Bad Apples: One Company's Stranglehold on the American Education System

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Bad Apples: One Company's Stranglehold on the American Education System

'The story of Pearson’s rise is very much a story about America’s obsession with education reform over the past few decades.'

"Pearson has aggressive lobbyists, top-notch marketing and a highly skilled sales team," Politico reports. (Photo: Christoffer Glosli/flickr/cc)

Pearson Education, the British-owned, for-profit education publishing and high-stakes testing service, rakes in tens of millions in profits at all levels of the American education system—"even when its results don't measure up," a Politico investigation has revealed.

The exposé published Tuesday illustrates some of the many problems with outsourcing aspects of public education to private corporations.

And, Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, told Common Dreams, it provides further evidence that the for-profit testing model benefits corporations and not students.

"Testing is about politics and business—not education," he said, pointing out that the reporting merely adds to a "litany of errors" already documented against the company.

"The story of Pearson’s rise is very much a story about America’s obsession with education reform over the past few decades," writes journalist Stephanie Simon, who scoured hundreds of pages of contracts, business plans and email exchanges, as well as tax filings, lobbying reports, and marketing materials, to offer the first comprehensive look at Pearson's business practices in the United States.

The Pearson empire is wide-ranging, as Politico describes it.

The education behemoth writes textbooks, workbooks, and standardized tests "that drive instruction in public schools across the nation," says Simon. It has developed myriad educational technology products, including software that grades student essays, tracks student behavior, and diagnoses—and allegedly "treats"—attention deficit disorder. At the other end of the pipeline, the company administers teacher licensing exams and coaches teachers once they're in the classroom.

Beyond that, Pearson operates a network of three dozen online public schools and co-owns the for-profit company that now administers the GED. In addition, it sells interactive tutorials for college courses on subjects from algebra to philosophy and builds online degree programs for higher education clients including George Washington University, Arizona State University, and Texas A&M.

At ASU, for instance, Pearson is in charge of marketing and supporting online degree programs in exchange for more than half of student tuition revenue.

Plus, Simon adds, "[a] top executive boasted in 2012 that Pearson is the largest custodian of student data anywhere" thanks to its data-tracking programs.

In other words, she writes: "Pearson wields enormous influence over American education."

Michael Apple, a professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Politico: "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."

Abby Rapaport wrote for the Texas Observer in 2011, "Pearson is part of a larger education-reform effort that seeks to improve public education through free-market principles. Often that means non-traditional educational approaches like charter schools and online learning. The movement includes a lot of earnest folks, eager to improve public schools and do what’s best for kids. But their efforts have earned a fortune for companies like Pearson."

Indeed, Simon's reporting "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."

In California, for example:

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.

Similar debacles, all with slightly different price tags and details—unmet testing targets here, technology glitches there—have played out around the country.

And many of the multi-million dollar failures come as the result of no-bid contracts. According to Simon, the company has numerous competitors for nearly all the products it sells, but the Politico review found Pearson "often has the inside track for contracts because its products are so ubiquitous and its sales staff builds such tight relationships with state and local officials."

As Rapaport wrote: "It’s become difficult to determine where the educating ends and the profit-making begins."

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