Pearson learning and the ongoing corporatization of public education.

Author:Attick, Dennis
 
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Over the past 20 years, Pearson Learning has become the largest and most powerful publisher of educational textbooks and education-related materials used throughout P-12 public education, as well as in higher and adult education in the United States. The Pearson brand includes both print and digital texts, internet learning platforms, test administration materials, test scoring rubrics, test-preparation materials, and Pearson's latest venture, its administration of the Education Teacher Performance Assessment (EdTPA), created at Stanford University's Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE). In the past 10 years alone, Pearson has gone from annual revenues of $2 billion in the early 2000s, to nearly $6 billion in the 2014 fiscal year (Pearson, 2015). Pearson's increasing profits come, in no small part, from the company's continued influence over federal and global education initiatives which has led to the wholesale adoption of Pearson's products in nearly every aspect of public education today.

Jennifer Reingold (2015) wrote recently in Fortune of the growing concern over Pearson positioning itself to dominate nearly every aspect of schooling in the United States, from curriculum, textbooks, and standardized tests, to overseeing teacher preparation and evaluation. As Gail Collins (2012) argued in The New York Times, "An American child could soon go to a public school run by Pearson, study from books produced by Pearson, while his or her progress is evaluated by Pearson standardized tests. The only public participant in the show would be the taxpayer" (p. 2). Lamenting that the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which Pearson helped create and disseminate along with Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), will lead to greater corporate involvement in schools, Michael Apple's fear is that "by and large Pearson will become the department of education in the United States, and in many ways that's happening now" (Schneider, 2014, p. 3).

Pearson Learning: A Brief History

The Pearson Corporation was founded as an engineering and construction company in London in the mid-1800s (Pearson, 2015). Existing as a successful construction supply company throughout the nineteenth century, the company began a period of aggressive growth and acquisition throughout the early twentieth century. Pearson's first forays into publishing came in the 1920s with the purchase of several newspapers in London that the company consolidated into the Westminster Times. In the 1950s, Pearson continued its growth by buying both the Financial Times and a controlling stake in The Economist, selling its 50 percent stake in The Economist for $730 million in 2015 (Scott, 2015, p. 2). Throughout the latter half of the 20th century Pearson continued to strengthen its place in publishing through the acquisition of other brands such as Penguin Books and Simon & Schuster.

Pearson Education was formally created in 1998 when Pearson PLC purchased the education division of Simon & Schuster from Viacom and merged it with its own education division, Addison-Wesley, and Longman, thus marking the beginning of Pearson's effort to dominate the education materials market. Pearson Education was rebranded Pearson Learning in 2011 and split into international and North American divisions. Though Pearson generates approximately 70% of its sales in North America, they operate in more than 70 countries with headquarters in London. Today, Pearson is the largest education materials company and the largest book publisher in the world (Pearson, 2015), owning more than 100 leading educational brands or tools including the following: ACT Aspire, eCollege, enVisionMath Common Core, TestNav, Project Stem, MyMathLabforSchool, Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, Penguin Readers, Prentice Hall Writing Coach, York Notes, and the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), just to name a few.

In his report to the British Columbia Teacher's Federation entitled, Pearson's Plan to Control Education, Donald Gutstein (2012) cites the work of the global economic research company Sanford C. Bernstein in looking into Pearson Learning's three-pronged approach to dominating the education market. First, Pearson is using its vast capital and holdings to continue its aggressive acquisition of competitors in the education market. Between the years 2007-2013, Pearson spent $5 billion dollars acquiring 25 smaller education publishing companies, which has led to Pearson now being three times larger than its closest competitor. Second, Pearson aims to dominate content delivery online by creating courses that tout flexibility and choice via online academies and virtual charter schools. Pearson's third growth strategy involves their notion of personalized education, which relies on online learning modules "customizable" for individual students, as well as Pearson's role in standardizing teacher education certification via the Education Teacher Performance Assessment (EdTPA). Eventually, nearly every teacher and every student in the U.S. will be a Pearson customer.

Part of Pearson's current rapid growth trajectory began in 2000 when it spent $2.5 billion dollars to acquire National Computer Systems (NCS), which had been the leading provider of test-evaluation systems in the U.S. The timing was fortuitous and perhaps not unintentional. Several months after the Pearson acquisition of NCS, George W. Bush was elected president with the help of his education platform, stressing increased accountability and evaluation of teachers and students. Just days after Bush's election, a Pearson executive displayed a quote from Bush that called for increased state testing and individual school report cards to a ballroom-full of Wall Street analysts and announced, "This almost reads like our business plan" (Metcalf, 2002, p. 10).

Within the context of the reform efforts over the last 20 years, it is not surprising that Pearson Learning grew exponentially more powerful and profitable since the turn of the 21st century. On the heels of the mandatory testing required under No Child Left Behind, through Race to the Top, with its grants for states and systems that heighten accountability, Pearson's profits and domination of the education market has only continued to grow. Pearson, relying on its near-monopoly in the test creation and test scoring industry, has continued to reap enormous profits from education policies that mandate schools, students, and teachers, use the services Pearson provides. In fact, with the onset of Common Core State Standards and corresponding high stakes tests, the past five years have been lucrative for venture capitalists and private companies like Pearson. In 2016, the market size of P-12 education is projected to be nearly $800 billion dollars, with much of that money going to the private sector. Donald Cohen, the executive director of In the Public Interest, suggests that the education market is "the last honeypot for Wall Street" (Fang, 2014, p. 3). Further, venture capitalist Eric Hippeau, a member of Lerer Ventures, the capital firm behind the viral entertainment company BuzzFeed, recently claimed that, "despite the opposition of unions, public school bureaucracies, and parents, the education market is ripe for disruption" (Ibid., p. 3).

Pearson's positioning itself to profit from education policy imposed over the last 20 years involved ongoing political connections, lobbying, and manipulating state policy by its political and corporate collaborators. Since 2010, Pearson has been accused of ethics violations in states such as Georgia, New York, New Mexico, Virginia, and Maine (Winerip, 2011). These violations stem from state education leaders and policymakers attending Pearson-sponsored junkets to places such as Las Vegas, Hawaii, and Mexico. Each of those states, in turn, signed lucrative contracts allowing Pearson to be the chief administrator of testing in each state.

Through its non-profit arm, the Pearson Foundation, Pearson has long been a financial supporter of and collaborator with Jeb Bush's...

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