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Pearson President Responds to My WP Common Core Dilemma Excerpt

October 8, 2015

In my book, Common Core Dilemma–Who Owns Schools?, I have a chapter on London-based mega-company, Pearson. On September 23, 2015, Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss featured an excerpt from that chapter. Readers are able to view Strauss’ post on her blog, “The Answer Sheet,” by clicking here.

On October 08, 2015, the president of Pearson North America, Don Kilburn, responded to Strauss’ post. Here is what he wrote:

The Answer Sheet blog recently shared an excerpt from a book that claimed to understand Pearson’s motivations for being involved in education. We weren’t given the opportunity to respond directly to the points raised in that piece, many of which are rather presumptuous. [Note: Actually, I did invite Pearson to write as long a response as desired but the offer was declined.] So without responding to every point we believe is inaccurate, I’d like to take an opportunity to explain what Pearson is, and what we stand for.

Yes, we are a for-profit company. We currently do about $5 billion worth of business annually in the U.S., out of an estimated $1 trillion that is spent on education each year. Pearson is just one of many companies (for-profit and non-profit) serving public K-12 and higher education institutions across the country. Hundreds of education technology start-ups as well as Fortune 500 companies like Apple, Facebook and Google compete for a share of this business as well.

In  this competitive environment, Pearson is held accountable for how we perform as a company by educators, students, schools and higher education institutions, as well as our shareholders and our employees. We are a company of nearly 40,000 – 15,000 of whom are former teachers, and many more, like me, are U.S. parents. All of us are focused on making a difference in the lives of learners.

At Pearson, because we are parents and community members, we welcome scrutiny. We’re seeking to be transparent in our work. This means engaging with students, parents, teachers, and professors to learn more from them.

We don’t shy away from public debate around education policy, which we agree is necessary. Earlier in the year, we posted the full transcript of our Annual General Meeting to share openly our goals and thinking, and our willingness to hear criticism. You can read the full transcript online.

We also believe business has a role to play across K-12 and higher education – providing innovation and investment that might not be possible otherwise. We’ve joined with America’s Promise Alliance to support states in increasing graduation rates with a State Activation program. Our hope – like everyone involved in education – is to help every kid reach his or her full potential and live a fulfilling, fruitful life.

Regarding our ability to invest, we recently sold the Financial Times and our share of the Economist Group and are committed to using those proceeds to advance programs and products that work in K-12 and higher education.

We understand that not everyone will agree with us. And we can firmly say that we are always striving to do better. This can be seen in our public commitment to achieve better learner outcomes, identify what works in education, and report out on how well our products, programs and services are meeting that goal, which we call our “efficacy agenda”. We made some of our research on this front available already, and we’ll continue to do. This efficacy agenda ensures that when we participate in the education space, it’s going to be with the right level of quality and rigor.

The Answer Sheet blog referenced specific concerns about our work in assessment. We meet the highest industry standards to make sure our tests are fair and valid, and our focus is always on the fairness, accuracy and validity of these tests. In managing a multi-step, multi-stakeholder process, on occasion, we have made mistakes. When that happens, we take immediate action to address them and analyze what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again. We are continuously working with educators to create better assessments that provide better feedback. With the states who make up the PARCC consortium, we successfully helped deliver more than 15 million online assessments this past spring with no downtime.

Finally, we support all states and educators as they diligently work to improve learning throughout this country, whether in a state that has adopted the Common Core State Standards or not. We always have. We are proud to work with teachers, professors, schools, districts and states daily to help make a measurable difference for learners, and we will continue to do so.

Don Kilburn, president, Pearson North America

For starters, I do not consider for-profit education mammoth Pearson as “just one of us.” Clearly Kilburn is trying to promote such an image in his response. This attempt to disarm the American public regarding the Pearson potential to drive American education is expected when one reads in Pearson’s July 2015 earnings call that Pearson CEO John Fallon intends to “build the Pearson brand more proactively.” (Note: The directly-cited information from Pearson’s July 2015 earnings call comes from this transcription by SeekingAlpha.)

Fallon was also encouraged to learn that our American Congress’ retaining a major annual testing component in the proposed Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization “reaffirms a commitment to annual assessments as a means of promoting the quality in education.”

Here is where Pearson’s vision breaks with that of many American teachers, parents, and students. We do not view test-obsessed “education” as producing quality. We view it as punitive, and as narrowing the creativity of both students and teachers– and intended to deliver the ulterior motive of labeling schools as failing– which benefits the corporate reform motives of both killing teaching as a profession (cheaper bottom line) and replacing the elected-board-run community school with under-regulated, test-centric charter schools.

If Pearson actually did “engage with students, parents, teachers, and professors,” no doubt Pearson would have to face the sentiment that a growing proportion of American education stakeholders do not want a mammoth education company inextricably woven into the fabric of the American public school classroom.

Pearson is just too big– and as a for-profit, it seeks to become ever bigger.

For all of Kilburn’s warm, hand-holding rhetoric, profits drive Pearson.

But back to the Pearson disconnect: Pearson CEO Fallon believes that teachers reject being evaluated using student test scores because they just need more time to adjust to Common Core:

As you know we’ve been at the forefront of helping states to develop assessments that measure these new standards. And, initially at least, the teacher evaluation that’s linked to these new standards is proving unpopular with teachers, primarily because they’re worried that they should be given more time to adjust to the higher expectations that are now being placed on them.

Wrong. Teachers reject the idea of being evaluated using student test scores because such a system cannot work. The American Statistical Association has formally opposed such a practice. It is time for Fallon and Kilburn to recognize this fact. No amount of “adjustment time” will make the invalid practice of tying teacher jobs to student test outcomes valid.

Instead, the Fallon and Kilburn focus is on “better assessments.”

An issue leading to Pearson’s losing its lucrative Texas testing contract (the most recent of which was a five-year contract worth $468 million) involved the sentiment that through that contract, Pearson had become too influential over Texas public education.

So, in reflecting on the Texas contract loss, Fallon noted that it would provide the opportunity for Pearson to make even better tests– in the name of serving parents and teachers:

The biggest contract we’ve lost in Texas is still largely paper based and we’ve announced plans… to halve our print based test processing facilities nationwide. …That work freezes up actually to take much more of a lead in developing the next generation of better, smarter digitally-led assessments which meet the understandable concerns of parents and teachers…. 

What if the “understandable concerns of parents and teachers” center upon seriously reducing the American education dependence upon standardized testing?

What if parents and teachers increasingly respond to the federal testing mandate by refusing the test?

Will Fallon and Kilburn support those teachers and parents?

Not likely.

Profits first.

Kilburn states that Pearson delivery of PARCC testing was successful because there was “no downtime.”

This is no selling point for me to admire Pearson. I am a public school teacher, and I am tired of testing– the very testing that Fallon is happy to see continue– the very testing that Fallon counts as “promoting the quality in education.”

Kilburn downplays the $5 billion that Pearson draws in annual profits from American education, and he also downplays Common Core. However, Pearson has a history of helping its for-profit via its now-closed charity, the Pearson Foundation, and that in connection with unarguably potentially-profitable Common Core. As Valerie Strauss reported in in November 2014:

Last year the Pearson Charitable Foundation — the nonprofit arm of the largest education publishing company in the world — paid $7.7 million in fines to the state of New York after authorities found that it had broken state law by helping its for-profit parent. How? By helping it develop Common Core educational products and by paying travel expenses for potential clients to attend education conferences.

Nonprofit organizations are not supposed to be helping for-profit companies make money. Oops. …

According to the settlement…, Pearson used its nonprofit foundation to develop Common Core products in order to win an endorsement from a “prominent foundation.” A story by my Washington Post colleague Lyndsey Layton said that Pearson used the foundation to develop Common Core products, including courses, to win an endorsement from a “prominent foundation,” which happened to be the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was a prime funder of the Core from its creation.

Strauss continues by noting that even as it pays millions in fines, Pearson neither admits nor denies wrongdoing. But such an arrangement hardly promotes public confidence in the Pearson brand. On the contrary, such exposure only highlights “Pearson’s motivations for being involved in education”:


As Politico’s Stephanie Simon notes in her February 2015 blockbuster scrutiny of Pearson’s hold on the American classroom:

Pearson wields 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 the classroom. 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.

A top executive boasted in 2012 that Pearson is the largest custodian of student data anywhere.

And that’s just its K-12 business. …

Indeed, Pearson has its hand in so many education services that corporate executive Donald Kilburn confidently predicted on an earnings call last summer that the North American division would flourish even if states and school districts had to cut their budgets.

As long as sales reps can show that Pearson products get results, Kilburn said, “the money will find a way to come to us.”

But the POLITICO review found that public contracts and public subsidies — including at least $98.5 million in tax credits from six states — have flowed to Pearson even when the company can’t show its products and services are producing academic gains.

Simon continues:

Pearson’s broad reach in American education is evident in the variety– and dollar value– of its contracts. POLITICO found that millions in taxpayer dollars and student tuition have flowed to Pearson in deals without competitive bids and through contracts set up to protect Pearson’s profits, even when promised results don’t materialize.

Simon offers details of such Pearson-friendly deals in multiple states, including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, California, and New Jersey.

Profits, profits, profits.

And as Simon reports, America’s federal-level crush on the standardized test provides a major, profit-producing root:

…Its stronghold in the testing business gives Pearson huge leverage over other aspects of K-12 education.

To prepare their students for Pearson exams, districts can buy Pearson textbooks, Pearson workbooks and Pearson test prep, such as a suite of software that includes 60,000 sample exam questions. They can connect kids to Pearson’s online tutoring service or hire Pearson consultants to coach their teachers. Pearson also sells software to evaluate teachers and recommend Pearson professional development classes to those who rate poorly — perhaps because their students aren’t faring well on Pearson tests.

“The genius of Pearson is the interconnection among their markets,” said Apple, the education policy professor. “That gives Pearson its power.” …

The company has numerous competitors for nearly all the products it sells, but the POLITICO review found Pearson often has the inside track for contracts because its products are so ubiquitous and its sales staff builds such tight relationships with state and local officials.

Pearson exerts tremendous influence over American public education with an end to ever-increasing profits. Common Core and its attendant tests provides the undeniable potential to further streamline that influence.

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, published on June 12, 2015.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. this is a separate issue in special education but I think that the Pearson “wings should be clipped” in all their endeavors; as you point out they are way too big and too much involved in education (and I blame Duncan for handing out that giant R&D contract to create experimental tests; what a squandering of funds)… anyway, this is the quote: “Pearson is marketing ADHD testing system…. A letter dated Aug. 20, 2015, from the FDA to Pearson says:
    The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has learned that your firm is marketing the Quotient ADHD System in the United States without marketing clearance or approval, in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act).”

  2. I love this post (and deeply admire your work).

    I’d make one additional point. Pearson’s defense omits the single most important issue: the system that generates its contracts is corrupt. Pearson products are not purchased by parents and teachers in a free market. We are forced to consume their wares by politicians who have been corrupted by the private sector and who no longer serve the public. It is the anti-democratic governmental structures in education that we reject, and Pearson’s products as an integral part of that oppression.

  3. ColoMom permalink

    Don Kilburn, speaking to you as one parent to another.

    If you truly care as deeply as you claim, how about letting us parents know what data is collected, how it is used, who it is shared with. How about respecting parents and providing some much needed transparency?

    We send our children to public schools where they are data mined, [ their data is YOUR product, your ROI ] and parents have been stripped of the power to say no or even see the data. So Don, dad, will you make sure your company remembers these are our children? As much as you want to “help” by using their data to improve the “business” of K-12 education, please, will you tell parents what data you have access to, what data you collect, create and how it is used?

    It’s up to you Don, will Pearson be transparent?

    Cheri K, Just a mom.
    my email.

  4. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    There is not much better evidence of your influence than drawing the attention of the CEO of Pearson and with the Washington Post adding visibility to that. Congratulations. That is no small feat, especially from a full time teacher, who seems never to sleep. The heat must be kept on these privateers and profiteers and the people,especially politicians and billionaires, who enable their takeover of public education and fuel their absolute distain for academic freedom in education.

    • Christine Langhoff permalink

      Could not agree with you more, Laura. One of the heroes of the battle to defeat the reformistas is, without a doubt, our Mercedes!

  5. Jill Reifschneider permalink

    And children in the first grade are getting really good at filling in bubbles.

  6. LA Educator permalink

    Pearson must really be hurting financially due to your efforts, Mercedes, if they are deigning to respond at such length to your writing. With the number of states & other entities willing to continuing subscribing to the PARCC test ever dwindling, I guess they will go for a “re-brand” next! Keep up the heat!

  7. I would just add that it is important to note Pearson is a world wide conglamorate actively working and selling throughout every continent; I first encountered Pearson in the South Korea in the ESL tertiary education world where it makes huge profits with its programs for English language learners.

  8. ira shor permalink

    Keep going after Pearson and the other billionaires and companies looting our public schools. You make a difference and they are on the defensive.

  9. Evander Bachus permalink

    My sole direct experience with Pearson was during a bid process at the LDoE for the type of report cards that were provided to schools for accountability prior to John White’s hiring (back when Paul Pastorek was the appointed liar). Louisiana’s system was substantially different from any other state, so the requirements were nothing like the standard NCLB compliance reports. Pearson submitted a proposal that was basically what they were providing to several other states – straight NCLB. They got pretty nasty when they didn’t get the contract.

    Now that I’m back in a school district, all sorts of things that we use turn out to be owned by Pearson.

    And JW and company are trying to get our state testing contracts signed off to ACT. We need some new BESE members and a new state supe.

  10. Jake Jacobs permalink

    DOES NOT COMPUTE: He was clever to say his focus is “making a measurable difference” in the lives of school kids. This difference, of course is the displacement of classroom funding, where students see less services and bigger classes to allow room for Pearson to continue the for-profit model instead of a non-profit model.

    The idea of extracting taxpayer money to replace public education functions is immensely unpopular, with sustained protests for years falling on deaf ears as pay-for-play trumps representative democracy. But we’ve seen this form of class war before, as profiteers moved into the healthcare space to make us all pay middlemen to stay healthy or obtain medicine.

    If Pearson is truly open to scrutiny and transparency, I’d like to know what their margins are so we can calculate just how many teachers our schools are losing because they operate under this model. The claim that the business world can innovate in ways teachers cannot is particularly ironic – they boast they employ so many former teachers it begs the question, why not use 100% teachers? Aren’t active teachers preferable to those who left the practice? And isn’t it better to remove a profit motive?

    Simply put, education is not a business. It should be protected and insulated from business practices because child development is not a predictable, repeatable progression to be automated or centrally planned.

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