The Fast-Growing, Cash-Generative Business of Education

I don’t pay much attention to the day-to-day business headlines, especially since reporting in that area is just as bad or possibly worse than what passes for public affairs reporting these days.

But when Pearson, the UK-based educational publishing conglomerate that pretty much runs the Virginia DOE, is the subject, things get a little more interesting.

Evidentially, the company didn’t have a good first half of the year and plans to cut about 4000 jobs. However, it’s this statement from the CEO that really caught my eye.

Pearson is positioning itself as “a global learning services company,” Fallon said in a statement today. “This will drive a leaner, more cash-generative, faster-growing business from 2015.”

And where does all that cash being generated come from? At least half is from public schools, of course.

Pearson is the largest company in the fast-growing business of standardized testing, both writing and scoring the exams. Plus study materials to help teachers prepare kids for the tests. And textbooks “aligned” to Common Core or state standards (alignment being a euphemism for test prep).

Even worse, Pearson sees a great deal of potential in “emerging markets”, other countries to which they are exporting American-style standardized testing.

In the end, their bottom line will likely improve in the next fiscal year, even if the quality of learning provided by their customers (aka schools) doesn’t.

Breaking the Testing Addiction

It’s testing season here in the overly-large school district as both the tech (the state says we have to give all tests online) and the kids are being prepped for their high stakes exercises in minimal learning. For the next six weeks or so, don’t expect to find much instruction happening in most of our classrooms. It’s all about passing the SOLs.*

However, lately I’ve been stumbling across a string of articles talking about a “testing backlash”, both by school districts and individual parents, about states being granted waivers from the stifling perfection demands of NCLB, and how we’re moving into a “post testing” period of American education.

It would be nice if all of that was actually happening, but I wonder if schools, districts, administrators and many teachers are going to be able to give up the testing culture they’ve become so accustomed to over the past decade or more. Is the allure of data – concrete, easily collected, quantifiable numbers – too much to abandon?

Let’s face it, in many ways following the test prep script is much easier than pacing instruction based on the kids who arrive in your class each day. Test scores go into nice neat tables and averages of them fit better into newspaper headlines and two-minute news stories than other, more accurate forms of assessment.

Part of my doubt also stems from the amount of time, money, and focus our district has poured into a “curriculum assessment resource tool”, essentially a big database of questions forming a year-round standardized test prep system. With this in place, most of our schools have been taking away many additional days of instructional time during the rest of the year for collecting more of that data.

So, I come back to the question of whether, if NCLB disappeared tomorrow and teachers were allowed more flexibility in their assessment, schools could break the addiction of the testing culture. I’m sure the best teachers would have no problem, and probably already find ways around the testing drills mandated by many principals.

Just some rambling, speculative questions, maybe ones that are too pessimistic.


*Virginia’s standardized tests are called the Standards of Learning tests. No, the irony of the acronym is not lost on any of us.

Update: One more parent opting their child out of standardized testing.

We’re Just Test Prep Wimps

If US students are going to beat their Asian counterparts on international standardized assessments, which seems to be the educational goal of most politicians, we better stop being wimps when it comes to test prep.

The Shanghai students performed well, experts say, for the same reason students from other parts of Asia – including South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong – do: Their education systems are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation.

So, there’s our goal. We simply need to get American schools to rise to that same “obsessive” level.

Just ignore those misguided educators who whine  that “Chinese schools emphasized testing too much, and produced students who lacked curiosity and the ability to think critically or independently”.

Winning at the SAT Game

Sound advice (and some far-too-close-to-reality satire) about the SAT and test prep companies from last night’s Colbert Report.

If you take enough of their math classes [Princeton Review], you may even learn their formula for turning children’s fear into cash.

Some English teachers may not want to hear what Stephen has to say about essays.