Education

How Big Companies Like Microsoft, Pearson Are Gearing to Profit from Our Children’s Successes and Failures

Salivating profiteers are going after public schools with the voracious appetites of hungry teenagers.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/James Marvin Phelps

“You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” ― Ray Bradbury

When considering a rapidly privatizing market such as education, the terms “old school” and “new school” couldn’t be more relevant. Today we’re witnessing always panicked neoliberalism’s corporate state obliterate a supposed underperforming archaic public school system for something new — the exact terms of which have not been entirely decided yet. During this large-scale transition, which we refer to as “cognitive colonization,” critics tend to focus on egregious education corporations, their collaborating political allies and the latest illegal/immoral maneuvers used to dismantle a democratic flow between citizens, their tax dollars and decisions about schools. Here we also consider the cultural aspects of this imposed transition from old school unionized public services to new school, union-free, public/private hybridized educational enterprises.

As an endless source of profit, which the capitalist system needs to survive, the digitized, union-free classroom offers a speculative bubble driven by standardized curricular content and technological delivery systems, learning disability medical diagnostics, and outsourced student data available to third-party vendors for unbeknownst for-profit machinations. Both status quo and remedial educational needs are supposedly met and exceeded in a whirlwind of secret contracts, overpaid consultants, exuberant industry-speak, speculative data clouds, and prolific techie expertise. This is all disturbingly concentrated in a rather small circle of players — think corporate monopolies — pouring the salt of total uniformity into the festering wound of this corporate education takeover.

Other publicly funded infrastructure (such as prisons, military, municipal services, energy and water) have their own adjustments to make under monopoly finance capitalism’s new privatization mandates. Education privatization is characterized by a class bludgeoning process that is deeply cultural, as education institutes entire worldviews, not just facts and skill sets. Broad interpretations of personal and social reality — and value systems — are taught and learned in schools. As cliché as it sounds, education profoundly shapes individuals and the world in which we live.

Salivating profiteers are going after public schools with the voracious appetites of hungry teenagers at an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. The education privatization game is governed by an obsessive worldview focused on money and power that is very different from the public education worldview of dutifully and democratically rendered goods and services. (Perhaps it’s this quality of "dutiful rendering" that has some teachers so timid in the face of it all.). As Shawn Gude argues in his chapter “The Industrial Classroom” from Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook, "The private and public spheres are governed by disparate laws and logics. As much as reformers are given to business-speak, public schools still aren’t driven entirely by the imperatives of profit, as in the private sector.”

This is an optimistic reminder that the public is not beholden to the “imperatives of profit” — return on private invested capital — leading to clashing value systems that may intensify as more people witness the real results of all the new education business.

This business and education culture clash manifests in at least three areas: long-term gains vs. short-term gains; personalization vs. standardization; and privacy vs. publicity. The cultural aspect of class bludgeoning explains why the corporate takeover of schools is fraught with ongoing hostility, as opposing camps adhere to radically different worldviews. But it also explains privatizers’ fanatical union-busting convictions. It’s no mistake that Newark, New Jersey has recently proposed laying off close to 1,000 (one third of current workforce!) teachers to be potentially replaced by Teach for America employees; two very influential and growing education companies, Pearson and Amplify, have major ties in New Jersey. Union-busting is an economic and ideological necessity for privatizers. It eradicates worker protections in civil service and collective bargaining agreements—vestiges of the old school notion of workers’ rights, not “right to work” for low pay. It also funnels a fresh crop of lower-wage, temporary employees into a new right-sized system. This system is heavy on new school values of efficient technology and light on cultivating patient, attentive and respectful learning environments.

Long-Term Gains vs. Short-Term Gains

Any teacher or parent can tell you successful learning comes from cumulative work, and it’s rarely immediate. But in the business world, everything depends on the turnaround time of notably effective products, which are the bottom line on the corporate balance sheet. This emphasis on obsessive tracking of near instant results is not a matter of evil personalities who need to be replaced by nicer ones, but rather a legal fiduciary responsibility to yield the highest possible investment returns.

Now consider how results-based fiduciary responsibility conflicts with all we know about the psychology of learning—just from our own experiences. A child does not learn multiplication tables overnight, but through a gradual process involving rote memorization as well as long-term comprehension of more complex mathematical principles and patterns. But education companies would like to know as soon as possible how their new platform is raising math scores. The profit imperative demands testing. Most schools have always tested students, but with the growing need to indicate product performance for quarterly shareholder reports, education companies rely heavily on standardized tests. A more holistic conception of the learning process is being cashed in as the ends (test results) rather than the means (comprehending and retaining materials) is not only emphasized, but eerily fetishized.

Personalization vs. Standardization

Since the short-term pressure to turn a profit requires a method of proving product effectiveness, the education arena provides an in-built solution: standardized testing. But you would never know that education companies are about standardization when so much of their rhetoric focuses on “personalized” learning. Far from the personalized attention of an engaged teacher who knows your academic strengths and weaknesses, personality quirks, and maybe even your siblings, corporate education champions a large-scale technological homogenization of content and delivery systems.

Technological standardization is not an original feature of education companies. The “constant capital” of standardized machine technology (dead labor) replacing the spontaneous “variable capital” of people (living labor) is a fundamental dynamic driving the capitalist system. Profit is created from employers’ ability to secure technology that speeds up the production process (the education arena has much cognitive production) while keeping wages low. Computerization minimizes teacher and administrative labor costs, freeing capital to invest globally. Replacing teachers with computers, for instance, increases the former’s output in terms of students, online and in person, from an investment viewpoint. Further, computerization decreases employers’ wage bill. Farewell to collective bargaining agreements with retirement pensions, given the real budget pressure from the 2007-'08 housing collapse that sunk municipal and state tax revenues.

The competing ideologies of standardization and personalization are present in much education rhetoric today. They want standardized curricula delivered on tablets — taking much of the teacher’s individual interests, passions, and idiosyncrasies out of the classroom equation — but they present a vision that’s the opposite of standardization. Personalization is their Orwellian attempt to mask the truth of technological standardization. On its website, the education company, Amplify, explains its ambitious project of replacing textbooks with computers: “In development, our groundbreaking digital curriculum for ELA, science and math is the world’s most ambitious effort to replace textbooks as we know them, with tablet-based learning that is engaging, rigorous and personalized to each student’s needs.”

As Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451, they want to abolish textbooks. They are also altering the role of teachers, who become glorified classroom managers, teaching to the test with the tech.

It’s the cognitive colonizers’ claim that personalized computerized instruction spurs entrepreneurial innovation that assists students to compete in the global marketplace. There is a big problem with this assumption. Monopolies hamper innovation because they block entry into the very industries they monopolize. It’s one thing for students to customize new tablets with different software options, but given that the education company landscape is constituted by a suspiciously small number of big players (Microsoft and Pearson) and that standardization is the logical outcome of product performance protocols, real personalized learning and innovation is hardly the lay of this land. The operative term here is standardization, the opposite of personalization.

The trend of standardized learning comes from the dawn of industrial capitalism. This history is not always easy to see, given the misleading appearances of school accountability that fog our sight. In brief, the capitalist system spawned small then large factories with workforces tied to the time clock to boost productivity, the amount of goods and services workers create per hour. A class of owners sought to remove labor creativity from their hired help and replace that with uniformity for reasons of control and profit.

Privacy vs. Publicity

A debilitating focus on short-term gains and technological standardization is one thing, but even more disheartening is that more time-honored traditions, like respect for teacher expertise, and teacher and student privacy, are under attack. The idea that teaching is a respected craft honed through years of service (honored by seniority rights, tenure and due process), and that teachers are accountable to larger communities, holds little weight in the digitized cloud of cognitive capital.

Right when the focus of good content delivery shifts from the teachers to the tools, teachers are more scrutinized than ever before. Right when cognitive colonizers talk about personalized learning through technology, students are subjected to “data walls,” in which teachers publicly post grades, usually at the request of the school administration. If learning is so totally personal under this regime, why the need to publicize and compare grades at all? (We have seen a “data wall” at a 3-year-old pre-school classroom. Children’s names were posted next to their right or wrong science answers.)

This shift from teacher as primary content deliverer, backed by the traditional supplemental materials of textbooks, worksheets, overhead projectors/power points, Internet resources, to classroom technology manager will radically alter the practical and affective landscape of the classroom. Engaged teachers bring living energy to classrooms. Anyone who has ever taken an online class knows the difference between computer-generated and teacher-generated lessons. This is not an indictment of teaching with the latest technology; it is an indictment of for-profit delivery mechanisms that render real teaching obsolete.

Today’s teacher performance evaluation process conjures up Hester Prynne’s red “A” punishment in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The results of confusing new performance assessments are made public in some states. The teaching profession’s integrity is under attack through the introduction of standardized curricula, pay linked to test performance, excessive testing, and ludicrous professional development mandates. All of this causes more work. In some states there’s a demand for longer school days without increased compensation, and attacks on teachers’ seniority and tenure rights are underway. There’s a saying that the true measure of a society is how it treats its women. Given that 85 percent of all K-12 public school teachers are women, it’s especially appropriate to paraphrase this: “The true measure of an education system is how it treats its teachers.”

The students aren’t faring any better under cognitive colonization. The final frontier of the digitized classroom is the harvesting of student data for access by outside vendors. This was, in fact, the cozy little plan of Atlanta, Georgia based inBloom, which established partnerships with many state departments of education before a student privacy movement organized against it. New York high school principal Carol Burris has been instrumental in getting New York Governor Cuomo to reconsider his relationship with inBloom. Burris writes: “We are living in an era of data fascination ... This belief that 'the algorithm knows best' is based on nothing more than the speculation that a data-driven instructional world will better serve our children. Whether or not children prosper, however, may be inconsequential to those lining up to develop products and sell technology to schools."

Leonie Hamison, executive director of the education non-profit Class Size Matters, is another leader in the fight against student data collection. Hamison warns that school districts may claim they are not sharing data with for-profit vendors, but “many districts and schools share this data with for-profit vendors, by simply claiming that this is for ‘instructional’ purposes or for more efficient operation. Clearly the definition of ‘commercial purposes’ depends on the eye of the beholder."

Hamison is concerned that the federal government and taxpayer-funded companies contracted to produce tests under Common Core State Standards (CCSS) guidelines — such as the hilariously named Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced — may access student data through already established relationships with data collection companies: “At the same time that the PARCC policy says the data will not be used for commercial purposes, it does say that personal student data may be shared by states to PARCC and contractors for a variety of reasons, including 'to validate, pilot and field test, and improve the assessments.'"

Hamison notes that one of PARCC’s main contractors is Pearson, “a huge multi-national for-profit company” but she also mentions there are many unnamed sub-contractors: “Wireless Generation, a for-profit subsidiary of News Corporation and the prime subcontractor for inBloom, is one of the contractors of Smarter Balanced, the other testing consortium." When asked in an email what she thought of the future of student data collection, she responded: “There is going to be data collection for sure. The goal is to minimize it and put strict controls on who sees it and how it is used.”

The Lopsided Garden State

Leonie Hamison’s feeling about the inevitability of large-scale student data collection is corroborated by recent Obama administration and U.S. Department of Education activities. Arne Duncan has been a controversial Secretary of Education. During his reign he has overseen the rapid-fire education privatization policies now sweeping the nation. Despite much wisening up and straight resistance on the public’s part, privatization appears to be going full steam ahead with the nomination of NewSchool Ventures Fund’s Ted Mitchell as Department Under Secretary.

According to education scholar Diane Ravitch’s blog, Ted Mitchell is in: “the forefront of a movement to privatize public education, a radical transformation that would benefit technology, testing and textbook companies such as Pearson, the London-headquartered multinational publishing and education giant." Another political blog suggests Mitchell’s nomination indicates Washington is setting up a “Pearson Department of Education," while teachers’ unions and community groups grow more demoralized by the cognitive capital Mitchell will bring with him to Washington.

New Jersey has been especially amenable to cognitive capital. It pioneered state control of school districts and currently has four majority non-white urban school districts — Jersey City, Newark, Paterson and Camden — under state control. This strips local citizens and school boards of democratic control over public schools, extending cognitive capital into the decades-long occupied districts of Jersey City, Newark and Paterson, and rendering newly acquired Camden a cognitive colonizers’ playground. This leaves state-level education officials with mostly unchecked power to do what they want without accountability (although a recent bill was passed stating school boards have to approve school closure plans).

New Jersey offers some revealing lessons about the unabashed money grabbing involved in education privatization. In February 2014, New Jersey education commissioner Chris Cerf shocked the public by announcing his move back to the private education sector to work for a New York-based company called Amplify headed by Joel Klein, Cerf’s former boss in New York City schools. (For an account of Cerf’s stint in New Jersey, read our article.) This news confirmed something the public education movement already knows: public officials won’t protect the public from predatory reformers because these officials frequently are the predatory reformers.

It was recently announced that Newark Public Schools made $2.3 million worth of contract deals with Amplify services while Chris Cerf was commissioner: “When Cerf announced he was leaving Feb. 10, he told the Star-Ledger he didn’t know whether Amplify had been hired in New Jersey, although he 'suspected' it might have. He said he was sure the state hadn’t hired the company." If approved, Cerf will be replaced by education insider David Hespe, who was commissioner during Christine Todd Whitman’s administration, 1999-2001, and served one year as Cerf’s chief of staff in 2011.

Chris Cerf travels in the most powerful circles global capitalism has to offer. Amplify is owned by K. Rupert Murdoch, who launched his new Delaware-based News Corp Inc. on June 11, 2013. According to a Sept. 20, 2013 Annual Report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, News Corp Inc.’s businesses range from news information and cable network programming (Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, Herald Sun, the Sun, the Times, HarperCollins Publishers, Fox Sports Australia), to digital real estate services and book publishing, to education companies such as Wireless Generation, which eventually became Amplify.

Consisting of three different business divisions, Cerf will be heading Amplify Insight, which “provides premium data and analytics services to enable real-time individualized instruction," according to its recent annual statement. Curriculum focused Amplify Learning develops “innovative digital curricula for K-12 education designed to enhance teaching and learning in English Language Arts, Science and Math.” Amplify Learning also promises “software that will combine interactive, game-like experiences with rigorous analytics, all driven by adaptive technologies that respond to individual students’ needs as they evolve.” Amplify Learning’s digital curriculum will incorporate Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Finally, Amplify Access “is developing an open, tablet-based education platform that integrates its existing assessment and analytics tools and services with its digital curricula as well as third-party content and interactive applications.” The glue that holds these three divisions-data, content, and delivery — together is standardized testing.

Amplify might be doing $2.3 million worth of business in Newark schools (it could be more, but don’t expect any public education officials to know), but an Amplify spokesperson declined a request to comment on the company’s metrics to grow K-12 online learning and teaching, or any services for low-income, K-12 New Jersey students. As it stands now, public officials are confounded by news of million-dollar contracts, and Amplify spokespeople have nothing to say about what they are planning to do with the money.

Newark children could really use some of those millions right about now. Income inequality is the new normal in the Garden State. Based on tax units or households, New Jersey is “a lopsided ... economy, where top 1 percent average income ($1,312,077) is 23.9 times greater than the average income of the bottom 99 percent ($54,864), according to the Increasingly Unequal States of America: Income Inequality by State, 1917 to 2011," an Economic Analysis and Research Network report published Feb. 19, 2014.

New Jersey’s wealth disparities and privatizing trend falls in step with the demands of global capitalism. In Stop, Thief: The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance (PM Press, 2014), Peter Linebaugh argues that the public school enclosure is consistent with capitalism and state power’s onward march. Accordingly, government is a central part of — not separate from — Amplify’s presence in the marketplace of investment, return and risk. (It’s even the same individuals sometimes.) Amplify’s business model stretches far and wide, covering over 200,000 educators and 3 million students in every U.S. state. This tends to be the trend: few education companies with large coverage.

Getting 'Pearsonal'

If we could speak of only one education company, it would be Pearson Inc., a British company, with U.S. headquarters in New Jersey, that owns Pearson Education as well as the publishing imprints of Addison-Wesley, Allyn and Bacon, Benjamin Cummings, Longman, Prentice Hall and Scott Foresman. Pearson has also bought up more startups too numerous to list, but a few recent acquisitions include Certaport, EmbaNetCompass, Nook Media, TutorVista, Flipped Classroom Managers, Learning Catalytics and EdTech.

Confidently calling itself “the world’s leading learning company,” with “36,000 people in more than 70 countries,” Pearson earned $7 billion in education revenues for 2011, according to its 2012 annual report. (By way of comparison, McGraw-Hill Education earned revenues of $2.3 billion in 2011, down from $2.4 billion in 2010, according to Pearson’s 2012 annual report.) Eighty-four percent of Pearson’s education revenues flow from assessing and testing students (and teachers), and this is achieved through straightforward political influence.

As we are well familiar, it’s all about special interests. Private interests pay lobbyists who then influence lawmakers. Take Pearson’s activity in the Lone Star State as a prime example. Last July, the state auditor reported that the Texas Education Agency failed to properly oversee a five-year $462 million Pearson Education contract for standardized testing. The Texas Ethics Commission states there were seven registered lobbyists for Pearson Education, who were paid $510,000 in 2013. B. Alexander Kress is a registered Pearson lobbyist in Texas. Kress was a senior advisor on No Child Left Behind, and a past president of the Dallas Public Schools Board of Trustees, but he’s found even a more lasting way to make an imprint on education policy. February 5, 2014 was a big day for him. He also began to lobby for Amplify Inc., Teach for America, Curriculum Associates and Texas Instruments.

The lobbying career of a man like Kress, and there are many others, indicates the corporate inbreeding involved in cognitive colonization. But nothing could be more incestuous within these circles than a Microsoft/Pearson partnership. It’s widely known that Bill Gates has donated millions to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) cause. On Feb. 20, 2014, Pearson announced a collaboration with Microsoft Corporation that “will combine Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses with the groundbreaking capabilities of the Windows 8 touchscreen environment. The Common Core System of Courses is the first curriculum built for a digital personalized learning environment that is 100 percent aligned to the new standards for college and career readiness.”

Margo Day, vice president, U.S. Education, Microsoft Corp. is excited by this new marriage: “We’re in the middle of an exciting transformation in education with technology fueling the movement and allowing schools to achieve this goal of personalized learning for each student."

Apparently, personalized online learning under monopolized technology ownership is an exciting transformative movement: classrooms are getting Pearsonal and we should all be ecstatic about the news. Performance data (and other student information such as absences and suspensions) is a touchscreen away and companies will be diligently collecting it for financial projections, future projects and to sell to third-party vendors. More than anything, getting Pearsonal means more standardized CCSS based curricula and tests. You can be comforted by the idea that education companies will know children’s data, intimately.

In August 2013, Pearson acquired BioBehavioral Diagnostics Company (BioBDx), “the developer and marketer of the Quotient® System, the first U.S. FDA-cleared tool for the objective measurement of hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention as an aid in the assessment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)." Teachers now report they are receiving Pearson behavioral evaluation forms to fill out for their students. Do we really want the same companies that creates students’ academic tests in the business of children’s medical diagnostics?

As it stands today, Microsoft, Pearson, Amplify, inBloom and the new cultural/businesses/political apparatus of cognitive colonization — a manifest destiny of the mind — will profit from our children’s successes and failures. If children succeed, monopoly firms will take the credit. If children fail, the same interests have data about their supposed disabilities. Never fear, education companies also have the products to get children back on track. Welcome to cognitive colonization, where it’s always one-stop shopping. Why worry? Education companies are invested in your children’s (future) failure.

Michelle Renee Matisons is an independent scholar doing education research in the Florida panhandle. She can be reached at michrenee@gmail.com.

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist in Sacramento. Email him at: sethsandronsky@gmail.com.