WELLINGTON, Kan. — The seed of rebellion was planted in classrooms. It grew in kitchens and living rooms, in conversations between students and their parents.
It culminated when Collin Winter, 14, an eighth grader in McPherson, Kan., joined a classroom walkout in January. In the nearby town of Wellington, high schoolers staged a sit-in. Their parents organized in living rooms, at churches and in the back of machine repair shops. They showed up en masse to school board meetings. In neighborhoods with no political yard signs, homemade signs with dark red slash marks suddenly popped up.
Silicon Valley had come to small-town Kansas schools — and it was not going well.
“I want to just take my Chromebook back and tell them I’m not doing it anymore,” said Kallee Forslund, 16, a 10th grader in Wellington.
Eight months earlier, public schools near Wichita had rolled out a web-based platform and curriculum from Summit Learning. The Silicon Valley-based program promotes an educational approach called “personalized learning,” which uses online tools to customize education. The platform that Summit provides was developed by Facebook engineers. It is funded by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician.
Many families in the Kansas towns, which have grappled with underfunded public schools and deteriorating test scores, initially embraced the change. Under Summit’s program, students spend much of the day on their laptops and go online for lesson plans and quizzes, which they complete at their own pace. Teachers assist students with the work, hold mentoring sessions and lead special projects. The system is free to schools. The laptops are typically bought separately.
Then, students started coming home with headaches and hand cramps. Some said they felt more anxious. One child began having a recurrence of seizures. Another asked to bring her dad’s hunting earmuffs to class to block out classmates because work was now done largely alone.
“We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” said Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, who visited his son’s fourth-grade class. In October, he pulled the 10-year-old out of the school.
In a school district survey of McPherson middle school parents released this month, 77 percent of respondents said they preferred their child not be in a classroom that uses Summit. More than 80 percent said their children had expressed concerns about the platform.
Summit chose not to be part of a study after paying the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research to design one in 2016. Tom Kane, the Harvard professor preparing that assessment, said he was wary of speaking out against Summit because many education projects receive funding from Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan’s philanthropic organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Mr. Zuckerberg backed Summit in 2014 and assigned five Facebook engineers to develop the software. In 2015, he wrote that Summit’s program would help “meet the student’s individual needs and interests” and that technology “frees up time for teachers to do what they do best — mentor students.” Since 2016, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has committed $99.1 million in grants to Summit.
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