One Parent’s Experience with Basecamp, Summit’s Personalized Learning Platform


Recently, was asked about my experience as a parent with Summit PLP . This post is an attempt to capture the extent that I engaged my children’s school administrators about the program over the year that we were all part of the same public school community.

My family is no longer part of that school community. Whether it was my opposition to edtech or my fervent belief in the democratic process as a way to bring issues to light that precipitated the break, I cannot say. Was it my activism that drew the line that could not be smudged away? Are the administrators who implemented this grant-fueled, short-sighted, and privacy-robbing program equally to blame in breaking school-home trust?

At this point, it probably doesn’t matter. What does matter is my story, and how it might help you. These are the steps I took to examine–and ask others to examine–the Summit PLP program as it was implemented in my children’s school during the 2016-2017 academic year. (Fair warning: this post is extra long.)

I first heard of the program in early September when one of my children came home concerned about the change in grading policy. I asked questions over email, mostly regarding privacy, but some about how the program was meant to work:

Who is the end user in the privacy policy for Basecamp? Is it CPS? [School Name]? You? My student? In response, I received a canned answer:

The privacy policy provides transparency into what Summit does to help keep student information secure throughout their personalized learning experience. While the student is the primary user of the PLP, teachers, parents, and administrators also use the PLP, so all of these groups would count as the ‘user’ in the privacy policy. There are also some privacy FAQs on the Summit PLP website that you might find helpful.

And: Will you please send me a copy of Summit’s Privacy Policy, as referenced in the consent form, as well as an explanation of what this means: “as otherwise authorized by the school” within the consent form? Additionally, I’d like to see a copy of any written contract between [School Name] or CPS and Summit Basecamp that details the conditions under which both parties will use, disclose, protect, or secure student data that you are collecting.

Then I asked the same questions in person: Who else will have access to the system? Does the system use 3rd-party apps? The AP responded that they don’t use 3rd-party apps. They use Clever. Which is a 3rd-party app.

At a separate parent-teacher program roll-out meeting with a different set of parents, a parent asked about logging-in; the teacher didn’t mention privacy in her reply. Another parent asked when the program will be implemented; the teacher mentioned the consent form, but again didn’t mention the privacy policy referenced in the consent form.

The teacher encouraged parents to get on the PLP every day – still no privacy. Another parent asked about the “no going back” aspect of this, whether the implementation of Summit PLP this year, in this way is funded/fueled by a grant; the AP explained the relationships between all the players, whose names are all used interchangeably — parents need a diagram just to follow it all.

The AP told parents that the systems-based grading that is a required part of Summit PLP is actually coming from the Illinois State Board of Education. Another parent asked about consent and where the project is within the process. A parent asked about opting out, but teacher was flummoxed about how the opt-out process works. A parent asked about how the school will evaluate the success of the program.

A month later, I was again asking the same questions over email because administrators wouldn’t (or, I suspect, couldn’t) answer them: Does Summit consider this parent Consent Form to mean that parents are waiving the privacy rights of their children under all three federal student privacy laws, including FERPA, COPPA and PPRA? 

The Privacy Policy says “FERPA permits schools to share students’ information in certain circumstances, including where the school has gotten a parent’s’ consent or where the organization receiving the student data operates as a “school official.” Summit Public Schools operates as a “school official” consistent with the Department of Education’s guidance under FERPA.” If this is true, why does Summit need parental consent? What additional rights does my consent afford Summit that Summit would not have without consent in terms of the collection, use and disclosure of a student’s personal information?

What is Summit’s definition of “reasonable and comprehensive data protection and security protocols to protect student data”? What does that specifically include in terms of encryption, independent audits, security training, etc? Is this in writing anywhere? 

Does Summit claim unlimited rights to share or utilize my child’s homework and intellectual property without notice or compensation that they are claiming with teacher work in the Terms of Service (TOS)? What is the comprehensive list of personal data Summit is collecting and potentially sharing from my child? Does it also include my child’s homework, grades, test scores, economic status, disability, English proficiency status and/or race? The PP states a parent can “review, correct or have deleted certain personal information.” Which kind of personal information can I delete, how will I be able to do that and will that stop my child from using the platform? The PP says that “Participating schools and individual teachers own, and are responsible for, student data provided through the Summit Personalized Learning Platform.” Why don’t students own their own data?

Can Summit specifically itemize the companies/organizations that they will share my child’s data with, aside from those mentioned in the TOS? Are each of these third parties barred from making further re-disclosures of my child’s data? Are each of these third parties, and any other organizations or companies or individuals they re-disclose to, legally required to abide by the same restrictions as listed under Summit’s TOS and PP, including being prevented from using targeted or non-targeted advertising, and/or selling of data, and using the same security protections? Summit says that it does not market to students; are all Summit’s partners and/or those they disclose the information to barred from doing so as well?

The TOS mentions survey data. Will parents have the right to see these surveys before they are given and opt out of them, or does signing this consent form basically mean a parent is giving up all their rights under the PPRA?

What does this mean in the Summit Privacy Policy: Summit will use my child’s personal data to develop new educational “products.” 

What does this mean in the Summit PP: Summit will share the data with anyone “otherwise directed or authorized by the school.” Does my signing a consent form mean that the school can authorize to share this information with *anyone* else, without specifying the sort of third party, for what reason, or without limitation, without informing me or asking for my further consent? What is “the school” in this case – CPS, [School Name], or Summit Learning?

And:  How much content will be taught by self-paced lessons? What happens if I don’t consent to the TOS? Will alternate methods of teaching be available to my student?

At a school board meeting, I reiterated the last set of questions. The answer was: Yes, but your child won’t have access to all the great stuff on the platform!

I didn’t sign the consent form. Of the 56 kids in one grade, 54 of their parents signed the form. When I talked to other parents, they said: “This thing is just too big to fight.” Others told me I was a fool for not recognizing this amazing innovation as such.

As the semester wore on, it became increasingly clear that the school had made no contingency plans to teach students whose parents did not consent. After all, there were only two of us. In November, a student (not mine) surveyed his classmates to determine whether they liked Summit PLP, and took the results to the administration.

Who ignored them.

By December, other parents openly expressed concerns about the platform on social media, and in conversation.

In January, a classroom newsletter to parents began with the following text, highlighted in a yellow box:

Did you know…
When you child’s teacher:
● has a reading, writing or math conference,
● uses information collected via surveys related to learning
preferences and styles,
● provides a choice board,
● allows students time to design inquiry projects,
● helps students choose their own research topics,
● empowers groups to select a novel for book club,
● designs questions in their plans around student needs and
goals or tailors discussions around student background
they are personalizing student learning?
Personalization has been happening at [School Name] since the school was created. It is part of what makes learning here different and successful. Ask us, we would love to discuss it!

I took the teacher up on it, and responded with the following questions:  In 2008-2014, there was a lot of talk about differentiating instruction and creating individual experiences within the class for students; how are these different or the same as personalized learning? Is there a reason [School Name] is changing the way we describe these activities? I am confused by the way these terms are being used because personalization and differentiation have different etymologies and are not synonyms, because learning and teaching have different etymologies and are not synonyms. 

The teacher invited me in for a casual conversation about personalized learning. I asked: I am still having a hard time understanding how personalized learning represents something akin to one-on-one tutoring. And, more importantly, how personalized learning is “research-based”?  When we met, the teacher told me that she was happy to talk to me about it, but also that everything she told me was had to stay in the room. I continue to honor that request. (No one else was in the room where it happened.)

In early February, a group of almost 90 parents signed a petition urging the school to reconsider use of the Summit PLP. Chief among parental concerns:

  • Summit Basecamp PLP requires too much parent involvement.
  • It is developmentally inappropriate and in some cases, harmful, for students to spend so much of their learning day using technology.
  • For many students, the one-on-one mentoring sessions that are supposed to take place once/week for 10 minutes with an adult “mentor” are less frequent and for a shorter duration than advised. Students have less contact with their teachers and more contact with their Chromebooks.
  • Instructional material found on Summit PLP is often confusing and of poor quality. Students must find their own “resources” from within the platform to understand basic concepts, answers to their own questions, and self-teach themselves the material. This is further complicated by the lack of textbooks or alternate, non-computer-based resources.
  • Summit PLP erroneously assumes that students in 6th and 7th grades have developed the academic skills to be independent learners.
  • Despite the “one stop view” promised, parents must sign into at least three different platforms in order to review their child’s progress and grades.
  • Increased class sizes and lack of teacher attention compound the negative effects of near-constant use of Chromebooks in the classroom.

The group presented the petition, accompanying signatures, and a list of the questions below to the local school board in mid-February. It was a public school, the local school board is an elected body of school stakeholders, and these discussions should be happening in public.

  1. What does the school’s data say about the PLP, and how does that compare to previous methods of instruction or content delivery?
  2. Is the PLP attracting people to the school or driving them away, and by what measurement?
  3. Why did we suddenly replace our previous methods of instruction with Summit?
  4. Why did the school roll out the PLP to one grade / one subject and then remove it without explanation or comment?
  5. Will Summit PLP provide any publicly available evaluation data? If so, when? Who has access to this data and how secure is it?  Are third parties allowed access?  What information security procedures does Summit have in place?
  6. How can we evaluate the veracity and transparency of Summit’s analysis and evaluation methods?
  7. Will Summit’s data be useful to our teachers or parents?  How much did Summit consult with classroom teachers and experts in developing their metrics?  Will the breakdowns and statistics provide items useful to an educator?  Does the school have staff members that can accurately evaluate this data?
  8. Summit’s claims of being innovative are self-purported at this point. There is no data available for the public to evaluate.  Will we trust their data and analyses completely since it comes from within their echo chamber?
  9. Will the school explain curricula and instruction delivery changes before the open enrollment or transfer deadline?

Teachers’ response to the petition was to testify as to the benefits of the program. The school’s response was to have more private conversations about the Summit PLP with signers, and to respond more broadly with the following emails:

Many parents and teachers expressed a desire to have more conversations and training around personalized learning and Basecamp.


I want to thank each and every person who has reached out to me over the past few weeks to share your questions and feedback related to our work with Personalized  Learning! It has been wonderful to hear your ideas and answer your questions. I have truly enjoyed each and every conversation that I’ve had. This is what makes us a community! Some of you have received [an] email regarding additional events related to PLP, but I would like to share it here for those of you who haven’t seen it. I encourage anyone who is interested to please respond to this [survey] so that we can plan the types of training and discussion events that YOU would like to see. We want to work together to make each and every student and parent comfortable with this learning platform.

Eventually, in March, the administration addressed some of the group’s questions:

The school would not say whether it would discontinue use of the Summit Basecamp PLP for the 2016-2017 school year or into the future.

Using Summit Basecamp PLP not as instructional delivery, but instead as an organizational tool to keep students on track. Not relying on Summit’s traditional metrics, but is using the school’s regular testing and evaluation measures (such as NWEA) to evaluate student progress, as has been done in the past.

Using the experiences and reactions of the teachers and the students in the classroom to evaluate Summit PLP’s effectiveness. Administration did not share precisely what measurements the school is using to make this evaluation beyond this feedback.

Consensus among teachers is that the Summit Basecamp PLP is effective at keeping students on-track, better than the school’s previous methods. As evidence of this organizational support: more current 6th grade students have made the principal’s honor roll this year. They did not offer data on how many of these students made honor roll in 5th grade, or how many students who are currently in 7th grade made honor roll when they were in 6th grade.

In terms of information security, the school shares the following personally identifiable information (PII) about students with Summit: first name, last name, Google Apps for Education email address, student ID number, and grade level. This PII represents the minimum amount of data that Summit requires schools to share in order for students to use Summit PLP. Summit PLP uses a third-party application named Clever to share encrypted information between the school and Summit PLP.

The details of the agreement signed by school parents to authorize sharing of their students’ PII with Clever and Summit PLP can be found at zendesk. That Summit’s privacy policy and terms of service covered in the agreement were not shared with parents was discussed.

In May, the school sent out another parent survey on the PLP with this message:

Would love to hear your feedback on your overall experience with the Summit Basecamp Learning Platform, otherwise known as the “PLP“.  Please take the time to thoughtfully answer the questions in this brief survey.

Later that month, the school quietly shared with incoming families that it would again reprise use of Summit PLP for the 2017-2018 academic year. Parents can read about it in via a link from its website.

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