Schools encouraged to spy on parents concerned about privacy in Zuckerberg-funded K-12 learning platform

A digital education platform funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative told schools using its services to monitor parents’ online activity for signs of opposition after some expressed privacy concerns.  

Summit Learning recommended schools “listen to online conversations” of parents and provided instructions on how to do so, according to a Fox News report. The recommendations were discovered in the internal portal of the learning platform, which is not available to the public. 

The company’s recommendations came after some districts dropped the platform following parental opposition. 

Screenshots from the internal portal reveal Summit’s recommendation of an “aggressive communications strategy” for schools to thwart such opposition, even using a real example from Cheshire Public Schools in Connecticut, where parental opposition lead to the platform’s removal. 

Summit’s instructions to their partner school districts include warnings about “critical social media comments,” “opposition at school board meetings” and “online discussion groups.” They also provide “tips to intervene.” 

The company also suggests that schools watch for “groups with critical names.” 

“You can stay up to date by establishing Google alerts that [send] an email notification when keywords (such as ‘Summit Learning’ + your school name) appear on a website,” the suggestion went on. “Regular monitoring of your school’s social media accounts for comments and questions about Summit Learning is also critical.” 

Summit also suggested that schools watch for social media posts from reporters requesting interviews with parents about Summit Learning.  

Why are some parents opposed to the platform? The biggest concern has to do with data privacy – what Summit does with children’s personal information.  

“For us to seemingly not be able to protect that information is really troubling,” said Dustin Gibb, a California parent whose children used the platform. 

Some experts say the learning platform’s privacy declarations are confusing for parents and could allow the sharing of information collected from students in surprising ways. 

“The Summit platform collects a huge amount of personal student data,” said Leonie Haimson of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy. “The data can be used to improve the product or create new products and that, you know, is quite controversial in and of itself.” 

Research from The National Education Policy Center, reported by the Washington Post in June 2020, concluded that the way Summit contracts with schools “presents a potentially significant risk to student privacy and opens the door to the exploitation of those data by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and possibly by unknown third parties – for purposes that have nothing to do with improving the quality of those students’ educations.” 

The researchers also say the Summit Learning curriculum and assessment program requires massive amounts of student data to be recorded in order to work.  

They also claim to have found provisions in contracts with partner schools which allow the transfer of the student data to Summit Learning, and thereby also to its long-term technology partner, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for use “in perpetuity.” 

Summit responded to the researchers’ claims, stating, “Protecting student privacy is our top priority, and data is solely used for educational purposes and never sold. There are no exceptions to this, and we share our privacy policy on our website in our dedicated Privacy Center for full transparency.” 

According to the researchers, however, this response and Summit Learning’s privacy policy fail to address the substance of the privacy concerns raised by parents and experts alike. The company’s attempts to curb parental opposition may only serve to raise suspicions more.