Pearson Draws Criticism From New York to Texas… Justified? Or Unjustified?
By Wired Academic on October 24, 2011
Domestic, Ethics, Faculty, For-Profit, K-12, Publishers & Curriculum, Required
Pearson LLC has been in the news a lot lately. Here is a round up of some of the articles.
Michael Winerip of The New York Times writes about how “Free Trips Raise Issues for Officials in Education,” focusing on the Pearson Foundation sending commissioners on free trips and whether it is an ethical policy. Here are some paragraphs and links to the two stories so far on the topic.
In recent years, the Pearson Foundation has paid to send state education commissioners to meet with their international counterparts in London, Helsinki, Singapore and, just last week, Rio de Janeiro.
The commissioners stay in expensive hotels, like the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore. They spend several days meeting with educators in these places. They also meet with top executives from the commercial side of Pearson, which is one of the biggest education companies in the world, selling standardized tests, packaged curriculums and Prentice Hall textbooks.
Pearson would not say which state commissioners have gone on the trips, but of the 10 whom I was able to identify, at least seven oversee state education departments that have substantial contracts with Pearson. For example, Illinois — whose superintendent, Christopher A. Koch, went to Helsinki in 2009 and to Rio de Janeiro — is currently paying Pearson $138 million to develop and administer its tests.
The education commissioners may also be violating state ethics laws. After I wrote about the conferences last month, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board opened an inquiry to determine whether the recent trip to Brazil by its commissioner, Jason E. Glass,violated state law.
Iowa has $3 million in contracts with Pearson. A spokeswoman for Dr. Glass said that he was “confident he abided by all legal and ethical rules” and that he was fully cooperating with the board.
At a time when state budgets are being cut, a free trip can look tempting. The first three years that Pearson financed the trips, no more than six commissioners attended any of them; last month, in Brazil, 12 were at the meeting.
We categorically refute that suggestion, or any implication that our partnership with CCSSO is inappropriate. There is simply no factual basis for the suggestion that the Pearson Foundation’s support for the CCSSO International Education Summits is designed to win contracts for Pearson, nor that any contract was won as a result of the Summits. On the contrary, several chief state school officers have told the New York Times that the Summits had no such intent or outcome.…
Everyone from Education Secretary Arne Duncan on down understands the importance of knowing how American students are doing compared to their peers in other countries, and then learning from school leaders in high-performing nations.
These visits make it possible for our nation’s education leaders to engage in an exchange with their international counterparts, share experiences, and come home armed with new strategies and ideas to raise achievement, especially achievement for our most struggling students.
Regrettably, state and local education budgets could never provide the resources necessary for state chiefs and others to travel and collaborate in person with education ministers, reformers and innovators from Finland, Singapore, Brazil, or other nations who are more than willing to share their insights and best practices with us. If it were left to public funds, it simply wouldn’t happen, and the opportunity to improve our schools would be lost.
CCSSO plans the summit agendas, invites its members and other education leaders, and issues reports summarizing findings from the Summits. And, as those education officials who have attended the summits have recently attested in public statements, participants from all nations return home with a greater understanding of the challenges facing their students, and with fresh ideas and a reinvigorated will to take them on.
We vigorously contest both columns. And we deeply regret the possibility that they may undermine the good intentions and the good work of the education leaders who took part in these important professional exchanges.
If in the future they are inhibited from meeting with their international counterparts and applying the lessons learned in their own classrooms, then those who will be most harmed will be the students they serve.
Meanwhile, Pearson is also drawing fire in Texas as Abby Rapoport writes a critical article (Sept. 6, 2011) in The Texas Observer titled, “Education Inc.: How private companies are profiting from Texas public schools.”
Pearson is a London-based mega-corporation that owns everything from the Financial Times to Penguin Books, and also dominates the business of educating American children. The company promotes its many education-related products on a website that features an idyllic, make-believe town. It’s called Pearsonville, and it looks like the international conglomerate version of SimCity. In this virtual town, school buses whizz through tree-lined streets, and the city center features skyscrapers and a tram. Tabs pop up to show you just how many Pearson products are available. A red schoolhouse features young kids using Pearson products to learn math (with Pearson’s enVision Math) and take standardized tests online. Nearby, at the Pearsonville high school, students use the company’s online instructional materials to study science. The high school also features online testing. Pearson online courses are available at the town library. At the model home, parents can use Pearson’s student information system to track their children’s grades. The “test centre,” not shockingly, provides even more testing options. It’s a beautiful little town. A Las Vegas-style sign welcomes you, while a biplane flies through the sky trailing a Pearson banner behind it.
Pearson, one of the giants of the for-profit industry that looms over public education, produces just about every product a student, teacher or school administrator in Texas might need. From textbooks to data management, professional development programs to testing systems, Pearson has it all—and all of it has a price. For statewide testing in Texas alone, the company holds a five-year contract worth nearly $500 million to create and administer exams. If students should fail those tests, Pearson offers a series of remedial-learning products to help them pass. Meanwhile, kids are likely to use textbooks from Pearson-owned publishing houses like Prentice Hall and Pearson Longman. Students who want to take virtual classes may well find themselves in a course subcontracted to Pearson. And if the student drops out, Pearson partners with the American Council on Education to offer the GED exam for a profit.
“Pearson basically becomes a complete service provider to the education system,” says David Anderson, an Austin education lobbyist whose clients include some of Pearson’s competitors.
In 1998, Pearson hired a new CEO from Texas, Marjorie Scardino. She joined a company with a diverse and haphazard set of interests; in addition to the Financial Times and Penguin Books, the mega-company owned everything from Madame Tussauds wax museums to a stake in investment bank Lazard. Scardino sought to focus the company on one broad industry—education. Soon after Scardino’s arrival, Pearson bought Simon & Schuster’s education businesses and opened a new, overarching company—Pearson Education. Two years later, in a controversial move, Pearson acquired the Minnesota-based testing company National Computer Systems for $2.5 billion and began expanding into assessments. By 2004, Scardino ranked 59th on Forbes’ list of the “100 Most Powerful Women in the World.” By 2009, she was 19th.
Her timing was excellent. The education field was facing new and vehement demand for more testing and accountability in schools. Texas had been leading the way in state-mandated standardized testing, and by the time Pearson acquired National Computer Systems in 2000, the company had already signed a $233 million contract with the Lone Star State. With the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, all states were required to use a standard test to determine how students were learning. Pearson continued buying testing companies, including the testing services division of Harcourt. Last year, Pearson signed yet another contract with Texas to create the latest iterations of the state’s testing system, the new and more rigorous “end-of-course” and State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams.
Pearson now creates the tools to grade the tests and the software to analyze student performance. That’s in addition to textbooks, remedial learning resources, GED courses and online classes. (Pearson officials refused comment for this story.)
But despite Pearson’s prevalence in nearly every sector of public education, state officials say they maintain oversight. The Texas Education Agency monitors Pearson’s test development and often works side-by-side with the company. Gloria Zyskowski, the deputy associate commissioner, says the agency communicates with Pearson almost daily. She says that TEA uses a transparent bidding process to contract the work and follows a strict series of steps to build and score the tests. In creating test questions, the agency recruits teachers and former teachers to sit on an advisory committee. Pearson employees facilitate advisory committees, but the company isn’t writing the test questions by itself.
But when the company—like many for-profits—wants to get its way in education policy, Pearson isn’t shy about deploying high-powered lobbyists. Pearson pays six lobbyists to advocate for the company’s legislative agenda at the Texas Capitol—often successfully. This legislative session, lawmakers cut an unprecedented $5 billion from public education, including funding for a variety of programs to help struggling students improve their performance on state tests. Despite the cuts, Pearson’s funding streams remain largely intact. Bills that would have reduced the state’s reliance on tests didn’t pass. The Texas Senate refused to pass any bills that would have diminished the role of testing, a stance some Capitol sources attribute to Pearson’s lobbying, while others give the credit to pressure from reform advocates.
Who’s responsible may not matter. The interests of corporate lobbyists and reform advocates are often the same. It’s difficult to separate the businessmen from the believers.
What do you think of the concerns over Pearson’s influence in a state like Texas? Is it better to have one major provider like them? Is it normal for publicly-traded companies to maximize profits and improve education while doing so? Or should states like Texas be wary?
Meanwhile, as a final piece of our round-up, here is another NYT story about Pearson’s plan to move offices and employees from New Jersey to Manhattan… reaping a host of tax benefits:
The educational media company, a division of the corporation, based in London, that publishes The Financial Times, said Monday that it would move about 650 jobs to Manhattan from suburban offices in New Jersey and Westchester County. Some of the cost of moving will be offset by at least $13.5 million, and possibly as much as $50 million, in tax breaks and other incentives offered by city and state agencies in New York.
City officials framed the arrangement as a victory over New Jersey officials, who have been offering large packages of financial incentives to attract and retain big employers. But just last week, New Jersey agreed to provide $82 million in cost savings to Pearson, which plans to take more than 1, 200 jobs out of Upper Saddle River, N.J., by 2014 and send more than 600 of them to Hoboken, N.J. One of the stated reasons for New Jersey’s largess was to keep all those jobs from going to Manhattan.
So, to recap: Pearson could receive as much as $132 million in incentives for deciding to move half its Upper Saddle River jobs to Manhattan and the other half to Hoboken. But the net gain in jobs for the New York metropolitan area would be close to zero. And still, officials on both sides of the Hudson River seemed quite pleased with the deals they had struck.
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