Let’s say you’re in the leadership of a screwed up country where the quality of life for your citizens is not very good. Basic services are intermittent and life is chaotic or worse. One strategy to take their mind off of that, and the likelihood they’ll start to blame you for it, is to constantly villainize others. The U.S. and Israel play this part in the Middle East, for instance. It’s a tried and true strategy because…it works!
That’s pretty much what seems to be happening here in the education sector with regard to Pearson.* In case you’ve been living in a cave, Pearson is a large multinational publishing conglomerate that does a lot of work in the U.S. ed sector. You probably haven’t heard that they’re great, because only people paid to say so say that. But you may well have heard that they’re awful, venal, corrupt, greedy, mendacious, you name it. Actually, you can’t turn around in this sector, or turn on Twitter, without bumping into someone braying about how Pearson is doing this or that horrible thing. And, yes, sometimes these things are genuinely bad acts. Everyone is frustrated with testing errors**, for instance, and there are certainly some legitimate concerns around data privacy. But most of what you hear is overwrought if not downright ridiculous – you really can’t hang school finance on Pearson. No Child Left Behind, not really their doing. Common Core? The old system was actually better for them and other large vendors. Current push to maintain federal law on testing – civil rights groups are pushing that along with a broad coalition.
In fact, when you think about the top threats facing public education these days, for example wildly uneven quality, pervasive mediocrity, flight of the affluent, lack of common signals for quality, an aging population, unsustainable cost structure, lack of choice and customization for students and parents, and more none of those issues have much to do with Pearson (or most other private sector interests in and around the education sector). It’s almost as though everyone carrying on about Pearson would rather talk about that than all the more serious issues facing schools – most of which Pearson doesn’t have much to do with, positive or negative.
If we’re going to obsessively focus on Pearson then let’s at least talk about some real issues – for example the lack of competition and innovation in the assessment industry and the long-term impact of that? And whether a large corporation can really do innovation or just absorb innovative companies and dull their sharp edges? Sir Michael Barber is working hard to help redesign Pearson in some new ways, but is it doable? Can a market with a few dominant players move toward the kind of frequent but light touch and non-instrusive kinds of assessment that are better for kids and teachers, and if not what’s the best way to disrupt that industry? Those are real questions. Pearson as the biggest villain in the sector is just a misdirection that obscures far more than it reveals.***
*I carry no particular brief for Pearson and we have not worked with the at BW. Meanwhile, we do work with some of those trying to disrupt the assessment industry. I also know people who work there, obviously, and they’re of course nothing like the stereotypes. Financially, Pearson paid me to keynote a conference they were sponsoring and discuss the evolving landscape of teacher preparation in late 2013. I had fun, so perhaps I’m biased? And I once did an interview about the assessment landscape with a consulting company that was doing strategic planning for Pearson given the client description – I was paid for my time (given the description of the company they shouldn’t have paid me if I couldn’t figure out who it was). In any event, I also have watched Pearson work from a few vantage points in the public and non-profit sector and – spoiler alert – for the most part they’re no better or worse than the other big players. They’re just bigger. I do wish they’d stop buying interesting companies and making them less interesting, but all the big players do that.
**Not everything that looks like an error is one, however.
***It also creates a distorting effect on our conversations in this field. Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, who is rarely accused of being in cahoots with the reform crowd, elected to use Pearson for a project she’s doing on performance assessments for teachers. She described Pearson as having, ”the experience, capacity, and infrastructure to deploy the [new assessment] to scale quickly, so that the field would not have to wait to see the benefits in the classroom.” I don’t know if that’s right in this case but it sounds sensible enough. Nonetheless, she’s since been trying to distance herself see here and here. Even with the experience, capacity, and infrastructure, or perhaps because of it, Pearson’s taboo. And, of course, for those trying to follow along with the new assessment discussion of Pearson’s role overshadowed most discussion about whether the new test was a good one or what kind of applicability it had. It turned into a real circus in New York (for a variety of reasons). Maybe we can do better?