Thursday, October 13, 2011


Nearly six months ago I wrote a post titled “The Education Market.” Since then, things have only gotten worse.  The American public is divided on the Occupy Wall Street movement and it’s decentralized nature makes it difficult to figure out exactly what they’re asking for, but it’s origin is certain. Increasingly, Americans are losing trust in their Government to hold corporations accountable for their actions.

While the 99% Occupy Wall Street, I would issue a challenge to the 99% of our education world. While 99% of us either occupy a classroom as teachers or students or occupy an office as administrator, the 1% who control the wealth and spending in education are making poorly informed decisions that will cost us all in the long term.

“Reformers” and politicians try to cast the teacher’s unions as the bad guys, looking to protect the self-interest of educators. While corporations pushing an education agenda leading to higher profits escape the criticism of being self-serving. While the NEA reports revenue approaching $377 million, the Pearson corporation generates over $300 million in revenue from just three states with whom they provide services. (Illinois- $138, Virginia- $110, and Kentucky-$57. Compare that to state education association revenues in those states at $48, $15, and $11 million respectively.) source

If money is power, even the teachers’ unions can’t compete with “Wall Street.” Pearson is not the only corporation earning money from education, it just happens to be the biggest.

A few weeks ago, the big news in educational marketing came from the National Summit on Education Reform. In addition to founder, Jeb Bush, the Chiefs for Change, Joel Klein, and the Gates, media mogul Rupert Murdoch was invited to give a keynote address.  Not long ago, Rupert Murdoch extended the reach of his media empire into education through the acquisition of Wireless Generation, a data management/ instructional technology company similar to Pearson’s SchoolNet.

This deal transpired shortly after former New York City public schools chancellor, Joel Klein, resigned his post to take a position as executive vice president with Murdoch’s News Corp organization. Under Klein, the NYC school system had already established a relationship with Wireless Generation.

Recent articles in EdWeek (Report: Pearson Foundation Finances Trips Abroad for State Ed. Officials) and The New York Times (When Free Trips Overlap With Commercial Purposes) show that questionable relationships between private business and educational leaders and institutions are not isolated local matters. Current federal and state legislation places such large demands on states and local districts for testing, data-collecting, and reporting that school systems (local and state) have little choice but to determine what companies will receive a lion’s share of their resources to comply.

And the lions lay in wait to claim their share. Last year, Albemarle County decided to abandon the GradeSpeed student information system owned by SchoolNet after consistent trouble with the platform.  In it's place, the county contracted with PowerSchool, a Pearson company while continuing to use the SchoolNet data system.  A short time after this decision, the education lion, Pearson, bought the parent company SchoolNet, increasing its reach into the education market even further.

We must have common standards, the standards must be tested, the tests must be graded, the grades must be sorted into data, the data must be reported, and the reports must show that we’ve reached the standards. Companies like Pearson find their way into every element of this circular equation, standing to profit at every arc.

The two articles referenced compare what is happening in education to the way pharmaceutical companies court doctors in order to promote their products. Pearson has been financing trips for top state education officials to Finland, Brazil, and Singapore to meet with education leaders in other countries and Pearson representatives. In a follow-up article in the New York Times, top state officials from Virginia, Iowa, and Kentucky declare that they see nothing wrong with accepting these trips and providing marketing statements to Pearson despite the multi-million dollar contracts the states have signed with Pearson.

Indeed, in a cash-strapped economy, who could blame state and local decision-makers for taking the incentives offered by companies to provide a service that is de facto demanded by state and federal law. If you must choose a product, choose the one with the most attractive package.

Reports from earlier in the year indicate how Pearson hopes to benefit from our current direction in education:

“Pearson, which has spent around $1.4bn on education companies since selling its stake in Interactive Data Corporation for $2bn last year, said the acquisition would be earnings neutral in 2011. It believes Schoolnet will benefit from the Obama administration's $17bn drive to support school improvement through measures such as comprehensive data systems.” (Pearson among FTSE gainers as it buys US group Schoolnet)

As the American economy dries up and traditional markets lose profitability, corporations such as Pearson have moved into the untapped revenue source of local taxpayers through public school spending:
“The greatest risk of having such a significant slice of the revenue pie coming from US education is the dependence on state budgets. However, Barack Obama's government has highlighted education as an area of the US that requires reform.”(Pearson bets on growth in US education: Pearson has spent years building its US education business and clearly sees more room for growth.)

Having spent billions of dollars in building an educational corporation, certainly companies in this market have a voice in our government. As much as teachers’ unions are criticized for holding up education reform, can they possibly command as much influence. I’m not sure that the NEA has ever funded a trip to Singapore for government education officials. Yet, the multi-national profit machines have managed to convince an American public that teachers and especially teacher unions are the problem.

On several Lobbying Reports filed on behalf of Pearson in 2011, the following statement summarizes their lobbying efforts:
“Pearson, the foreign entity identified on the LD-1, supports reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act that includes quality assessments, technology, student data systems and records, literacy programs and opposes government funding of open education resources development.”
We more commonly refer to the current manifestation of the ESEA as No Child Left Behind. As of today, 37 of 50 states have indicated their intent to apply for a waiver from this law. Republicans and Democrats alike criticize the act. Across the nation, students, teachers, and parents have raised their voices in concern over the emphasis it places on standardized testing. In a season of declining budgets, prevalence of “assessment, technology, and data” has led to diminished respect and support of the role of teachers in education.  And, private interests push for ownership rather than collaboration through opposition to open resource development.

The corporate educators of America continue to influence and direct public education policy in a way that allows the corporate sector to earn significant revenue at the taxpayer’s expense.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that I am doing the same thing. My paycheck comes out of your pocket. If you don’t like what I’m doing as a teacher, come on down to Albemarle High School and have a talk with me. If that doesn’t work, try my principal. Not happy with the outcome yet? We’ve got a Superintendent and an assistant or two who would be glad to discuss your problem with me. It’s happened before and it is a good thing. That’s accountability.

On the other hand, let’s say you believe a question on your child’s last standardized test was biased, or perhaps you have reason to believe the test score is inaccurate. Maybe you have a problem with single shot multiple choice assessment in general. Who do you go to about that? I doubt the office doors at Pearson are open to the public. You my taxpayer, parent, concerned citizen friend are out of luck.

All of this discussion leaves me feeling quite quixotic. What can we do? The policy makers at state and local levels use test data to justify their decisions this year and then explain them away the next when the latest round of data show they didn’t make AYP. Our educational and political leaders engage in rhetoric that promotes deeper thinking and learning, praising teachers for their efforts. When you follow the money, the direction of their words make little sense. They continue to support reforms driven by corporate interest by contracting with the very companies who stand to profit the most from test-driven, data-generating, technology based reforms.

In the world of education, we are the 99%; parents, students, teachers.  It's time for our voice to make a difference.

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