School Talk

New York Times Already Walking Back Erroneous Claims About Personalized Learning Efforts in Kansas

Nellie Bowles of the New York Times must just really not like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—or Facebook in general—because there really is no other explanation for her recent “reporting” on school redesign efforts in Kansas that incorporate the Summit Learning Program.

(Summit Public Schools and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are partners in developing the Summit Learning Platform, which is launching as an independent nonprofit next school year called TLP.)

I am agnostic about Summit’s personalized learning model. I have never worked with it and my children have never used it in school. But there are district and charter schools in my little state of Rhode Island who do use it so I consider it a huge disservice for a New York Times reporter to misinform me and others about how its adoption is playing out in other places.

Arguably Bowles’ most flagrant mistake is the claim that the Summit Learning program caused a student with epilepsy to have seizures. But the newspaper has already had to make a huge correction because it turns out that the student in question is not even enrolled in a school that is using the Summit model.

How does that kind of mistake make it into a front page story in the New York Times?

Here’s a picture and caption that appear in the original story:

Within a few days, this correction appeared:

Not sure why the correction makes any mention of the increase in Megan’s screen time since it has NOTHING to do with Summit but alas, a simple acknowledgement of the mistake and an apology is apparently too much to ask. Notice the words “we apologize” do not appear anywhere in the correction.

Now, I really don’t have a horse in this race. I know students who really like the Summit model and others who don’t care for it much. Same goes for parents. And teachers. But for the most, it’s not all or nothing and once they find the right balance, they are pretty happy. There has not been a mass exodus of students from school using Summit where I live and, despite Bowles’ “reporting,” it doesn’t sound like there has been a mass exodus in Kansas either.

Bowles chose to write a story based on interesting anecdotes. Fine. But it seems fair for us, the readers, to at least expect that the anecdotes she chooses actually be true.

After the fall semester last year, about a dozen parents in Wellington pulled their children out of public school, said Kevin Dodds, a city councilman. In McPherson, Mr. Koenig and his wife, Meggan, enrolled their two children in a Catholic school, using money saved for a kitchen remodel and vacation.

Mark Whitener, Wellington Superintendent of Schools, wrote a response to the NYT piece in which he cites specific inaccuracies. He shares that he was not contacted or interviewed for the piece and neither were any of the educators in his district who are currently using the model and leading the work. He goes on to point out that there are more than 500 students currently enrolled in schools using Summit’s platform and the reporter chose to focus on just a handful of families. Here is an excerpt of his response:

In addition, the article contained several inaccuracies:

• We have never received complaints about students with adverse side effects due to Summit Learning. Furthermore, the article describes negative health impacts on a 12-year-old in our district, yet there isn’t a single 12-year-old in our district in the Summit Learning Program. Wellington Middle School is not participating in the redesign project.

• The sentiment that parents do not support this change is untrue. In a survey of our stakeholders, 80 percent had positive comments about Summit Learning—a fact that was shared with the reporter by the High School Principal but she neglected to include in her story.

• Contrary to the claim made in the article, a dozen families have not left district schools because of the redesign project.

I am interested in whether or not student outcomes have improved in schools that have adopted the Summit model. And the evidence on that is unclear. And I applaud the few parents in Kansas who chose to change schools if they truly believed that the adoption of the Summit platform was a bad fit for their child.

It is yet another real-life argument in favor of educational freedom for parents—let them take the tax dollars allocated to their child or children and choose the school they think is best.

But the New York Times piece tells us nothing about student outcomes. And the sloppy—and potentially dishonest—reporting makes it harder for parents to make well-informed choices about where to send their children to school.

What do you think?

One thought on “New York Times Already Walking Back Erroneous Claims About Personalized Learning Efforts in Kansas

  1. it’s a little New York insider baseball but when Bowles quoted Leonie Haimson I knew the story was questionable. Haimson has recently added privacy to her long-standing standard complaints about class size. She’s passionate ideologue who will gladly tell any reporter how something is bad.

    Leonie and I both know as much about Tennessee schools as Nellie Bowles. Which ain’t much!

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