In the shadow of Godzilla

The increasing influence of a billion-dollar business Pearson raises new questions about the relationship between corporations and education, writes AEU researcher John Graham.

The edu-business giant, Pearson Inc, provides NAPLAN testing services for national and state curriculum and assessment authorities across Australia.

This includes item development for the tests, the printing and distribution of tests for every state and territory (other than Queensland and South Australia), marking NAPLAN tests in Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, and analysis and reporting of NAPLAN results.

Pearson is a London-based transnational corporation that had revenues of $US8.2 billion over the past year. It owns Penguin, the
Financial Times, and various textbook and learning program brands, including Prentice Hall, Addison Wesley, Longman and PowerSchool. It has a presence in more than 70 countries around the world.

Over the past few years it has taken over 12 education technology companies, acquired the Connections cyber-charter school group, bought a chain of 2600 English language schools in Brazil and launched a string of private for-profit schools in Africa.

In 2000, it bought the largest American testing company, NCS, for $2.5 billion. Its intention was to create a strategic link between its curriculum textbook business and student assessment. At the time of the purchase, its CEO said: “Now we’ll have the ability to put content and applications together and that will really allow us to be king.”

Today Pearson dominates the North American school testing market, worth billions of dollars, with a 60% share. There are also signs that it has continued to strategically link the various aspects of its edu-business empire.

It refers to itself as a “global learning services company” playing an increasing role in “the total education value chain”. Others have described it as “the Godzilla of education”, wanting to control every aspect of the education process from teacher qualifications, to curriculums, to the tests used to evaluate students, to the grading of the tests, to owning and operating its own learning institutions.

In 2014, parents in New York complained that the standardised tests their children had to sit included brand names such as Nike, Barbie, iPod, Mug Root Beer, LEGO, IBM and Life Savers. The tests were written by Pearson, which has commercial ties to a number of these brands.

In 2013 in New York, statewide standardised tests for Grades 6 and 8 created by Pearson used passages from Pearson’s own textbooks, giving students in schools that had used those texts an unfair advantage and creating incentives for schools to buy Pearson texts in the future. The company claimed the overlap was “unintentional”.

In December 2013, Pearson settled a lawsuit for US$7.7 million in which the New York Attorney-General claimed it had improperly used its charitable foundation to develop courses to be sold commercially by its for-profit business.

It was also accused of influencing state education officials with perks such as overseas trips. When the lawsuit was launched, Pearson Inc. had just won a $32 million contract to administer New York state standardised tests for five years.

Also in 2013, Pearson agreed to pay $75 million as part of a settlement of a lawsuit in which a group of companies — including Apple — fixed prices of e-books. The case was brought by 33 US states’ attorney-generals, claiming an “ongoing conspiracy … that caused e-book consumers to pay tens of millions of dollars more for e-books than they otherwise would have paid”.

In 2014, a lucrative contract worth up to $1 billion with the Los Angeles education authority to give Apple iPads to 650,000 students with pre-loaded curriculum from Pearson was terminated. A review of the contract implementation indicated that the pre-loaded curriculum did not meet minimum requirements because there were numerous lessons and entire units missing across every grade level.

The companies were found to have been in regular contact with officials throughout the tender process. While the review did not specifically state that there had been any impropriety, it highlighted a conflict of interest. The FBI is now investigating the matter.

a recent edition of the AEU Victoria’s journal, Professional Voice, Anna Hogan, Bob Lingard and Sam Sellar argue that Pearson has positioned itself in a commercially lucrative relationship with education authorities that enables it to both constitute policy problems and then profit through selling policy solutions. The company spends more than $1 million per year on lobbying in the US.

In December 2014, Pearson published a policy paper designed to influence the global agenda in education policy. Called
Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment and written by its chief education adviser Michael Barber, Tony Blair’s former education guru, and Peter Hill, the ex-CEO of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board, the paper links the future of education to the commercial interests of the company.

It sees the future of education resting with “sophisticated educational software” (Pearson’s core business) used to deliver “authentic 21st century curriculum” (designed by Pearson) “allowing accurate assessment and tailoring of instruction to individual student needs with access to the world’s best educators”.

As for teachers, they will need a makeover before they are able to work with (or for) Pearson’s software platforms. The authors describe teaching as a “largely under-qualified and trained, heavily unionised, bureaucratically controlled semi-profession”.

In another section of the paper they state that teaching remains “an imprecise and somewhat idiosyncratic process that is too dependent on the personal intuition and competence of individual teachers”.

In May 2014, Pearson took over the certification of teachers in New York. The Teacher Performance Assessment (TPA) tool was developed at Stanford University with support from Pearson. It is solely administered — and prospective teachers entirely evaluated — by Pearson and its agents.

There have been protests on campuses, petitions and calls to boycott the TPA and all Pearson assessments of students, student teachers and teachers. A New York Senator has introduced legislation to stop Pearson from creating common core-based tests and to prevent teachers in training from having to take Pearson-run certification exams.

Last year Pearson hired a test security contractor to trawl social media to track down any of their test questions which have been put on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. They describe such sharing as a violation of their copyright. Parents have raised privacy concerns about Pearson searching student social media accounts. There has also been disquiet expressed by teachers who are worried about being targeted by the company.

The Maryland teachers union criticised the lack of transparency about Pearson’s monitoring activities and how any data collected is being used. Their spokesperson commented: “We are concerned about Pearson collecting and using any data to encourage disciplinary action against educators”.

Pearson’s ever-expanding role in education has been compared to that of an octopus whose “tentacles have grown too long and aggressive”. However they are not alone. The profits for edu-business in schooling have become increasingly obvious to corporations and entrepreneurs of all kinds.

From 2005 to 2011 venture-capital investments in American K-12 education grew almost thirtyfold as investment banks, hedge funds and venture capitalists flocked to this market. Rupert Murdoch recently pronounced US education “a $500 billion sector waiting desperately to be transformed”.

John Graham is a research officer with the AEU’s Victorian branch. This article was originally published in July 2015.