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Beware! Pearson's Plan for Education Is Coming to a Country Near You

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In the United States school districts are traditionally organized and funded locally. Parents, teachers, and school and district administrators usually only think about state and national issues when they feel pressed from above by state imposed budget cuts or federal demands for curriculum change and new assessments. Much of the opposition to Common Core and Race to the Top arose because parents, teachers, and administrators felt local prerogatives were being undermined by unwarranted pressure from above. But an examination of the Pearson publishing mega-giant's plan to control public education in Great Britain makes clear, the greatest threat to local initiatives in public education may be from powerful global corporations. Beware! The Pearson Plan for education in the United Kingdom may be coming to a country near you -- unless we can stop it now.

In March 2013, The Guardian, one of the leading British daily newspapers, published an opinion piece charging that "unelected oligarchs" and "private sponsors" were taking over the British school system. The academy schools discussed in this article sound very similar to the charter school movement in the United States.

"All over England, schools are being obliged to become academies: supposedly autonomous bodies which are often "sponsored" (the government's euphemism for controlled) by foundations established by exceedingly rich men. The break-up of the education system in this country, like the dismantling of the National Health Service, reflects no widespread public demand. It is imposed, through threats, bribes and fake consultations, from on high."

The "academy" alternative was supposed to be reserved for failing schools, but according to the article, the reality in Britain is much different. A Department of Education memo makes clear "it is our ambition that academy status should be the norm for all state schools." Another memo recommended transferring academies out of the state-run school system into the private sector. To achieve these goals, "academy" sponsors appear to be targeting good schools with temporary problems that they can claim to have turned around.

For example, from 2007-2012 the Roke primary school in the community of Croydon in south London was rated "outstanding" by the British government's quality control department known as OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills). However, after several senior staff retired and a computer failure caused a delay in reporting data to inspectors, the school received a "Notice to Improve." Although the school subsequently met the required standards, it was notified by the British Department for Education that it would be turned into an academy.

In September 2012, the British Department for Education held a closed meeting with school administrators and reportedly told them that if they did not immediately accept the demand to become an "academy," they would be fired by the local school authority. They threatened that if local school officials did not carry out the order, it would be replaced by an interim board of governors that would. They also warned school administrators not to inform parents about the meeting or the decision.

School administrators at Roke acquiesced and selected the local secondary school as its partner. However, on the last day of the fall term, the Department of Education rejected the plan and paired the school with the "Harris Foundation," a group founded by the chairman of a large retail store chain with close ties to the ruling Conservative Party. When parents learned of these events they rebelled and unanimously voted to partner with the secondary school. But the community was overruled by the British schools minister, who happens to be a wealthy businessman, a major donor to the British Conservative Party, and a sponsor of the academies plan.

In many ways the strategy for promoting academies in Great Britain is similar to the strategy for promoting charter schools in the United States. Working class and poor families are told the academies are a solution to educational inequality. The academies are also exempt from following national curriculum and are not answerable to local governments. According to one British commentator who has carefully documented the history of the academies, "When threats don't work, the department resorts to bribery. Schools receive up to an extra £65,000 or over $100,000 in state funds, if they become academies. As a result, the academies program exceeded its budget by £1 billion ($1.6 billion) from 2010 to 2012.

The Guardian is especially concerned about the influence of Pearson, the educational publishing giant, over the so-called educational reform movement in Great Britain. Pearson, originally based in Great Britain but with most of its current revenue from the United States, is at the center of the academy movement. In partnership with the Royal Society of Arts, Pearson funded a study the Guardian suspects will be used to demonstrate the success of the academies scheme.

In addition, Pearson, through its Edexcel subsidy, is the largest testing company in Great Britain with sales totally over £317 million in 2010. It also has a contract to grade achievement tests for English 11-year-olds. Not surprisingly, Pearson sponsored another study to show how the exam system promotes "high standards." Other Pearson ventures designed to shape educational policy and maybe also boost Pearson corporate profits include "Pearson Think Tank," funding Oxford University's Centre for Educational Assessment, and the "Pearson school model." The "Pearson school model" includes a computer-based curriculum that can be sold to schools, dubbed "the Always Learning Gateway."

The "Pearson Think Tank" is an excellent example of the way Pearson's not-for profit policy and research programs and its for-profit corporate activities intersect. According to its website, "Although the Pearson Think Tank is funded by Pearson, it is independent from its commercial activities. We are conscious of any conflicts of interest and operate accordingly, and final decisions about what and when we publish reside with us." However, "Where possible we try to draw on Pearson's networks, knowledge and expertise to gather new evidence about educational quality and access that is of interest to the wider sector."

But the reality is that the Pearson Think Tank is actively promoting Pearson corporate interests. The think tank is working in partnership with the British Academies Commission to examine the implications of the "mass academisation," or privatization, of Britain's state run schools. Between May 2010 and November 2012 the number of academized schools increased from about 200 to almost 2,500. As with other Pearson supported "studies," it somehow aligns with corporate goals. In this case its goal is "to develop a practical but compelling vision for the future of UK academisation" so that "young people experience the benefits of academisation." The Commission's report is titled, "Unleashing greatness: Getting the best from an academised system."

The Pearson Think Tank has also conducted "research" to support the use of Pearson high-stakes tests in the United Kingdom; to promote the type of "enterprise and entrepreneurship education" provided by the Pearson UK online university; and to support "Pearson's Teacher Training and Certification Programme."

In praise of Pearson for-profits high-stakes testing programs, the Pearson Think Tank quoted Michael Gove, Great Britain's Conservative Party Education Secretary who defended the tests as "tools of social mobility" based on human nature because "humans are hard-wired to seek out challenges"; sources of "satisfaction and contentment" for students on "a job well done"; and the basis to "ensure that a solid base of learning is complete before progressing on to further learning." The tests are great because they "drive creativity" and "signal that a person is ready to take on greater challenge and responsibility." Unfortunately, there was no research cited to support these over-the-top claims.

The Guardian article quoted Stephen Ball, a professor of the sociology of education at London University's Institute of Education and an expert on education business, on Pearson's "educational" ventures. According to Ball:

"They want to offer products and services in all areas of school practice: assessment, pedagogy, curriculum and management, and they want to create the possibility for that through policy work. They want to have indirect influence in policy to create opportunities for business expansion. It's a very well thought-out business strategy."

As we know from recent revelations by the Attorney General of New York State, Pearson operates the same way in the United States blurring the lines between its not-for-profit Foundation and its for-profit company. As a penalty and to avoid prosecution the Pearson Foundation agreed to pay $7.5 million into a fund managed by the Attorney General to support education in high-needs schools. When I posted a Huffington Post "Pearson Caught Cheating, Says Sorry, But Will Pay" on the Pearson Foundation Facebook page, Foundation officials responded:

"Pearson and the Foundation maintain we have always acted with the best intentions and complied with the law. However, we recognize that there were times when the governance of the Foundation and its relationship with Pearson could have been clearer and more transparent. The Foundation has adopted a number of reforms to enhance operations and programs and further its charitable mission."

In the United States, Pearson donates to the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Obama White House. John Podesta, Founder and Chair of the Center for American Progress, was Chief of Staff in the Clinton White House and is an important advisor to President Obama. Reports issued by the Center for American Progress have advocated in favor of the national Common Core Standards, changes in teacher preparation programs including alternative certification routes, and the validity of high stakes student assessments, all areas where Pearson for-profit is marketing products and services. While the Center for American Progress is considered a "liberal" think tank, it has some curious conservative and business connections. For example, Ulrich Boser, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress where he analyzes education issues also serves as research director of Leaders and Laggards, a joint project of the Center for American Progress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

I do not think Pearson's problems in New York State were related to unclarity at all. What is happening in Great Britain makes it perfectly clear, Pearson's not for-profit activities serve the global profit making goals of the Pearson company. If parents, teachers and students do not organize to resist corporate incursions into American public education, the Pearson Plan for Education will be coming to a country, state, city, town, and school near you!