Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Pearson CEO Spreads It On Thick

EdWeek's Market Brief, a site that unabashedly focuses its gaze on the giant pile of money attached to the education biz, sat down with Pearson CEO John Fallon to unleash a heaping helping of corporate toolspeak.

Fallon responded to a series of questions from reporters that EdWeek has helpfully organized. So we'll borrow their organizational scheme here.

What is Pearson's biz?

Primarily, Pearson makes giant piles of money. Fallon claims $7 billion annual revenues and "50 percent come from courseware/content, in K-12, higher education, and across the professional space." Thirty percent comes from testing (ten percent of the high stakes variety). The last twenty percent comes from services provided to school and Pearson's own virtual school. So, bigtime education.

Fallon says that a Pearson motto is "content plus assessment, powered by technology, equalizes effective learning at scale." Similar to the sort of thing we all used to write on "why I want to teach" essays back in teacher school. Okay, not that similar, since the Pearson motto doesn't actually mention teaching as part of the plan-- just technology-powered content delivery and assessment. As we have noted before when studying Pearson's Master Plans.

Fallon also said the company’s approach is to “define what we do by the outcome, not by where it happens physically.”

In the Cyber School game

Reporters, apparently in a very diplomatic and polite manner, asked Fallon, "Pearson has bet heavily on cyber-schools through its Connections Academy, among other products. What do you say to customers who are have noticed that cyber-schools are a big poop sandwich?"

Fallon's answer is a Mona Lisa of corporate baloneyspeak.

It’s important to speak in specific rather than general terms…It’s not always the case, but it’s fair to say there’s a disproportionate number of students in virtual schooling who are there because physical schools have failed them in some form or another. So it’s going to be important that we track value-added, or progress-added.

We see technology as the means by which I can apply the benefits of teaching to far more people, and you can help free teachers up to spend more time with students, engaging students, learning from each other. Technology is not a panacea, it’s just a tool, and its primary value is in enhancing the power of teaching to reach more people.

We publish studies that show the value that these programs do add. I think on the whole, the results are pretty good….But we are not complacent or satisfied, and all the time we’re looking to improve the value that is added. If you look at Connections Academy, the schools are incredibly popular with parents…[We measure the extent to which parents recommended our online programs among each other] and it receives an incredibly high rating.

So, yeah, boy, measuring the effectiveness of the program is important, and we're totally working on that, and we're always working on getting better, so when you ask if we're actually accomplishing anything, we can-- say, have you seen these glowing customer reviews?

Common Core alignment

Fallon was asked about the charge that many publishers didn't so much align materials with Common Core as just slap some Common Core stickers on the same old materials. EdReports in particular fingered Pearson materials, among others, as a big ole fail. Fallon's counter-argument is, well, to say, "We’re very confident that our products are aligned to the common core." So there you go! Problem solved. A company assures you that their product totally works-- what else do you need?

Common Core implementation

Pearson has some ideas about a super-duper educational delivery product that would revolutionize everything and fit just great with Common Core. But Fallon believes that kind of total overhaul (or total commandeering) of the education system will take time.

In hindsight, one of the mistakes that were made around the implementation of the common core was to think you could switch from No Child Left Behind, that you could click your fingers and it would happen in one fell swoop. It will take the better part of a generation for the benefits to flow through, because it’s such a fundamental step change.

None of which means that Fallon has anything other than complete confidence. Yes, too-abrupt addition on test-based assessment made teachers cranky, and there wasn't a great understanding of how the data crunching and tracking would work, but Fallon notes that it all happened anyway, so, win! And yes, absolutely every aspect of schools will need to be changed, but that should be swell. He neglects to mention that the implementation is further hampered by the complete lack of proof, support, or data to suggest that any of these changes will be educationally beneficial.

This does leap Pearson into the Cautious Approach lead. Bill Gates said it would take a decade to find out if Common Core was actually working, but Fallon is willing to bet the education of an entire generation on this shot in the experimental dark.

Assessment! Assessment! Assessment!

While the heading focuses on the awesomeness of summative assessment, Fallon is quoted as being excited about the convergence of summative and formative assessment-- the ever-popular all-standardized-testing, all-the-time. This has been on the Pearson radar for a long time; you can start a fuller journey through the Pearson Master Plan for an Assessment Renaissance right here.

Wither High Stakes Testing?

Given the ongoing meltdown of the Big Standardized Test biz, do you ever see Pearson getting out?
Fallon is unmoved. We gave 15 million awesome tests successfully last year (presumably that "successfully" isn't considering whether or not the tests were crap). And we can't go back to bubble tests, because they don't prepare students for the real world. Seriously-- the pick-and-click computer BS Test is totally preparation for real life, if your real life is taking bad standardized tests. Is that a job somewhere?

Soooooo... About That LAUSD Debacle

Asked about the total and expensive debacle of trying to convert the Los Angeles to one-to-one tabletry, Fallon has nothing specific to say. In general, technology is hard and converting to new standards is hard and switching teachers over very quickly is hard, and boy, all these hard things take time.

But about the Pearson Pre-loaded Curriculum?

Lots of people have used it since then without any disastrous complaints at all.

Open Source?

"So," asks someone diplomatically, "are you afraid that the open source movement of Free Stuff will get in the way of your profitable market?"

"Well," says Fallon diplomatically, "there will always be a market for materials that aren't cheap crap you just google off the internet." And then he is correct yet again when he notes that the open source route is "not a free route." You still need software and hardware and to manage the whole big mess. So Pearson is not worried, and I can't say that I blame them.

Pearson's Confidence Game

Pearson's leadership belongs to that special elite group of reformsters. It may be that they are the champion poker-faced con artists, but I'm generally left with the impression that they are just that confident, that they can contemplate redesigning the entire educational system of several nations without ever wondering if maybe, just maybe, they're over-reaching in a way that would be alarming and dangerous in an actual elected government, let alone a multinational corporation that doesn't have to listen to anybody.

How much nerve does it take to say, "Redesign a cultural institution that serves as a foundation of our civilization and has roots going back centuries? Sure-- we can do that. And we will do it with products untested and unproven-- even products that have been shown to be defective-- and we'll gamble the education of an entire generation on it, and we'll do it by just taking over an entire sector just because we want to and certainly not because anyone asked us to."

If it weren't for that whole "gambling the education of an entire generation" part, the hubris would be breath-taking. As it is, the whole business just continues to be alarming.


  1. Hubris is what comes to mind when I read stuff like this. Reformsters are not the only ones with an "air of confidence". The bankers, who damn near put the entire planet in financial ruin, are still running around screwing everybody with the exact same "confidence" Pearson displays with such ease. Pearson will surely drive education to the brink just like the banksters. All I have say is I have had enough BS sandwiches to last a lifetime from these guys!

  2. As the saying goes, if you want to know WHY any of this test-score mess which has taken over education has been getting bigger and bigger and more out of control? Follow the money. In the end, that's all it is ever about. Greed and power.