Tuesday, January 10, 2023

NWEA Purchased To Become Marketing Tool

NWEA (the MAP test company) has been purchased by HMH, the education/learning/techno company. That's the headline. Let's take the occasion to consider one of the great corporate octopi of education, and what users of NWEA can expect in the future.

NWEA is best known as the company that sells the MAP test, a computer-delivered multiple choice test in the Common Core vein that many schools use for many purposes, some of them kind of ridiculous. Students don't much care about them, though NWEA has faced that head on by "developing" an algorithm that pretends to read students' minds based on how long they take to answer. Like many districts, my former district used MAP to pre-test students and predict how they were going to do on the states Big Standardized Test. I crunched the numbers once--MAP was a very lousy predictor of that. 

HMH is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Once upon a time they were a bunch of textbook publishers, before glomming together into "a learning technology company committed to delivering connected solutions that engage learners, empower educators and improve student outcomes" as well as "a leading provider of K–12 core curriculum, supplemental and intervention solutions, and professional learning services." They include a whole world of curriculum materials (for good measure, they also own the ed publisher Heinemann.)

But HMH is not the center of this edu-octopus, because HMH is owned by Veritas Capital. We've met Veritas before, as they also own the giant mass that falls under the umbrella of the Cambium Learning Group

Veritas is a private equity company that's two whole decades old. Says their website, "We invest in companies that provide critical products and services, primarily technology or technology-enabled solutions, to government and commercial customers worldwide." But perhaps the scarier part, if you're a small tentacle they've decided to partner with, is this:

We seek to create value by strategically transforming the companies we acquire. Our sector focus and deep expertise are our competitive discriminators and allow us to identify and execute on multiple strategic levers that drive the performance of our investments.

They "employ an active approach to ownership and value creation," which has a pretty ominous Bond villainy sound to it. 

What role will the little sucker marked NWEA play in this undersea marauder. The announcement is pretty plain:

By combining NWEA’s assessments with HMH’s curriculum, HMH is expected to deliver a holistic solution for educators that helps them understand how students are growing academically and what areas need the most focus to maximize that growth. Most importantly, this solution will turn insights from assessments into content recommendations that help teachers address student-specific skill gaps and advance student learning.

In other words, your students take the NWEA MAP test, and along with a score, you get a recommendation of which HMH products you should buy to address whatever issues the test claims the student has. The MAP test will be a marketing tool. (Fun factoid: Goldman Sachs acted as the exclusive financial advisor to NWEA).

Am I being a party-pooper by casting a jaundiced eye at this "great alignment in mission and long-term vision"? I don't think so. I see some real problems.

First, what are the odds that the NWEA/HMH program will offer a recommendation along the lines of, "This student has everything under control and you definitely shouldn't waste any of your limited budget on any of our materials." 

Second, what are the odds that the NWEA/HMH program will say anything like, "The best materials and approach for this child's issues is one that is actually sold by a company that is not us."

All of this suffers from the fundamental problem of viewing educational materials as a means of generating revenue, with educational service to students a secondary concern. Diagnostic tests become marketing tools rather than educational tools. Their role is to target markets, not just by tailoring a sales pitch, but by helping to create the impression of a need, a crisis. 

I'm reminded of Mission Impossible II (that's the one with Thandiwe Newton plus Tom Cruise's crazy hair) in which the bad guys create a disease, a worldwide crisis, so that they can make a bundle selling the cure. HMH has just acquired an excellent means of pitching an educational crisis and selling solutions. It isn't going to help students very much but, hey--ka-ching!

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