Education Publisher Pearson's Global Ambitions Reflects Scope of Privateers Now Upending Public Schools
Powerful forces are at work shaping global education in both the North Atlantic core capitalist nations and regions historically referred to as the Third World.
Neoliberal business philosophies and practices promoted by corporations and their partner foundations, supported by international organizations, financiers, and bankers, and welcomed, or at least tolerated by compliant governments, are trying to transform education from a government responsibility and social right into investment opportunities.
They defend their actions as reforms designed to increase educational equity and achieve higher standards; where possible they seek out local community support. But the underlying motivation behind corporate educational reform is extending the reach of free market globalization and business profits.
An early twentieth century political cartoon from Puck magazine portrayed the Standard Oil Company as a giant octopus with tentacles encircling and corrupting national and state governments. The image can easily be applied to the British-based publishing company Pearson Education, a leader in the neo-liberal privatization movement. Pearson has tentacles all over the world shaping and corrupting education in efforts, not always successful, to enhance its profitability. Its corporate slogan is “Pearson: Always Learning,” however critics rewrite it as “Pearson: Always Earning.”
Pearson’s business strategy is to turn education from a social good and essential public service into a marketable for-profit commodity. Among other tactics to promote its products it manipulates United Nation Sustainable Development Goals as entry into global education markets. At a September 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Summit world leaders adopted a series of goals including the promise that by 2030 they would “ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education” and that they would “substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries.”
Pearson justifies its push to dominate education worldwide as a campaign for “efficacy,” which it defines as “making a measurable impact on someone’s life through learning.” However, in the introduction to the document where they promote efficacy, Pearson CEO John Fallon makes it clear that the company expects to profit handsomely from the “huge opportunity offered by the growing evidence of what works, advancements in technology and our enhanced ability to harness the power of data.”
In the United States and the global-North, Pearson efficacy means marketing much maligned high-stakes tests that push rather than assess curriculum and learning and serve to promote other Pearson products. It is also big in selling data management programs of questionable value and digital platforms that are supposed to enhance instruction. In the global South, Pearson efficacy means selling “low fee” “Pay As You Learn” private schools to the poorest segments of society in Africa and Asia. Pearson makes its profit partly by hiring low paid unqualified people to work in the schools.
In the United States Pearson’s efforts in the United States have been marred by a series of scandals and challenged by a parent and teacher led movement against high-stakes testing. On a global scale, the corporate take-over and privatization of education in sub-Sahara Africa has been sharply criticized by United Nations officials and advocates for investment in public education. In a 2015 statement, 190 education advocates from 91 countries, called on governments in the under-developed/mis-developed world to stop education profiteers and the World Bank to stop financing these efforts. In May 2016, Kishore Singh, United Nations special Rapporteur on the right to education, described the out-sourcing of public education in Liberia to an American corporation as “unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violates Liberia’s legal and moral obligations.”
Despite its omnivorous appetite for profit, Pearson Education has suffered through a series of financial crises, the product of changing global economic realities, increasingly hostility to the Pearson brand, and corporate “missteps.” In 2015 its sales were down £4.5 billion ($6.5 billion) or about 5%; operating profit down £723 million ($1 billion) or about 3%; adjusted earnings per share between 2010-2015 fell about 2%; operating cash flow was down more than 15%; and share price on the London Stock Exchange was down 38.2%. In January 2016 Pearson, facing financial difficulties, announced it would eliminate 4,000 jobs, about 10% of its 40,000 global workforce.
In 2017 Pearson awarded CEO John Fallon a 20% combined bonus and pay increase even though revenues from the company’s United States higher education business were down by 18% and the company was slashing dividends it pays to investors. The news of the bonus, the dividend cut, and the investor rebellion drove Pearson’s stock share price down on the London exchange to £6.39, about $8.25, on April 28. Pearson stock was valued at £15 ($20) two years earlier, so mismanagement had wiped billions of dollars off the value of the company. In May 2017 at the annual shareholders meeting, in non-binding vote that was a repudiation of Pearson’s leadership, investors overwhelmingly rejected the payments to Fallon.
(A complete report on Pearson’s global activities by Alan Singer and Eustace Thompson of Hofstra University is posted by Education International and available online. Follow Alan Singer on Twitter @ReecesPieces8.)