The Blame Belongs to Us

If you don’t live inside the ultimate company town that is the Washington DC metro area, you may not have heard of Politico. It’s basically an inside-the-beltway gossip rag that one writer calls “Tiger Beat On The Potomac”.1

While most of what they publish isn’t worth your bandwidth or time, Politico does have an investigative unit that occasionally produces something worth reading. Like their recent deep dive into Pearson, the 800-pound gorilla of standardized testing, in an aptly titled piece No Profit Left Behind. It’s not especially flattering.

A POLITICO investigation has found that Pearson stands to make tens of millions in taxpayer dollars and cuts in student tuition from deals arranged without competitive bids in states from Florida to Texas. The review also found Pearson’s contracts set forth specific performance targets — but don’t penalize the company when it fails to meet those standards. And in the higher ed realm, the contracts give Pearson extensive access to personal student data, with few constraints on how it is used.

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.

And it’s not at all surprising when the writer states “[t]he story of Pearson’s rise is very much a story about America’s obsession with education reform over the past few decades”.

What she misses is that the “obsession” has not really been with “reform” as much as the desire to hold someone accountable for the perceived “decline” in the American education system. The politicians writing the laws needed concrete data, and companies like Pearson crafted the products to deliver it. Right place, right time.2

The worst part about the contracts many states have entered into with Pearson is that they get paid regardless of whether their products and services actually work, or at least do what the company says they will. One example that hits too close to home.

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.

Our state must have pretty low criteria for consultants. As, it seems, do many districts and states all over the country.

Anyway, go read the whole thing, keeping in mind the bottom line, as I ranted about recently, is that the blame for the educational malpractice described in this piece belongs in large part to us.

“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.” – Jonathan Zimmerman, education historian at New York University.

We, dear citizen and taxpayer, enable the pigs to eat at the trough.


  1. That would be Charles Pierce from Esquire’s Politics Blog, referencing the 60’s era teen gossip and fan magazine.

  2. Consider this little bit from the article: “A top executive boasted in 2012 that Pearson is the largest custodian of student data anywhere. And that’s just its K-12 business.”

Not in the Education World

I’m not sure if this story is a reflection on the political nature of education reform or on the superficiality of MOOC.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education is offering three MOOCS — massive open online courses — with “convenient, self-paced modules to accommodate busy schedules” to help you do more to “advance and effectively implement trending reforms.”

So, who are the wise and experienced educators leading these courses?

Along with [Joel] Klein, the former chancellor of New York City public schools, and [John] King, the former New York State education commissioner who is now a top adviser to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, you will hear from people including John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education; Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Bush foundation, who sent the e-mail announcement; and Greg Hughes, Utah Speaker of the House. The 18 people shown on the foundation Web site who are involved in the courses come from the policy and legislative (and not the education) world. [my emphasis]

That “not in the education world” part pretty much summarizes the entire approach to education reform in this country.

It’s Not Pearson’s Fault

Despite carrying the title Everyone Hates Pearson, the profile of that company and it’s new CEO in Fortune almost makes you feel sorry for them.

The problem is, legions of parents, teachers, and others see the new Pearson in a very different light. Many of them, particularly in North America, where the company does some 60% of its sales, think of it as the Godzilla of education. In their view, Pearson is bent on controlling every element of the process, from teacher qualifications to curriculums to the tests used to evaluate students to the grading of the tests to, increasingly, owning and operating its own learning institutions.

Actually, the article is a good overview of Education Inc., and specifically the testing business. And the writer even includes a little bit of push-back on the assessment culture that has taken over most public schools, based on personal experience with her own child.

I cringe, feeling that I have failed as a parent if this is what she believes1. And yet she has a point. In New York City, that test helps determine which middle school you get into. In her classroom, the pressure was so great that the teacher referred to the tests by aliases: the “waka-waka” and the “whablah.” They were the elementary-school equivalent, it seemed, of Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, more commonly referred to as “he who must not be named.”

In a remarkably short time, the worthy notion of holding students and teachers accountable seems to have morphed into a system centered on “teaching to the test.”

But that doesn’t last long: “This is not Pearson’s fault, of course.”

And she’s correct. We in the US did this to ourselves.

We elected leaders at all levels who want to privatize public education – and view learning as a process that can be automated and enumerated. If Pearson didn’t exist, there would be plenty of other companies sucking up millions to provide the tools to make that happen. Which, of course, there are anyway, in addition to the “Godzilla of education”, taking their smaller share of the public pie.

Anyway, this is a long article but well worth the time, keeping in mind it comes from a business publication.


  1. “If I don’t do well on the fourth-grade test, I won’t get into a good middle school. If I don’t get into a good middle school, then I won’t get into a good high school, and if I don’t do that, I won’t get into a good college, and then I won’t get a good job.”

Bill’s History Class is Not New

So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class…

Anyway, that’s the headline and, considering that Gates already thinks he knows how to fix American education, it’s not a big stretch for him to replace the traditional high school history curriculum.

The story began when Bill had some time on his hands following his retirement as Microsoft CEO and started watching a series of lectures by Australian professor David Christian titled “Big History”. In his classes, Christian wove together topics from history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields “into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth”.1

A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe.

In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

Gates thought this approach could be used to replaced the standard chronological approach to teaching history in high school and started working with Christian to adapt his work.

I don’t often agree with Gates, about his ideas for education reform or much else, but in this case he’s on to something. In most high schools, the major curriculums are highly segregated, especially when it comes to math and science. As a result, students get a very unauthentic view of the world.

However, before praising Gates and Christian too highly, it needs to be pointed out that “big history”, the idea of using interdisciplinary approach to understanding history, is not at all unique.

In the 1970’s, science historian James Burke wrote, produced, and hosted a wonderfully entertaining series for the BBC (later shown on PBS) called Connections, an “alternative view of change”. In the series (plus two sequels and a half dozen books) Burke takes a storytelling approach to illustrate the many links between science, philosophy, world events, art and more, all with great humor, a sense of curiosity, and a large dose of caution about our reliance on technology.

The original series is on YouTube, although somewhat difficult to find,2 so if you have 50 minutes or so, watch part 1 to get a good idea of Burke’s pre-“big history” approach to explaining how our current world developed from seemingly unrelated connections in our past.

Anyway, original or not, Gates’ idea to punch holes in the silos in which we keep high school academic subjects is a good one, something that’s long overdue. I’m just not sure he is the person to make it happen.


  1. For those without the vast free time of a retired billionare, watch Christian’s 18 minute TED talk to get the idea of “Big History”.

  2. Most of series 2 and 3 is also there and much easier to locate.

The Year in Phony Education Reform

I’m not a big fan of year-end reviews, especially the many simple lists of events with little or no context. Which makes this year in “phony education reform” very different, and better, than most of the retrospectives I’ve read this season. All focused on the big lie that is charter schools.

In 2014, charter schools, which had always been marketed for a legendary ability to deliver promising new innovations for education, became known primarily for their ability to concoct innovative new scams.

What follows is a long collection of stories of financial waste, fraud, and abuse from charters all over the country. Problems about which the public seems clueless.

Surveys show the public generally doesn’t get what charter schools are and don’t understand whether they are private or public or whether they can charge fees or teach religion. Charter operators themselves have muddled their image by arguing successfully in numerous confrontations with legal authorities that “they are exempt from rules that govern traditional public schools, ranging from labor laws to constitutional protections for students.”

Charter operators want to take the public money while making their own rules about how it can be spent. With quality student learning being a lower priority and the return on investment.

Unfortunately, growth in the “business” of education, along with the greed and deception, will likely continue into 2015.

Forecasts about what 2015 will bring to the education landscape frequently foresee more charter schools as charter-friendly lawmakers continue to act witlessly to proliferate these schools. But make no mistake, the charter school scandals of 2014 forever altered the narrative about what these institutions really bring to the populace.

It would be nice if all the 2014 scandals, not to mention multiple studies showing kids in charters do no better than their peers in the public schools, would alter the narrative. But in the current political climate, I’m not hopeful.