Pearson invited me to breakfast. Well not just me. I received an email inviting Long Island educators to a free "Breakfast Briefing" promoting "Pearson Personalized Learning" that would empower me to "Turn your traditional student learning into Student-Centered learning by delivering the right curriculum to the right student, at the right time." I checked out Pearson's personal learning products online and then decided that the free breakfast and the opportunity to annoy them was not worth the trip.
Pearson is promoting GradPoint, "an easy to use web based solution for grades 6-12" that "includes over 180 rigorous courses (Core, Electives, AP and Foreign Language & CTE).;" iLit, "a tablet-based reading intervention for students in grades 4-10" which promises "it has everything your class needs to gain two years of reading growth in a single year;" and aimsweb, "the leading assessment and RTI solution in school today-a complete web-based solution for universal screening, progress monitoring, and data management for Grades K-12."
I thought calling their literacy program iLit was pretty funny, but otherwise I find their promotion scary. "Pearson Personalized Learning" is not about supporting schools; it is about replacing them. And it is about replacing them without any evidence that their products work or any concern for the impact of their products on schools and student learning.
Pearson executives Sir Michael Barber, Saad Rizvi and John Fallon call their global market strategy "The Incomplete Guide To Delivering Learning Outcomes." Fallon, Pearson CEO, has been with the company for most of his professional career. He is behind the push for "efficacy," the corporate buzzword, which in practical terms translates into the constant assessing of student performance who are using Pearson products. The testing strategy tied into common core in the United States is neither an accident nor an accessory. Testing is the core of common core.
I find Barber and Rizvi even more interesting than Fallon for understanding Pearson's marketing strategies. Barber is Pearson's chief education strategist and leads its three-pronged assault on education around the world through what Pearson calls efficacy, affordable learning, and the Pearson Knowledge and Research Centre. Efficacy is supposed to be about what works in education based on research done at the research centre, but everything is actually organized around the Pearson goal of "finding business models for affordable schools" that they will be selling, especially in "developing areas of the world."
If you want to know how Pearson plans to operate, you have to look at McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm and advisor to some of the world's leading businesses, governments, and institutions. Before joining Pearson, Michael Barber had a similar role at McKinsey where he was a partner. Saad Rizvi, who is Pearson's Senior Vice President for Efficacy and head of its Catalyst for Education team, was a consultant at McKinsey. McKinsey & Company's clients include 100 of the top 150 companies in the world. It has advised the Bank of England, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, and the German government.
The main job of McKinsey is to help companies maintain profitability by closing subsidies, selling assets, shifting production, and laying off workers. McKinsey has had its share of mishaps. Former employees include Jeff Skilling, the disgraced chief executive of Enron and Rajat K. Gupta, who was convicted of insider trading. Other disasters include advising Time Warner on its ill-fated merger with AOL, advising General Motors on how to compete with Japanese automakers, and advising AT&T not to be concerned about cellphones. A top McKinsey partner dismissed these failures saying "We are advisers, and it is management's job to take all the advice they receive and make their own decisions. Not to say that McKinsey told me to do this."
I think a fair question to ask is, do we want the business model that led to the Eron scam and these other corporate disasters employed in operating American schools and McKinsey's no-fault attitude toward advising local, state, and federal governments on educational policy?
Pearson's Affordable Learning division currently focuses on emerging markets in Africa and India, but it is the model for Pearson business worldwide. It includes eAdvance (South Africa), which sponsors a blended learning chain called Spark Schools; Omega, a chain of thirty-eight private schools in Ghana; Bridge International Academies in Kenya; and Zaya, an educational technology and service company contracted to operate twenty-seven schools; Suiksha, a chain of pre-schools; Experifun, which markets science learning products; Avanti, after-school test prep; and Village Capital (Edupreneurs) promoting private education start-up companies, all based in India. The blurb for eAdvance's Spark Schools give some sense of what Pearson is trying to do in Africa, India and worldwide - under price the market to disrupt existing educational institutions so Pearson companies can move in, take over, and gobble up profits.
"SPARK Schools has bold aspirations to disrupt the South African education system through introducing an innovative learning methodology to the African continent. In the SPARK Schools model, students split their time between digital content that adapts in difficulty to their learning and classroom interaction based on best practice pedagogy. Importantly, the blended model also allows eAdvance to deliver high quality education at an affordable price." It will "build eight low-cost blended learning schools over the next three years, and more than 60 in the next ten."
Pearson is also using mergers to expand its markets and influence. In December 2013, Pearson agreed to purchase Grupo Multi, an English-language training company in Brazil, to accelerate growth in Latin America.
Pearson uses the desperation of Third World countries to modernize to get its foot in the door and to act without regulation or oversight. Up until now, about sixty percent of Pearson's sales were in the United States, however expansion stalled in this country because of lower freshman enrollments in U.S. colleges and a slowdown in textbook markets. Sales also suffered in Great Britain because of curriculum changes and the company spent about $200 million organizing its push into foreign digital markets.
As a result of these issues, Moody's Investors Service, a ratings agency, lowered its evaluation of Pearson from stable to negative. "We are changing the outlook to negative as Pearson's debt protection metrics for fiscal year 2013 are likely to weaken considerably," says According to Gunjan Dixit, a Moody's Assistant Vice President-Analyst, "This view reflects Pearson's tough trading conditions, particularly in North America and the UK; the greater-than-originally-anticipated spending on restructuring; and certain start-up costs for new contracts in higher education and increased provisions for returns." According to Moody's, key challenges for Pearson in the future include (1) the fiscal health of U.S. states and international government funding bodies, in its schools and higher education businesses; (2) difficult market conditions in the U.S. education market; (3) the vulnerability of its Financial Times group; and (4) the accelerating transition of trade book publishing to electronic formats. Pearson stockholders were so disappointed in the company's financial performance that in April 2014, shareholders protested against excessive executive bonuses.
In the United States, Pearson faces other problems that may be related to over expansion, the inability to deliver what was promised, and possible under the table agreements on contracts. In Florida, state officials blamed Pearson Education when at least a dozen Florida school districts were forced to suspend online testing this April because students had trouble signing in for the test. for the situation. Other problems included slowness when students tried to download test questions or submit answers and an inexplicable warning message that students should notify their teacher or proctor about a problem that did not exist. "State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart complained to Pearson that the "failure is inexcusable. Florida's students and teachers work too hard on learning to be distracted by these needless and avoidable technological issues."
Pearson blamed the test problems on a third-party hosting service provider. However, in recent years Pearson has had similar problems with computerized tests in Florida before as well as in other states. In 2011, Wyoming fined Pearson $5.1 million because of software problems and then switched back to paper tests. In April, Pearson was also forced to acknowledge and apologize for "intermittent disruptions to some of our online testing services." This time they blamed a different sub-contractor.
In the meantime, the American Institutes for Research is challenging the awarding of a lucrative common core test development contract to Pearson. While the complaint is being brought in New Mexico, it has national ramification. The contract is for developing test-items, test delivery, reporting results, and analysis of student performance for states that are part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of two main consortia designing tests linked to the common-core standards. The plaintiff claims the process for awarding the contract was designed to specifically benefit Pearson, which ended up being the only bidder, and was therefore illegal.
In New York State, parents and teachers are outraged because teachers and building administrators are forced to sign statements promising not to discuss or release questions about new Pearson "Common Core" aligned high-stakes tests. In the past, questions from past state high school "Regents" exams were posted on the State Education website. Now Pearson, which is paid $32 million by New York State to create the tests is demanding a payment of an additional $8 million to permit the state to post the questions.
In New Zealand, a group called Save Our Schools NZ is protesting the misuse of PISA (Programme of International Student Assessment) tests and rankings by national education departments. They charge "Pisa, with its three-year assessment cycle, has caused a shift of attention to short-term fixes designed to help a country quickly climb the rankings, despite research showing that enduring changes in education practice take decades, not a few years, to come to fruition." Pearson holds the contract to prepare PISA assessments starting in 2015.
For all its claims about efficacy, Pearson is not a very efficient company. For all its claims about valuing education, the only thing Pearson appears to value is profit.