"(Ya Got) Trouble" at Pearson

03/09/2015 10:33 am ET | Updated May 09, 2015

Inexcusable Irresponsibility - On Tuesday, March 2, 2015, the following memo was posted on the New York State Teacher Certification Examinations website by Pearson Education:

"Important Announcement about Score Reporting for Redeveloped NYSTCE Content Specialty Tests: Reporting of scores for the redeveloped Content Specialty Tests (CSTs) listed below will be delayed until Spring 2015, while NYSED establishes a passing score for each test/subtest. Please check this website frequently. When passing scores have been established, the score reporting schedule will be updated." The new Content Specialty Tests for teachers designed, administered, and graded by Pearson were rolled out it September 2015. Students seeking teacher certification were originally told to expect results in "early 2015."

A notice was also posted on the website. NYSED reported it is in the "process of establishing passing scores for each of the redeveloped Content Specialty Tests (CSTs) listed below. It is anticipated that scores for each test/subtest will be released in Spring 2015. When passing scores have been established, the score reporting schedule on the NYSTCE website will be updated."

In response to these postings, I received an email [names deleted] from the parent of one of the students who recently completed the Hofstra University teacher education program.

"As a teacher myself, I am utterly frustrated and angry at Pearson and Gov. Cuomo for the current attack on our profession. I know you have kept a watch on Pearson . . . Currently, I need some advice on how to handle this situation. I do not know whether to contact an attorney and bring a suit against Pearson because this time lag is unacceptable or contact our State Senators but since they are both Democrats, I do not think that will get my anywhere. I can only imagine the students who are waiting for this test and are unable to obtain employment/interviews because they are currently not certified . . . Pearson states that they are releasing the grades in Spring, 2015. Again, an unacceptable time lag."

On Diane Ravitch's Blog, Jane Arnold, a reading specialist with the State University of New York, reported that she "was one of the people asked to 'help' set the cut-off scores for the 5-9 multi-subject tests. We did the math and the ELA. First, these were to set the cut-offs for the 36 people who took the tests in September and who are still waiting for their results. Second, we were asked to take the tests ourselves, and many people said they couldn't imaging having to do this on a computer."

According to Arnold, "one of the questions was worded in such as way that there was no correct answer. Several of the evaluators felt "We're here so Pearson can say they consulted teachers." Arnold asked a colleagues who teaches statistics and probability "how valid a cut off is when the scores are based only on the 36 people who took the test, it covers a range of grades 5-9, and the cut-off scores are set by 8 people, not all of whom teach the subjects they are judging." The colleague's conclusion, "Not very valid."

This is inexcusable irresponsibility by New York State Education and by Pearson.

"(Ya Got) Trouble" is a song from the 1957 Broadway musical and the 1962 movie The Music Man. In the song, slick-talking huckster "Professor" Harold Hill tells the parents of River City, Iowa they've got trouble that starts with the letter "P" and stands for pool. If Hollywood decides to do an update, I think the "P" is going to stand for Pearson. They certainly are trouble, and they've got trouble. Robert Preston played Hill in the original movie and Matthew Broderick played him in a forgettable 2003 re-make. Sir Michael Barber, Pearson's Chief Education Advisor, can be the slick-talking huckster in the next rendition selling "Pearson" as the solution to the world's problems.

Because of my past Pearson exposes for Huffington Post, disgruntled employees forward me internal Pearson memos that they find disturbing. A recent forwarded memo was originally sent out by Bethlam Forsa, the new managing director for Pearson NA. According to her Linkedin page Forsa came to Pearson when the company acquired Houghton Mifflin and has been President of Learning Services at Pearson since December 2014. As with all of the Pearson education gurus, Forsa apparently has no school based experience, except in her case as a board member of a Bronx, New York charter school. As a side note, maybe Pearson should recommend that its executives to get off of Linkedin and other similar social and business networks.

In her pep-talk memo, Forsa tried to sell her staff some of the latest Pearson business clichés. Their division, U.S. Learning Services, needed to "act like a startup going forward." To become a "profitable and sustainable business," it would " have to invest in efficacy-based and market-centric products that will help us become the number one learning services company in the world." She called on them to be "truly brave, imaginative, decent, and accountable," because "we can't accept anything less than being number one."

And just in case "some loyal and dedicated friends and colleagues" are not onboard, "the size of our team also needs to reflect our revenue projections," so we will be "saying good-bye" to them. Of course "these decisions are never easy, and we are committed to treating our employees with respect and supporting them through this transition process," but good-bye is good-bye and blah-blah-blah.

Behind the verbiage, the message is clear that Pearson is in trouble and needs to rebuild U.S. Learning Services because it is not a high-performing organization. Remaining employees are ordered to "focus on our markets, our learners, and the ecosystem we belong to," but never, at least not according to this memo, on the quality of Pearson education products and whether they actually useful in schools and for students.

Another sign that the Big "P" is both trouble and may be in trouble was a post on a website operated by edSurge, a group that follows developments in the edtech industry. edSurge managing editor and columnist Tony Wan reported that the edtech company Blackboard was in "final talks to purchase PowerSchool, a popular student information system" from Pearson. PowerSchool currently "serves more than 13 million students in the US and 65 other countries." According to Wan, "Selling one of its major cash cows would be the latest in a series of big moves for Pearson, which is coming out of a costly organization restructuring." While Pearson claims PowerSchool is "the fastest-growing, most widely used web-based student information system, supporting 13 million students in all 50 states and over 65 countries," it has been plagued with problems. Superintendent Heath Morrison of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system described the 2014 implementation of the system in North Carolina as a "train wreck." It was so flawed that the local News Observer reported the" keeping track of student information has so many problems that the accuracy of transcripts, athletic eligibility and the number of students enrolled in schools is uncertain."

Meanwhile, a recent article on POLITICO reported "Pearson makes money even when its results don't measure up." A POLITICO investigation "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." In addition, while Pearson's contracts establish "specific performance targets," the company is not penalized if it does not to meet the standards. POLITICO also found that "the contracts give Pearson extensive access to personal student data, with few constraints on how it is used." A top Pearson executive boasted that the company is "the largest custodian of student data anywhere." Investigators concluded, "public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it's familiar, even when there's little proof its products and services are effective."

Despite this, Pearson now has testing contracts with twenty-one states, Washington DC, New York City, and Puerto Rico and "the contract to administer and score the exams that will be used by 10 states in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers consortium. The PARCC contract is worth at least $138 million to Pearson this year and could ultimately be worth many hundreds of millions more." But of course, this makes the company especially vulnerable to the surging anti-Common Core movement that is sweeping the United States.

Pearson claims it is "proud of its work on projects such as the Common Core exams and an online toolkit for parents and won't be sidetracked by criticism." According to a spokesperson quoted in the POLITICO article, "We have to make sure we're not distracted by the noise" - which I interpret as the opinions of parents and teachers and the performance of students.

There certainly is trouble in River City that starts with the letter "P" and stands for Pearson.