No Profit Left Behind, Stephanie Simon’s blockbuster POLITICO investigation of the publishing giant, Pearson, is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how things work in American education these days. Simon warns, “Pearson’s dominance does not always serve U.S. students or taxpayers well.”
This is a major investigation: “POLITICO examined hundreds of pages of contracts, business plans and email exchanges, as well as tax filings, lobbying reports and marketing materials, in the first comprehensive look at Pearson’s business practices in the United States. The investigation found that public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective.”
From North Carolina’s bid-free purchase of a student data system that failed so catastrophically that North Carolina “had to pay Pearson millions extra to fix it,” to the Los Angeles iPad disaster that brought down school superintendent John Deasy, Pearson’s no-bid contracts have often been far more expensive than anyone anticipated because the products didn’t work as promised. Pearson was responsible for the curriculum that was to have been loaded on the iPads for every student in Los Angeles. “Pearson alone stood to make an estimated $135 million over three years even though its curriculum was at that point at least a year away from completion. And that was just the start: The district would also have to pay Pearson an estimated $60 million a year to keep using its curriculum after 2016….” “A federal review of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad deal found the district could have saved considerably by building its own custom curriculum from a variety of online resources rather than buying a costly off-the-shelf model from a major publisher.” The FBI continues to investigate how Deasy and Pearson came up with this deal.
Where did Pearson come from? “The company that would play such an outsize role in American classrooms was founded in Yorkshire, England, in 1844 as a family-owned construction firm… Over the decades, Pearson PLC—now based in London—bought stakes in all manner of industries, including newspapers, amusement parks and even the Madame Tussauds wax museum. It wouldn’t be until 1988 that the company took its first big step into the education world when it bought textbook publisher Addison-Wesley.” “The British publishing giant Pearson had made few inroads in the United States… when it announced plans in the summer of 2000 to spend $2.5 billion on an American testing company… The next year, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated millions of new standardized tests for millions of kids in public schools… From that perch, the company expanded rapidly, seizing on many subsequent reform trends, from online learning to the Common Core standards adopted in more than 40 states.”
Simon traces how in fifteen years, Pearson has come to wield, “enormous influence over American education. It writes the textbooks and tests that drive instruction in public schools across the nation. Its software grades student essays, tracks student behavior and diagnoses—and treats—attention deficit disorder. The company administers teacher licensing exams and coaches teachers once they’re in classrooms. It advises principals. It operates a network of three dozen online public schools. It co-owns the for-profit company that now administers the GED.” “The state of Virginia recertified Pearson as an approved ‘school turnaround’ consultant in 2013 even though the company had, at best, mixed results with that line of work: Just one of the five Virginia schools that Pearson cited as references improved both its math and reading proficiency rates against the state averages. Two schools lost ground in both math and reading and the other two had mixed results. State officials said Pearson met all the criteria they required of consultants.”
And that’s just its K-12 business. Much of Simon’s investigation explores the many products and services Pearson provides for America’s colleges and universities—particularly the company’s contracts for providing online courses.
According to Simon, 55 percent of Pearson’s global adjusted operating profits in 2013 came from its North American education division. Is it fair to blame Pearson for providing what the burgeoning education marketplace seeks? Not really, says Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University: “The policies that Pearson is benefiting from may be wrongheaded in a million ways, but it strikes me as deeply unfair to blame Pearson for them. When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills. The people we’ve elected have created a landscape that’s allowed Pearson to prosper.” Cathy Davidson of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York disagrees: “If you have an exclusive contract with a massive education system, is that really just earning a profit, or are you profiting at the public’s expense? That’s the line many people, including myself, find very troubling.”