Pearson: Inside the Belly of a Very Troubled Beast

Pearson, the publishing mega-giant, is looking more and more like it is vulnerable and its time dominating education in the United States and around the world may be coming to an end.
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"And the noise was in the beast's belly like unto the questing of thirty couple hounds." -Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, Book 1, chapter XIX, c. 14769

Being trapped in the belly of the beast is scary. In the Old Testament, Jonah was trapped in the belly of a great fish. In modern urban slang, the "belly of the beast" means being incarcerated.

But beasts can also be vulnerable. Jonah escaped. In medieval lore, knights slayed dragons. In the folk tale, Jack defeated the giant. Harry Potter bested Voldemort. The sun never set on the British Empire, until it withered away. The Soviet Union suddenly collapsed. In the same way Pearson, the publishing mega-giant, is looking more and more like it is vulnerable and its time dominating education in the United States and around the world may be coming to an end. Beasts are scary, but they can be brought down.

In Los Angeles investigators from the school district's inspector general's office uncovered a questionable email exchange on May 22, 2012 between John Deasy, the Superintendent of Los Angeles schools, and Marjorie Scardino, who at the time was the CEO of Pearson. They also had a lunch meeting prior to the awarding of a contract to Apple and Pearson to provide Apple iPads with Pearson software to L.A. students. Deasy emailed Scartdino, "Looking forward to further work together for our youth in Los Angeles!" Scardino replied, "Dear John, It's I who should thank you, really can't wait to work with you."

There were also email exchanges between Jaime Aquino, the head of instruction for the district and Pearson officials. After a series of newspaper exposes, L.A. schools Superintendent John Deasy suspended the contract which was potentially worth $1 billion.

Contacts between school officials, Apple, and Pearson may have been going on for nearly a year before bidding was opened. According to the Los Angeles Times, the entire process was "beset by inadequate planning, a lack of transparency and a flawed bidding process." Ties between Deasy and Apple and previous ties between Aquino and a Pearson affiliate gave an appearance of impropriety, initial rules for securing the contract may have actually been written to favor Apple and Pearson, and rules were then changed after most competitors were eliminated. I will have details from these emails in my next blog.

In New York State, college faculty rallied on the steps of the state capitol in Albany demanding that the State Education Department "stop sabotaging student teachers" and cancel contracts with Pearson. Pearson designs, administers, and grades the state's teacher certification exams including the video and portfolio assessment of student teachers. Karen Magee, President of New York State United Teachers, "shook a copy of the state's contract with Pearson in the air before tearing out a page and running it through a paper shredder." Magee and other speakers accused Pearson of being a "privateer" making a "buck off of students." Weeks later the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) passed a resolution supporting the New York state college faculty seriously criticizing the edTPA teacher certification process administered by Pearson. According to the resolution, "The AFT believes that neither edTPA nor any other performance assessment should be tied to a high-stakes testing regime and the outsourcing of evaluation, especially to for-profit corporations such as Pearson, as it is not an appropriate assessment of teacher education programs and teacher performance."

At Teachers College - Columbia in New York City, University President Susan Fuhrman, under pressure from faculty and students to resign as a member of the Pearson Board of Directors, left the Pearson board when her term expired in May 2014.

In Atlanta, Georgia, twelve former 12 former public school employees are facing trial for conspiring to alter and boost student standardized test scores. The conspiracy accusation is especially serious because it exposes the accused teachers and administrators to racketeering changers that bring sentences of up to twenty years in prison. In 2011, Georgia state investigators concluded that as many as 178 principals and teachers in the Atlanta school district had cheated on the tests. Dozens of district employees have already been fired, forced to resign or retired and twenty-one pleaded guilty to lesser crimes like obstruction of justice and making false statements while agreeing to cooperate with investigators in return for probation.

Pearson has not been implicated in the cheating scandal but it may have some economic vulnerability here. Pearson designs and administers a number of standardized tests in Georgia and ran school improvement programs in Atlanta schools during the years under investigation through its Achievement Solutions division. At least three of the schools where personnel are charged with cheating, Grove Park, East Lake, and Walter White, were named Pearson Achievement Solutions National Demonstration Schools for 2006-2007.

Pearson's program in Atlanta was especially important to its marketing efforts because the 51,000 students in the Atlanta public schools are 92% Black and Latino and 70% received free or reduced price lunch, a designation for poverty. These are the groups that both the federal No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top programs are targeting for academic improvement. Essentially, Pearson argued that success in Atlanta with these student populations could be translated into success anywhere. Now it appears the success was based on cheating.

In addition to these problems, disgruntled Pearson employees are starting to lambast the company online at, a website that posts company reviews. Many of their complaints stem from a restructuring Pearson starting in May 2013 to focus on digital services and emerging (Third Word) markets. The "restructuring" led to a steep decline in net profits in 2012.

A former educational specialist at Pearson based in Oregon wrote: "There are still a few decent, intelligent, caring people at Pearson. They're just few and far between and too scared for their own jobs to call attention to themselves . . . Many, many good people left or were fired and in their place you have lots of managers and executives who have no idea what their jobs entail or what products Pearson sells. It would be comical if it weren't so sad." This employee recommended to anyone working at Pearson, "Don't Let the Door Hit You on Your Way Out."

A current employee who not surprisingly wanted to remain anonymous wrote: "Too many chiefs and not enough team work . . . No concern with Pearson employees anymore." A former Senior Sales Representative who left the company wrote: "If you are too fond of your neck, don't join Pearson." Still another wrote: "It was a very, very toxic environment to work in. At Pearson, especially in the corporate office levels, there is rampant nepotism and fairly shady insider business dealings." And a Vice-President from New Jersey wrote: "Let's not kid ourselves - the Pearson play is about standardized testing at the global level, and that includes in Higher Ed as well as K-12/Schools. They also want to become the school itself in many parts of the world. So they are riding the wave of privatization, and following the money. But can they survive the negative press they increasingly generate? And their own incompetence?"

Katrina Bass, a long-time employee in the Pearson higher education division contacted me via email and gave me permission to use her name in this post. According to Bass, she was one of a number of over-40 employees eliminated in Pearson's recent "restructuring." Her story echoes the comments on the "glassdoor" website. Most of these employees had "delivered clean profits for Pearson for decades only to endure several years of harassment leading up to dismissal."

Bass believes Pearson's "current state of desperation transitioning to digital was partly a result of their failure to innovate early (especially between 2007- 2012) instead relying on unethical business practices."

According to Bass, "management regularly dumped product into the wholesale channel at year-end which meant shipping new textbooks to wholesale distributors at grossly discounted rates who then resold them as 'used' textbooks. Although representatives were given an annual 'adjustment' for these sales, it undermined field sales efforts and in no way reflected the increasing hours of support needed to train faculty and students on emerging technology."

In addition, Bass believes "managers who were highly skilled at negotiating obscene over-ordering at college bookstores were rewarded and promoted." She claims that Pearson, one of the few (if not only) publishing companies that compensate its sales force on gross sales, "it allowed unethical managers to be rewarded for what was ultimately unprofitable activity. Many remained at the helm despite missing their sales targets for up to four years in a row."

According to Bass, the "Pearson Solutions Division dedicated a large sales force to poaching existing Pearson business by either customizing a print or web-based product. Pearson awarded dual sales credit when a Pearson Solutions representative built a custom web-portal to access Pearson content that was already in use and supported by a local sales representative. In many cases, media customization was a work-around to address a technological deficiency inherent in Pearson's design. Adding to the confusion was the break-neck pace of acquisitions and the subsequent challenge of merging multiple platforms into student and faculty friendly interfaces."

The Pearson Solution Division has grown rapidly and Bass claims it likes to boast that it is "building an airplane while it is in the air." Bass feels that "Pearson is no longer a content provider." Instead, it has become a "technology company that is heavily invested in data. It is disturbing to consider the amount of data they collect, own, interpret and disseminate that influence policies and practices in education."

Since April 2014, when its price on the London Stock Exchange had dropped to 1008, down from a 2014 high of 1365, Pearson stock has bounced back and is now selling at 1128, which is still more than a 17% decline in value. On the New York Stock Exchange, Pearson is selling at $18.73, which is also down approximately 17% from its 52 week high of $22.40.

Pearson is trying to salvage the situation in the United States with new ventures in the "developing world." Sir Michael Barber, who somehow combined being Great Britain's Department for International Development's special representative on education with his role as Pearson's chief education advisor, is spear-heading Pearson efforts in India and Pakistan, a designated "growth" market. Pearson has also been working through an organization called the Global Partnership for Education that includes representatives on UNESCO, UNICEF and government ministers and has been able to get its head of international affairs appointed to the Board of Directors as the only representative of a private for-profit corporation.

Hopefully Third World governments in the "developing world" and international organizations will look at Pearson's problems in the United States and rethink whether they want to be involved with this company.

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