Fun ways to stop corporations taking over schools

First published on OpenDemocracy April 2016.
Photo credit: Richard Lee.

Last week wasn’t a good week for corporate education reformers that believe in the power of endless testing to raise standards in schools.

Mid week, it emerged that a Sats spelling test due to be taken next month had been accidentally published as a ‘sample paper’ by the Department of Education months ago.

Given that no one has any idea how many children have used it to practice for the test, head teachers called for schools to be allowed to spend their time more fruitfully, rather than taking what is now a seriously compromised assessment. Then, the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, agreed and suspended it.

At the very same moment we, in the UK, learnt of the error, thousands of children in New Jersey sat at their desks looking at blank screens instead of the maths and English tests they were due to take.

The reason for this botched test was a ‘computer glitch’ with an online testing platform created by Pearson. The UK-based, $9 billion company is the largest provider of standardised tests in the US. It administered some 50 million of them last year.

"This is not a problem on our end," said an official from the state of New Jersey, which is paying the education giant $10 million to create and administer the exams. "This is a problem on Pearson's end." The firm said that the error was introduced by a Pearson employee making changes system.

This is by no means the first time Pearson has been in the firing line over its testing service. In recent years, it has been accused of marking errors, misgrading, and malfunctioning online tests (for a brief summary, see the 2015 article in Fortune Magazine, ‘Everybody Hates Pearson’). It has paid out many millions in settlements and fines. In the UK last year, where Pearson was responsible for the marking of 600,000 pupils’ Sats papers, the firm appeared to blame the equipment of its markers, rather than its online software, when the system ground to a halt.

As teachers dealt with the fallout from the latest technology fail, Pearson’s CEO, John Fallon, however, was a world away at a ‘must-attend event for education technology investors’. The GSV ASU Summit where Fallon was presenting – dubiously dubbed ‘Davos in Diego’ (as in San Diego, California) – is one of many edtech conferences sponsored by Pearson.

Fallon took to the stage on Wednesday to explain the profound changes his company was bringing to education through technology.

  Pearson's John Fallon talks about 'The Future of Education' at the 2016 ASU GSV Summit.

Pearson's John Fallon talks about 'The Future of Education' at the 2016 ASU GSV Summit.

‘Technology can help to do things better,’ the Mancunian said. According to Fallon, this means more ‘virtual schools’, data-driven, computer-based, ‘personalised’ learning, and cost savings through technology in the operation of schools, all of which Pearson has a commercial interest in.

Underpinning the technology, is an approach to education that sees ‘outcomes’ – aka test scores – as the measure of success. Narrow, easily measurable, standardised outcomes that can be tagged and administered by computers.

Edtech advocates like Fallon are keen on ‘outcomes’. Rarely do they discuss the thorny issues of declining government spending on schools and insufficient numbers of qualified teachers (both key ‘inputs’ into education). Who cares how education is delivered, so the thinking goes – whether that’s via technology, or for-profit companies – so long as these narrow outcomes are delivered.

‘Too much in education has been based on good will and kind hearts,’ says Fallon, writing off in one sentence quite a lot of what makes a good teacher of children. ‘The commitment that we’ve made in Pearson is that... we will be held to account for achieving better learning outcomes.’ Incidentally, he adds, this will also ‘create great value’ for Pearson’s shareholders. Profits, according to Fallon are mere ‘byproducts of doing something really important and useful for society and doing it well.’

Some of Pearson’s shareholders, however, are now taking him on his word and calling the company to account for its commitment to high-stakes testing. Not just the cock-ups, but the detrimental effect standardised testing – Pearson’s cash-cow – has on children’s learning.

The “Pearson 100”, made up of international pension funds, teachers’ unions and other shareholders, have filed a resolution to be discussed at Pearson’s AGM this week in London. 

It calls on Pearson to dump its high stakes testing business and turn its back on a system which sees schools, teachers and pupils punished on narrow test results, and which is constraining and simplifyin g what is taught and learnt in schools.

‘Pearson’s business strategy is built on the idea that education is a commodity that can be bought and sold,’ say the shareholders, ‘which is undermining the very fabric of public education’.

Perhaps Pearson’s biggest threat, though, comes from parents themselves. In less than a fortnight, thousands of UK parents will join the many hundreds of thousands of parents in America that are choosing to opt their children out of standardised, high stakes tests. The plan in the UK for the 3rd May, is instead to have a ‘day of fun learning out of school’.

As one parent from Fallon’s home town who is planning to join the national boycott said of the testing system: ‘It is not necessary and is only used for the school’s statistics.’

Many parents are concerned about the stress children experience from frequent examinations.

But it goes beyond that. High stakes testing is rightly viewed as part of a reform package that is seeing education reduced to a narrow set of ‘outcomes’, driven by the commercial interests of large edu-businesses and investors that stand to profit. 

Pearson, as the world’s largest education business, is so far taking the hit for this increasingly technology-driven industry. With education being presented to investors as a ‘$4.5trillion opportunity’, many more companies – Google, Amazon, Facebook to name a few – have waded in.

A day of fun learning won’t halt their spread in schools, but it’s not a bad place to start.

  Screenshot from presentation: Global Opportunities: Devil in the Details’ presentation by Parthenon-EY,  GSV ASU Summit  2016    

Screenshot from presentation: Global Opportunities: Devil in the Details’ presentation by Parthenon-EY, GSV ASU Summit 2016