THE BLOG

Hacking Away at the Pearson Octopus

May 08, 2012 | Updated Aug 21, 2012

In many ways the for-profit edu-corporations and their not-for-profit allies resemble a giant octopus with tentacles reaching into every facet of public education in the United States. I am reminded of the book The Octopus (1901) by Frank Norris that detailed the way railroads at the start of the 19th century controlled every facet of business and individual life. There is also a famous political cartoon from 1904 that portrays the Standard Oil monopoly as a giant octopus controlling state and national governments.

This giant octopus is strangling public education in both blatant and subtle ways. For example, on the surface the 2000 and 2003 editions of the popular middle school United States history book The American Nation barely differ. Both editions list the publisher as Prentice-Hall in association with American Heritage magazine. However, in the 2003 edition Prentice-Hall was listed as a sub-division of Pearson.

What does it mean that Prentice-Hall is now a sub-division of Pearson and that The American Nation is now a Pearson publication?

The 2000 edition of The American Nation was reviewed by a committee of eleven middle school teachers including one from New York State and two, or 18%, from Texas. For the 2003 Pearson edition, the review committee was expanded to twenty-two classroom teachers, seven, or 32%, from Texas. In addition, there was one representative each from Virginia, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Idaho and still only one from New York State.

Anyone familiar with coverage of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections knows that this review committee leans heavily toward teachers from the most conservative "Red" or Republican states. What Pearson is doing is tilting the coverage of U.S. history to win approval by school boards in these states, and in doing this, allowing the most conservative school boards in the nation to determine what gets taught in New York State schools.

The seven Texas teachers on the review board teach in a state where the ideologically-driven state curriculum requires them to teach about Judeo-Christian influences of the nation's Founding Fathers, but not the reasons they supported the principle of separation of church and state. It describes the U.S. government as a "constitutional republic" instead of a "democratic" system. The standards promote the idea that the United States is somehow different from all other countries, a point of view known as of "American exceptionalism," and champions unregulated free enterprise without what it considers excessive government interference.

A New York Times editorial charged that the "social conservatives who dominate the Texas Board of Education" had created an ideologically driven curriculum.

Teachers and parents could recommend that their school district use a different middle school United States history textbook. However Pearson has been expanding voraciously and now controls what used to be the independent school textbook publishing companies Scotts Foreman, Longman, Addison-Wesley, Allyn & Bacon, Silver, Burdette & Ginn, and the Macmillian Company, all in partnership with Colonial Williamsburg, the Smithsonian Institute, the Discovery Channel, Mapquest, and Inspiration Software. Partnership in these cases generally means the other organizations get paid or donations to let Pearson use their names.

Pearson's influence over American education goes much deeper and it empowers right-wing forces in other ways as well. In the New York Times, columnist Gail Collins reported that Pearson, "the world's largest for-profit education business, which has a $32 million five-year contract to produce New York standardized tests," also has "a five-year testing contract with Texas that's costing the state taxpayers nearly half-a-billion dollars." Because Pearson uses the same questions on different state exams and because Pearson's contract with Texas is so much larger than its contract with New York, that means New York State assessments are designed to satisfy requirements established by the very conservative Texas Education Agency. That may be why the latest eighth grade reading test had questions about a race between a pineapple and a hare, rather than real issues such as race or the arms race.

Pearson's contract with New York State requires it provide 20-25 nationally-normed multiple-choice questions per grade. This permits State Education to compare the performance of children from New York with children from other states. According to a column that appeared on the Washington Post website, "the pineapple passage was part of this stipulation. The material was drawn from Pearson's item bank -- material that had been seen in several other states handled by the vendor." Pearson is obligated to provide New York State with "120-150 nationally-normed ELA and math items" on future exams, which means it will be double-booking, making "money re-using previously developed items and selling them to Albany. Afterward, the vendor can sell them to other states, having banked a wealth of data showing how over one million more kids fared on its questions."

Pearson is also a key partner of the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers. In this capacity, it has been promoting the common core standards, pushing Singapore as a model for education in the United States and promoting conferences for educational officials where they have "the opportunity to explore emerging international methods, best practices, and policies with an eye to the ways in which they may apply to their local education contexts." A number of state governments, including Illinois, are now investigating whether trips to exotic locations paid for by Pearson were actually attempts to buy influence. Pearson has $130 million worth of contracts with the state of Illinois alone. The NGA also partnered with the Pearson Foundation to create study guides that promote the organizations role and " gubernatorial history" in the classroom.

The boundary between Pearson the foundation and Pearson the company can be difficult to identify. The Pearson Foundation promotes the common core standards. The Pearson the company markets material to implement them. Pearson, it is not clear which one, and Kentucky are collaborating to create the "first digital learning repository aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Kentucky, the first state to adopt the standards, uses Pearson's EQUELLA software to embed the standards in the Kentucky Learning Depot, the state's digital library and learning community. The EQUELLA software currently powers the Depot."

In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870), Captain Nemo and the Nautilus are attacked by what is either a giant squid or octopus (depending on how you translate from the original French). Nemo and the crew have to chop off its tentacles with axes and harpoon the beast to escape. If our public schools are going to survive the current attack by the for-profit edu-corporations and their not-for-profit allies onslaught, we need a new Nemo with a bold crew of parents, teachers, and students to hack away at the corporate octopus.