for core subjects. Everything from the way a school chooses to implement mentoring or set up spaces for Personalized Learning Time have been very different, but responsive to the context of that school.

There is no one right pace when joining the Summit Learning Program.

Sussman emphasized that there is no one speed to go through the implementation journey for schools joining the Program and that schools start with different contexts and varying resources. Some start already having implemented some form of personalized learning, and would like to leverage the Summit Learning Platform and join a community of like-minded educators. Others are low-tech, or turnaround schools, or want to serve students better than they were doing before. No one factor is prohibitive of success. Sussman counseled patience in the implementation journey: “This isn’t a light switch that you’re flipping, this is a process that needs a lot of support and constant problem-solving.”

Yes, there are implementation challenges.

Sussman said schools often feel overwhelmed at the start of the Program, starting with an intense onboarding during summer training. For veteran and new educators alike, taking on the new roles within Summit Learning can be overwhelming. Overall, Sussman observed that schools early in the program will often dig into one pillar of Summit learning to start, and then scale up to all three.

Sussman also said that overwhelmed teachers often go back to being motivated, and report that the challenging first year is worth it. He said, “Personally, I’ve heard from six different educators in six different schools and states that they would never go back to teaching in a traditional environment.” Lipstein continued that the hypothesis now is that schools see increasing growth in their second and third years after the turmoil of the first year.

Early district alignment smooths implementation.

For schools who join with district encouragement, “earlier and more proactive alignment of vision” from district leaders has helped the implementation journey, course correction, and the spread of the Program from one school to another within a district. Again, Lipstein emphasized that evolution within districts varies.

Summing Learning training
Summit Learning mentors coach onboarding educators during summer training 2017.

A “learn by doing” approach helps get instructional coaches and the teachers they support up to speed.

Instructional coaches are often crucial in supporting teachers shift to this new way of teaching and learning. Sussman acknowledged a chicken and egg problem for many districts, in which it’s difficult for district coaches or similar roles to help onboard schools as the coaches themselves are gaining knowledge about Summit Learning. There will be a lot of back and forth between coaches and the Summit Learning team in the first year to help them get up to speed.

The FSG and Summit Partnership

Throughout the conversation, it was evident the innovative partnership forged by Summit and FSG over the past six years has enabled the Summit Learning Program to improve and adapt quickly based on what the two organizations are learning together. For example, Summit was able to edit its program application based on FSG’s real-time findings about indicators of preparedness for schools. Both Lipstein and Wilka said the two organizations had a collaborative approach that studied targeted hypotheses on quick cycles, meeting bi-weekly and doing step-backs together every few months. By contrast, a more traditional research and evaluation approach might take a year to produce actionable findings.

In closing reflections, Sussman delved into the why behind the quick cycles and iterations of the program: “What is shifting are the tools and strategies that we use to train and support schools ensuring we are always providing the highest caliber partnership to the schools we work with across the country… the outcomes we are driving towards for students are not changing.”