The British publishing giant Pearson had made few inroads in the United States — aside from distributing the TV game show “Family Feud” — when it announced plans in the summer of 2000 to spend $2.5 billion on an American testing company.
It turned out to be an exceptionally savvy move.
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The next year, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated millions of new standardized tests for millions of kids in public schools. Pearson was in a prime position to capitalize.
From that perch, the company expanded rapidly, seizing on many subsequent reform trends, from online learning to the Common Core standards adopted in more than 40 states. The company has reaped the benefits: Half its $8 billion in annual global sales comes from its North American education division.
But Pearson’s dominance does not always serve U.S. students or taxpayers well.
A POLITICO investigation has found that Pearson stands to make tens of millions in taxpayer dollars and cuts in student tuition from deals arranged without competitive bids in states from Florida to Texas. The review also found Pearson’s contracts set forth specific performance targets — but don’t penalize the company when it fails to meet those standards. And in the higher ed realm, the contracts give Pearson extensive access to personal student data, with few constraints on how it is used.
POLITICO examined hundreds of pages of contracts, business plans and email exchanges, as well as tax filings, lobbying reports and marketing materials, in the first comprehensive look at Pearson’s business practices in the United States.
The investigation found that public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, for instance, declined to seek competitive bids for a new student data system on the grounds that it would be “in the best interest of the public” to simply hire Pearson, which had done similar work for the state in the past. The data system was such a disaster, the department had to pay Pearson millions extra to fix it.
Administrators at the University of Florida also skipped competitive bids on a huge project to build an online college from scratch. They were in a hurry. And they knew Pearson’s team from a previous collaboration. That project hadn’t been terribly successful, but no matter: UF dug up the old contract and rewrote it to give Pearson the new job — a job projected to be worth $186 million over the next decade.
And two public colleges in Texas not only gave Pearson a no-bid contract to build online classes, they agreed to pay the company to support 40,000 enrollments, no matter how many students actually signed up.
Pearson has aggressive lobbyists, top-notch marketing and a highly skilled sales team. Until the New York attorney general cracked down in late 2013, Pearson’s charitable foundation made a practice of treating school officials from across the nation to trips abroad, to conferences where the only education company represented was Pearson.
The story of Pearson’s rise is very much a story about America’s obsession with education reform over the past few decades.
Ever since a federal commission published “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 — warning that public education was being eroded by “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people” — American schools have been enveloped in a sense of crisis. Politicians have raced to tout one fix after the next: new tests, new standards, new classroom technology, new partnerships with the private sector.
K-12 superintendents and college administrators alike struggle to boost enrollment, raise graduation rates, improve academic outcomes — and to do it all while cutting costs.
In this atmosphere of crisis, Pearson promises solutions. It sells the latest and greatest, and it’s no fly-by-night startup; it calls itself the world’s leading learning company. Public officials have seized it as a lifeline.
“Pearson has been the most creative and the most aggressive at [taking over] all those things we used to take as part of the public sector’s responsibility,” said Michael Apple, a professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Pearson declined to answer specific questions about many of its contracts and business practices.
But several top executives said they always work toward deals that benefit not just the company but its public-sector partners — and above all, the millions of students who use Pearson products daily.
“The public trust,” Senior Vice President Shilpi Niyogi said, “is vital to everything we do.”
TESTS, TEXTS AND ATTENTION DEFICIT
Pearson wields enormous influence over American education.
It writes the textbooks and tests that drive instruction in public schools across the nation.
Its software grades student essays, tracks student behavior and diagnoses — and treats — attention deficit disorder. The company administers teacher licensing exams and coaches teachers once they’re in the classroom. It advises principals. It operates a network of three dozen online public schools. It co-owns the for-profit company that now administers the GED.
A top executive boasted in 2012 that Pearson is the largest custodian of student data anywhere.
And that’s just its K-12 business.
Pearson’s interactive tutorials on subjects from algebra to philosophy form the foundation of scores of college courses. It builds online degree programs for a long list of higher education clients, including George Washington University, Arizona State and Texas A&M. The universities retain authority over academics, but Pearson will design entire courses, complete with lecture PowerPoints, discussion questions, exams and grading rubrics.
The company is even marketing a product that lets college professors track how long their students spend reading Pearson textbooks each night.
Pearson works with for-profit career colleges, too: Its marketing materials boast that its consultants can help them “stay one step ahead” of federal regulations.
Indeed, Pearson has its hand in so many education services that corporate executive Donald Kilburn confidently predicted on an earnings call last summer that the North American division would flourish even if states and school districts had to cut their budgets.
As long as sales reps can show that Pearson products get results, Kilburn said, “the money will find a way to come to us.”
But the POLITICO review found that public contracts and public subsidies — including at least $98.5 million in tax credits from six states — have flowed to Pearson even when the company can’t show its products and services are producing academic gains.
The state of Virginia recertified Pearson as an approved “school turnaround” consultant in 2013 even though the company had, at best, mixed results with that line of work: Just one of the five Virginia schools that Pearson cited as references improved both its math and reading proficiency rates against the state averages. Two schools lost ground in both math and reading and the other two had mixed results. State officials said Pearson met all the criteria they required of consultants.
Across the country, Pearson sold the Los Angeles Unified School District an online curriculum that it described as revolutionary — but that had not yet been completed, much less tested across a large district, before the LAUSD agreed to spend an estimated $135 million on it. Teachers dislike the Pearson lessons and rarely use them, an independent evaluation found.
And universities continue to hire Pearson to manage online programs even though the company has routinely failed to hit its contractual targets for student enrollment. The higher those targets are, the more lucrative the deal appears to the university — and the more willing administrators may be to promise Pearson a cut of up to 60 percent of student tuition.
If Pearson fails to bring in the promised number of students — and David Daniels, a managing director, acknowledged the targets are often “very ambitious” — it rarely gets sanctioned.
At Rutgers University in New Jersey, for instance, Pearson is in charge of recruiting students to online degree programs and counseling them so they stay engaged and enrolled. Yet if Pearson falls short of its recruitment or retention goals, its share of student tuition isn’t reduced. On the contrary, the contract allows Pearson’s cut of tuition to be increased in the face of disappointing numbers, keeping the revenue flowing. Last year, enrollment was about 200 students short of the minimum stipulated in the contract and nearly 1,000 students below the goal.
Contractual language also ensures Pearson collects its full cut if a student drops out mid-semester or fails to pay the tuition bill.
Faculty members have raised a number of complaints about the contract and moved to block Pearson from expanding its role on campus. Among their objections: About half of student tuition in the online programs goes directly to Pearson. Rutgers set out to “create an online campus as a cash cow,” said David Hughes, an anthropology professor, “but then flubbed that up entirely by giving the revenue away to Pearson.”
But Richard Novak, a Rutgers vice president, said it “would have been very nearly impossible for the university to enter the online degree space without the help of a powerful partner.” Novak said it would be “myopic and lopsided” to punish the company when students drop out, because many factors contribute to such decisions.
“This is a deep partnership,” Novak said, “and we work together on such issues.”
FAMILY FIRM TO GLOBAL GIANT
The company that would play such an outsize role in American classrooms was founded in Yorkshire, England, in 1844 as family-owned construction firm. By the 1890s, it was one of the largest building contractors in the world.
Over the decades, Pearson PLC — now based in London — bought stakes in all manner of industries, including newspapers, amusement parks and even the Madame Tussauds wax museum. It wouldn’t be until 1988 that the company took its first big step into the education world when it bought textbook publisher Addison-Wesley. Other acquisitions soon followed.
Though it still owns the Financial Times and Penguin Random House publishing, Pearson now focuses on education. It employs nearly 40,000 worldwide.
“When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills. The people we’ve elected have created a landscape that’s allowed Pearson to prosper.”
- Jonathan Zimmerman, education historian at New York University.
Pearson’s stature is reflected in its access to top policymakers. Pearson is the only company with a seat on the board of directors of the Global Partnership for Education, which works with the World Bank and the United Nations to encourage developing countries to invest in education. (Pearson has substantial business interests in Asia, the Middle East and South America.)
And Pearson was one of only three for-profit education companies — the other two were startups — invited to hobnob with the Obamas and Education Secretary Arne Duncan last year at a White House summit on college access.
Pearson’s size has made it a lightning rod for criticism. Activists from both left and right spit out the brand name almost as a curse, using it as shorthand for all the educational trends they dislike, from the focus on high-stakes tests to the shift to Common Core to the push to turn more teaching over to high-tech algorithms.
The comedian Louis C.K. has tweeted his disdain for confusing homework questions “written by pearson or whoever the hell.” Glenn Beck has publicly held up Pearson as a symbol of corporate greed. A speaker at a teachers’ union conference last summer drew cheers with his fervid vow, “We will not be Pearsonized!” And when Ohio students recently produced an anti-Common Core video, they targeted Pearson in particular, flashing the corporate logo as they sang lyrics they’d adapted from a Pink Floyd song: “Hey! Pearson! Leave them kids alone!”
Conspiracy theorists sometimes suggest that Pearson has a sinister hold on federal and state education policy. In peak years, it has spent about $1 million lobbying Congress and perhaps $1 million more on the state level, with a particular focus on Texas, according to state and federal records.
But that’s not an outsize number for such a large company. By comparison, the National Education Association, the biggest teachers union in the U.S., spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress in 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“The policies that Pearson is benefiting from may be wrongheaded in a million ways, but it strikes me as deeply unfair to blame Pearson for them,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University. “When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills. The people we’ve elected have created a landscape that’s allowed Pearson to prosper.”
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Last week Pearson lost its 40 to 50 million dollar contract to provide 3rd through 8th grade Common Core aligned high-stakes tests in New York State. A headline and article in Newsday, a major daily published on Long Island in New York, described the decision to drop Pearson as the latest skirmish in the political debate over Common Core. Laura Howe, Pearson's Vice-President for Media and Communities, tried to make light of the decision. The Newsday article quoted Howe promising, or perhaps threatening, that Pearson "will continue to serve the people of New York through our other assessment work, along with learning materials and higher education services."
While I am glad to see Pearson go, just dropping Pearson will not end the battle over the legitimacy of Common Core and high-stakes tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. A big question is why the New York State Education Department signed a multi-year contract with Questar Assessment while the renewal of No Child Left Behind is being debated in Congress and no one knows for sure which direction the federal government will take on mandated high-stakes standardized testing.
Some commentators who defend Common Core blame opponents of high-stakes testing for distorting the public's understanding of the benefits of the national standards. But when you look at the history of the push for national standards dating back to the Clinton and Bush administrations, you realize Common Core is all about testing and shifting educational resources from teaching to test prep companies.
In May, I spoke about Common Core at the annual Left Forum conference held at John Jay College in New York City and in June at a forum sponsored by the Literacy Studies program at Hofstra University. These gave me the opportunity to rethink and formulize my opposition to Common Core and the high-stakes testing regime that makes it rotten at its core. The rest of this post is based on my presentation.
Rotten at its Core
As a teacher and historian my primary opposition to Common Core is for two reasons. It is a major part of the process of out-sourcing public education to private for-profit companies. According to Reuters, "investors of all stripes are beginning to sense big profit potential in public education. The K-12 market is tantalizingly huge: The U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18. The entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors."
But my greater concern is the way the Common Core teaching approach actually undermines student learning. Children learn to read the way they learn to talk. Reading, like speaking, is a social activity best taught by communities and through relationships. Children learn by watching older people, especially older children, read. They learn to read by discovering that important things they want to know are in the symbols. They learn to read because of the pleasure of discovery and praise from parents, teachers, siblings, and friends for their achievements. They learn to read because it both makes them part of a broader community and because they become independent of others, more grown up. Children learn to read because it gives them a private place to visit, and because in the end, they learn to love to read because it opens their imaginations to unseen worlds.
But in Common Core based instruction reading is a mechanical activity that ignores student interest and the primary motivation to learn is your test score. To raise student scores, Common Core breaks reading down into a plethora of component skill parts. In the fourth grade, Common Core has nine reading literature standards, ten reading informational text standards, two foundational reading skills standards, six language acquisition standards, six speaking and listening standards, as well as "Range, Quality, and Complexity" standards. Lost, if not missing, in the barrage of standards are qualities like imagination, sharing, creating, thinking, or more importantly, enjoying. Asking questions and having conversations are there as activities, but they are not emphasized as the core of understanding.
The Common Core approach to reading is like breaking a molecule down into individual elements. But as any science teacher can explain, once you break the molecular bonds that tie the atoms together, you lose all the properties of the original chemical. You now have hydrogen and oxygen, but you no longer have water. In Common Core students may learn skills, but they do not learn to love reading or to really understand sophisticated written material.
One reason the national Common Core standards focus on English / Language Arts and math skills and obscure measurements such as text complexity is that when you look at what content should be taught you have very sharp disagreement. In 1995, when U.S. and world history content standards were released by the National Center for History in Schools, they were widely denounced in the popular media and overwhelmingly rejected by the U.S. Senate. The content of the social studies curriculum - Common Core does not want to touch it. Since 2013, state legislators in five states, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Indiana, considered bills to require the teaching of the Biblical explanation of the origin of the universe as science. In Georgia, the superintendent of schools demanded that the word "evolution" be removed from the science curriculum to avoid offending religious and conservative parents. Common Core has nothing to say about it.
I reviewed both the draft and revised New York State Common Core aligned high school Economics curriculum. The best thing I can say that at least the State Education Department tried to address social studies content. Unfortunately the draft framework was one of the worst curriculum outlines that I ever reviewed. I thought it read like a right-wing fairy tale. The revised framework was better, but still seriously flawed.
Start with the title - "The Economics of Free Enterprise in a Global Economy" - and the introduction, which are the same for both the draft and the revised frameworks. "The Economics of Free Enterprise in a Global Economy" examines the principles of the United States free market economy in a global context. The authors of the framework like to use Common Core action words. Students examine, analyze, study, and explore. But what exactly will they examine, analyze, study, and explore. The problem in this case is with the underlying principles, not of the U.S. economy, but of the framework. According to both the draft and revised frameworks, "Free enterprise is a pillar of the United States economy and is based on the principle that individuals and businesses are free to make their own economic choices as they participate in these markets."
But is "free enterprise the pillar of the United States economy"? I cannot find free enterprise described in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, or the other "founding" documents, or imbedded in the Constitution of the United States. They describe religious freedom, democratic government, rights of individuals, and the structure of government, but not free enterprise, the rights of corporations, or the influence of hedge funds.
The primary focus of the framework is on individual economic choice and responsibility. But people do not choose to be underpaid because they are Black or women or out of work because they are technologically unemployed or their company shipped their job overseas.
What the economic standards leave out is that "free enterprise" is not the same as freedom and that you only have economic choices if you have money. The 1%, maybe the .5%, have economic choices, the rest of us get to decide between Big Macs and Whoppers. Whatever you may think of the Affordable Care Act, public education, the postal system, Social Security, or government agricultural subsidies, any working economist or economics teacher on the left or on the right will tell you that the United States has a "mixed" economy, not a "free market" economy.
In the standards students are told that as individuals they must be fiscally responsible, debt is BAD, but of course without accruing debt you cannot go to college, purchase a home, or buy a car. Every level of government is in debt to stimulate the economy and to invest in infrastructure. Corporations are always in debt as they invest in new products, facilities, and markets. Not only is debt virtually unavoidable and vital for investment, but bad debt is often not the fault of fiscally irresponsible individuals.
Globalization is described as an "opportunity." Recession, depression, trade, unemployment, outsourcing, generational poverty, income inequality and the challenges of class mobility are all described as "unintended consequences" of the free enterprise system, rather than as structural components. Certainly this is an issue that high school students should be debating. The draft standards originally told students that there would always be unemployment because unemployment is essential to avoid inflation, which of course is a nearly religious universal free enterprise value, except if you or a family member is one of the unfortunate unemployed. However this assertion was dropped in the revised standards.
Common Core is so concerned with skill development that history and historical context barely matter. Instead students read important non-fiction texts in English classes. The Common Core high school recommended nonfiction reading list for English includes speeches by George Washington and Ronald Reagan, which seems okay until you realize that George Washington neither wrote or read speeches and while Ronald Reagan was an actor good at playing president, he did not write them either.
How bad is Common Core? David Coleman, the head of the College Board, is a major promoter of the Common Core Standards and appeared in a video championing the standards and the use of "informational texts" rather than fiction to develop the critical ability of students and higher levels of literacy. Unfortunately for his case, he ended up highlighting perhaps Common Core's greatest weakness - they promote skills at the expense of content knowledge which is virtually ignored.
As an example of the power of the Common Core, Coleman proposed a close and careful reading of Federalist #51, written by James Madison during debate over adoption of the new federal constitution "to teach students and teachers about carefully reading primary sources like Madison's work and how to understand concepts like 'faction' as the authors themselves understood these terms."
The problem is that while Madison does mention factions in Federalist # 51, the document is principally about checks and balances and the separation of powers in the new nation. Coleman does not appear to have even read the title of Federalist #51, The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments, very carefully before making the video. Factions, what we now call political parties, are actually the major topic in Federalist #10 which was also written by Madison.
Coleman should have been forced to resign from both the College Board and the campaign to promote the common core standards after the release of this video. Teachers should know something about history before they profess to teach it. But I guess that is not the case in the Common Core universe.
For all of these reasons, Common Core is rotten at the core.
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