London Next in International Campaign to Stop Pearson (Mis)Education

On Wednesday, April 20, 2016, New Jersey was forced to cancel high-stakes PARCC exams when students could not access the exams online. New Jersey Education Commissioner David C. Hespe called the Pearson Access Next (PAN) system malfunction "totally unacceptable." Pearson, who administers the online standardized tests said "sorry" for the mass disruption and blamed a technical glitch.

The Pearson stockholders meeting in London on April 29 is the next stop in the global campaign to stop Pearson's destructive misuse of education. Pearson activities are being tracked by organizations like Education International (EI). According to EI researcher Curtis Riep of the University of Alberta, Pearson's business strategy is to turn education from a social good and essential public service into a marketable for-profit commodity.

In the United States and the global-North, Pearson primarily markets much detested high-stakes tests that push rather than assess curriculum and learning. It is also big in selling data management programs of questionable value (once you have the data what are you supposed to do with it?) and digital learning platforms that are supposed to enhance (substitute for") instruction. In the global South, Pearson is selling "low fee" "Pay As You Learn" private schools to the poorest segments of society in Ghana, India, South Africa and the Philippines. Pearson makes its profit partly by hiring low paid unqualified people to work in the schools. In Ghana, high school graduates who act as teachers are paid between 15 and 20% less than what trained teachers earn in the nation's public schools.

While Pearson claims its schools, which are sold as an alternative to public education, offer access to basic education to the most marginalized populations, they actually charge much more than many poor people can afford to pay. For example, in Ghana, a low-income family would have to pay approximately 40% of their earnings to send just one child to a Pearson school. In the Philippines, Pearson schools are explicitly designed, not to educate pupils, but to "produce a repository of cheap and flexible labour that can be employed by multinational corporations operating in the Philippines."

The Pearson schools in the Philippines and Ghana are part of the company's eleven equity investments in programs across Asia and Africa that currently "serve" over 360,000 students. The company invested $50 million in these projects and hopes to corral more than a million students by 2020. Overall, the global education market is estimated to be worth $5.5 trillion, but it is not clear whether students, their families, and Third World nations will be "served" and even whether Pearson will ever be able to earn a profit. A 2014 review of low-cost private schools published Great Britain's Department for International Development found "weak and inconclusive evidence" that the schools are truly affordable or accessible to the poor. One of the committee's advisors, Michael Barber, is now Pearson's chief education guru.

Teacher unions and teacher pension funds from the United States and the United Kingdom and their supporters are taking the fight against Pearson malfeasance to its stockholders meeting.

The Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund has contacted approximately 70% of Pearson shareholders to make a "business case" demanding that the Pearson Board or Directors reverse the company's "strategic direction." The coalition demanding that Pearson end efforts to privatize education in Third World countries and stop promoting high-stakes testing and test prep in the United States holds almost 200,000 voting shares of Pearson stock. According to a pension fund letter to shareholders, Pearson's business strategy has failed to produce long-term growth, eroded shareholder value, and poisoned its corporate brand name, especially in the United States, a market that produces two-thirds of the company's revenue.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten charges: "For the last two years, we have tried, to no avail, to make Pearson understand its business practices were damaging both public education and its bottom line. This year, as Pearson shareholders, we have joined with other labor unions, pension funds and individuals to tell the board and other shareholders that Pearson's management's hyperfixation on high-stakes testing in the Global North and its privatizing of public education in the Global South have been bad for business, bad for students and bad for the community." Weingarten plans to speak in favor of the opposition group's resolution from the floor at the Pearson general meeting.