Publishing Giant Pearson Hauls in Billions in Education Dollars, But Do Students Benefit?
Leave it to Oscar Wilde to get things right. Writing about late-19th-century British attitudes regarding the poor, the Irish writer and social critic concluded, “Their remedies are part of the disease.”
Oh, how far we have not come.
With an extensive and carefully detailed examination of the British publishing giant Pearson, published by Politico last week, Stephanie Simon has drawn a similar conclusion about the state of American education: “The story of Pearson’s rise,” Simon writes, “is very much a story about America’s obsession with education reform over the past few decades.” In short, our obsession with “accountability” at all costs has given birth to an industry that, while feeding on taxpayer dollars, corrupts the very thing it (erroneously) seeks to measure: learning. As with Wilde’s poor, here, too, it is self-evident: our remedies have become part of our disease.
Pearson has clearly profited from the post-No Child Left Behind era, bolstered by the more recent Common Core movement: “Half its $8 billion in annual global sales comes from its North American education division,” Simon reveals. But what gains have Americans reaped in return? According to Simon, relatively few. “Pearson’s dominance,” she writes, “does not always serve U.S. students or taxpayers well.”
Simon’s disturbing expose of corporate gain on the backs of taxpayer dollars is a most welcome addition to the efforts currently being made to beat back the corporatization of education—many of them led by educational researchers and teachers. It is essential reading for anyone concerned with the current state of education. But its appearance also raises a critical question: Why has it taken so long for the media to take note? Scholars and teachers have been warning of this for years.
Writing in 2007, professors Sharon L. Nichols, University of Texas-San Antonio, and David C. Berliner, Arizona State University, shared a detailed account of the unintended consequences of high-stakes testing, highlighting Campbell’s Law, itself a caution about statistics from 1975:
Campbell’s law stipulates that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”…
High-stakes testing is exactly the kind of practice Campbell warned us about….
Our literature search has turned up endless examples showing how high-stakes testing corrupts education.
On AlterNet two years ago, I connected those concerns to Common Core, asking:
Who advocates for CCSS? What claims drive that advocacy? And who stands to benefit from CCSS implementation as well as the connected tests?...
With the poor track record associated with standards-based reform, that raises another important question about why leaders continue to support new standards: Who benefits from the call for new and better standards and tests?
And well before Simon’s expose, I noted: “Advocacy for CCSS serves the commercial, corporate, and political interests of those already in power, at the expense of those living underneath the inequity of poverty that characterizes more and more families and children in the U.S.”
In other words, this is not new news. Though Simon’s article provides detailed information about Pearson that may not have been previously aired, the bigger issue the piece hints at—the overwhelming failure of accountability-based reform—is well-accepted among those who have been paying attention to the evidence. Enabled by a largely uncritical media and a public that has been misled by its political leaders, Pearson’s troubling impact on the educational landscape was largely predictable; worse, you could recast Simon’s expose with a focus on almost any aspect of the reform era begun 30 years ago and come up with similarly shocking results—and many scholars and bloggers are now doing just that. (See for example, a response to blogger and educator Jack Schneider’s piece outlining 10 popular reform claims, all of which are contradicted by the available evidence.)
It’s taken far too long for the media to pick up on the warnings any number of experts have sounded since the launch of NCLB, but now that an outlet like Politico is paying attention, we must encourage them to treat not just Pearson, but the entire failed agenda, with the skepticism it deserves.
Simon ends her examination of Pearson by noting a possible shift in attitudes toward testing in the U.S., one that may include reconsidering the emphasis on such tests and how often they are administered:
Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed sharp concern about the prominent role standardized testing now plays in schools across the nation. They’re considering scrapping the federal mandate that all states test all students in reading and math each year in grades three through eight plus at least once in high school.
This is good news, but it is not sufficient. High-stakes testing is just one piece of a larger education reform agenda built on accountability, all of which demands to be revisited. For just as investing in high-stakes tests has profited Pearson while failing to improve student achievement and educational equity, charter schools are no more effective than public schools, merit pay and value-added methods of evaluating and retaining teachers do not improve teaching, and the presence or quality of standards (including Common Core) does not correlate with higher student achievement. These policies are not just misguided; they also keep the focus off the real problems, the ones related to inequity in the lives and education of children, especially among racial minorities, impoverished children, special needs students, and non-native speakers of English. These are the problems that actually deserve our attention.
What we need now is a willingness to reframe the debate. We need education reform that is couched within social reform, and new policies addressing in-school reform that begin by clearly identifying the problem. This is the only way we can ensure that the remedies are, at last, curative and not simply more of the disease.