Pearson strikes again

By Pearson Education ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I do my best to stay out of most discussions about public education.  My older child is having a positive experience in public school, and our family’s income depends on the public school system.  I’m hesitant to say anything that would put my husband’s job at risk because of his wife making trouble.  I honestly used to think that might not happen–after all, this isn’t some mob movie, right?  After reading about Pearson’s latest antics, I’m not so sure it isn’t the educational version of The Godfather.

For those of you who don’t remember, Pearson is the company that brought us the Pineapple Question on the state ELA test a few years ago.  (They bought the rights to a short story by Daniel Pinkwater and rewrote it in a convoluted way.)  Now the New York State Attorney General is investigating whether Pearson is using their non-profit branch to influence state officials by paying for expensive trips that may include lobbying for their for-profit arm.

By now, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m bringing this up.  I mean, this is obviously important to me as a parent–I don’t want my children’s education corrupted from dirty dealings by a testing company.  Other parents have the right to be informed as well.  And really, I’m feeling pretty proud of my state for taking on Pearson.  I hope they suck them dry (fat chance, but it’s a nice dream).  While those are my top reasons for my interest in the subject, I do have another selfish motivation.

I don’t like to go into details about my projects very often.  I find that it stifles some of my creativity and creates undue pressure on me to perform in a way I can’t always manage.  But I’m going to mention it because it’s related to the article I linked above.

Last year, I started writing a story.  It was going to be just for fun, something to work on whenever I felt like I was in a blogging rut.  I wanted to experiment with some things I’d never written before.  I happen to like updated fairy tales that don’t come off as fairy tales, so I chose the tale of the pied piper.  I had in mind to give it a happy ending, because I’m cheesy like that.  Anyway, I worked on it for a bit and then decided to set it aside because I’m not great with long-term projects.  I figured if I really wanted to, I could pick it up again for NaNoWriMo, since I hadn’t written that much and I knew I could write another 50,000 words (and therefore not be cheating, since I had some written already).

What does this have to do with anything?  The story is about underhanded dealings in public education and misuse of disciplinary action against “failing” schools.

I ended up going back to it sooner than I’d intended.  I finished enough to start sending the story to beta readers so I could get some feedback on where to head with it.  In one chapter, a character tells another that the underhanded dealings are not a good way to live.  One of the beta readers complained in her comments that I had made it sound like a mob movie and that while “corporate takeover of a school is not ideal,” it made her roll her eyes.

Except that’s what happens.

For-profit companies (for example, Pearson) can take failing schools, create charters, and make a profit.  Investors–usually wealthy donors such as the Gates Foundation–can put money into it and receive not only a tax write-off but a financial gain, sometimes as much as double what they put in.  I swear I could not make this stuff up.

The worst part is that the charter schools are not better than the public schools they replaced; they’re just not as heavily regulated.  Charter school teachers don’t even need to be certified because the rules applied to state-funded schools don’t apply.  The idea that if schools operated on a for-profit basis they would improve due to “competition” is ridiculous.  Additionally, schools can lose funding and students can suffer when wealthy investors back out suddenly (this has happened with the Gates Foundation).

Does this have the potential for people to try to game the system in order to profit from education?  Absolutely.

Go ahead, beta reader, and roll your eyes.  Corporate takeover isn’t “ideal”?  I hope you’re unlucky enough one day to be forced to send your child to a sub-par charter school run by a for-profit Educational Management Organization.

I have no idea whether I’ll ever publish this story.  I’ll let you know if I do.  For now, I’m content to watch the Pearson drama unfold and pray desperately that someone takes that company down several notches.  We don’t need education reform; we need a complete overhaul.



11 thoughts on “Pearson strikes again

  1. Ooh, I like this. I had actually not heard of the Pineapple question. My daughter must not have been in school at the right time, or we didn’t use that test. (That is a crazy story, though.)

    I agree about the overhaul. Things are not good, and trying to run them like a profit-oriented business is not the answer.

    • The pineapple question fiasco was quite something. It was an 8th grade ELA test. I read the original story by Daniel Pinkwater, which was witty and odd (Pinkwater is one of my favorite children’s authors). He had a great sense of humor about the whole thing and even responded to it on his blog.

  2. What is happening in education is definitely a problem, but the corporate world has been profiting off education increasingly for some time now. Standardized tests are bought, as you say, but also anti-bullying programs, curricula, and every-year-new-edition-textbooks. Fundraisers are handled by outside companies, who keep most of the profit, and tissue, red pens, and markers for the board are costs passed down to families now as schools continue to cut. College is even worse, with Presidents being replaced as CEO’s. It is a business now with a corporate model.

    Everything in America is consumer based and market driven. Even healthcare is for-profit. People seem to think anything done not for profit is unAmerican.

    All that said, there are some exceptional Charter schools out there. My daughter tested into a Charter school when we lived in Texas. All the teachers had Masters degrees or higher. Since all the kids tested in, every class was accelerated. It was the best school in our medium sized city. Now, some might argue that those resources should have been spread evenly throughout the city and I would agree. But since they were concentrated in one school, I was glad to have my daughter there.

    • Oh, I agree–this isn’t new. When I worked as a school nurse, I consistently never had money for new equipment or even the standard supplies I needed, such as bandages and gloves. One of the reasons was that I was required to order out of one specific catalog–no shopping around for better prices. I literally could have bought Puffs tissues from BJs Wholesale for the same price as the cheap, scratchy tissues from the catalog, which I know because I priced it out and asked if I had the option. I was told no.

      I’m glad your daughter was able to test into a great charter school, but not all kids are so fortunate. I look at what’s happening in Chicago and Philadelphia and I know most of those kids won’t be so fortunate. This corporate model doesn’t do anything more than widen the gap between those who have economic and social privilege and those who don’t. Honestly, students in less privileged districts do not NEED white boards and dry-erase markers; pencils and paper or chalkboards are, in fact sufficient. Companies peddle this stuff like electronic SmartBoards are what’s going to improve student learning. The gap widens not because the kids don’t have dry erase markers but because the parents can’t afford the school fees for a better school and have to send their kids to be taught by whoever is appointed by the corporation to teach them.

      • Like I wrote, I do believe that resources should be spread more evenly (even though, as a parent, I’m obviously going to take advantage of the opportunities that come my child’s way. I’m not going to Pitt-Jolie the education system and refuse to send my kid to a better school until all kids can attend a better school. So even though I think all schools in the nation should receive equal funding (Robin Hood), I’m not going to ignore the reality. My point was not to argue that Charter schools are a good answer, but to give another side to the “crappy charter school” idea.

        I somewhat disagree about technology. I’ve taught middle school and college, and chalkboards are horrid. The mess, the scratching, the bitty chalk that my death grip can’t hold. I can’t imagine having to use one all day in elementary. Marker boards are so much less mess (and the students – even adults – like them better). Computers are something that every student should have exposure to. I don’t think it is fair to assume that students in rich districts already have computers because not all the kids in those districts are rich. Smartboards are fun, but I’ve not read any research into their teaching approach or effectiveness, so I don’t feel qualified to have an opinion on them at this time.

        I also think that public school teachers are just teachers. I taught in a private school and I can tell you the teachers were not better people or even better teachers. The students just had a higher expectation set on them and they benefited from things like smaller class size and more arts, things that have been shown to have a positive impact. I don’t believe the teachers are trying to work a corporate model. I don’t think most of them even think about the problem in those terms because, again, we are American. Profit is the American way.

  3. Thanks, Amy! The for-profit (but listed as nfp) corporate world of neo-liberal public education sucking is getting at my last. And so few people outside of the educational world seem to be paying attention.

    • The whole thing is out of control. I have some friends who are doing great work as educational activists. Our family is on the “inside” (my husband is a teacher and I worked in a public school). With few exceptions, most of my son’s teachers have felt that we “get it” about what they have to deal with. I have no idea where to begin fixing what our public schools have become.

  4. Informative and spot on in many ways. As a former charter school teacher, I can attest to the skewed misconception of higher student achievement that charters boast. The “narrative” around charters as pro-choice and in the best interests of students, families and school officials is pretext for the privatization of education.

    • Right on. It’s the privatization of education that worries me. Treating it like a business–where people are competing over families–is not the way to fix the gaps in education. The same kids losing out in the current system are going to lose out in the business model. Naturally, investors want to protect their interests, so they don’t care about whether the students learn anything so long as they get their money.

      • Absolutely. It’s the kind of nepotism that manipulates “the people” into furthering policies that work to disservice them.

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