“Learning isn’t a destination, starting and stopping at the classroom door. It’s a never-ending road of discovery and wonder that has the power to transform lives. Each learning moment builds character, shapes dreams, guides futures, and strengthens communities.” Those inspiring words and the accompanying video, Learning makes us, left me tingling like the ubiquitous ‘universal values’ Coke commercials.
Eventually, I snapped out of it –and realized that I’d been transported into the global world of British-based Pearson Education, the world’s largest learning and testing corporation, and drawn into its latest stratagem- the allure of 21st century creativity and social-emotional learning. The age of Personalized (or Pearsonalized) learning “at a distance” was upon us.
Globalization has completely reshaped education policy and practice, for better or worse. Whatever your natural ideological persuasion, it is now clear in early 2017 that the focus of K-12 education is on aligning state and provincial school systems with the high-technology economy and the instilling of workplace skills dressed-up as New Age ’21st century skills’ – disruptive innovation, creative thinking, competencies, and networked and co-operative forms of work.
The rise to dominance of “testopoly” from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to the Common Core Standards assessment regime, and its Canadian variations, has made virtually everyone nervous, including legions of teachers and parents. Even those, like myself, who campaigned for Student Achievement Testing in the 1990s, are deeply disappointed with the meagre results in terms of improved teaching and student learning.
The biggest winner has been the learning corporation giants, led by Pearson PLC, who now control vast territories in the North American education sector. After building empires through business deals to digitalize textbooks and develop standardized tests with American and Canadian education authorities, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the company was again reinventing itself in response to the growing backlash against traditional testing and accountability.
Critics on the education left, most notably American education historian Diane Ravitch and BCTF research director Larry Kuehn, were among the first to flag and document the rise of Pearson Education, aptly dubbed “the many headed corporate hydra of education.” A June 2012 research report for the BCTF by Donald Gutstein succeeded in unmasking the hidden hand of Pearson in Canadian K-12 education, especially after its acquisition, in 2007, of PowerSchool and Chancery Software, the two leading computerized student information tracking systems.
More recently, New York journalist Owen Davis has amply demonstrated how Pearson “made a killing” on the whole American testing craze, including the Common Core Standards assessment program. It culminated in 2013, when Pearson won the U.S. contract to develop tests for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, as the only bidder.
When the pendulum started swinging back against testing from 2011 to 2013, Pearson PLC was on the firing line in the United States but remained relatively sheltered in Canada. From Texas to New York to California, state policy makers scaled back on standardized assessment programs, sparked by parent and student protests. In Canada, the Toronto-based People for Education lobby group, headed by veteran anti-tester Annie Kidder, saw an opening and began promoting “broader assessment” strategies encompassing “social-emotional learning” or SEL. Pearson bore the brunt of parent outrage over testing and lost several key state contracts, including the biggest in Texas, the birthplace of NCLB.
Beginning in 2012, Pearson PLC started to polish up its public image and to reinvent its core education services. Testing only represented 10 per cent of Pearson’s overall U.S. profits, but the federal policy shift represented by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tilted in the direction of reducing “unnecessary testing.” The company responded with a plan to shift from multiple-choice tests to “broader measures of school performance,” such as school climate, a survey-based SEL metric of students’ social and emotional well-being.
“For the past four years, Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network has been developing, implementing, and testing assessment innovations,” Vice President Kimberly O’Malley recently reported. This new Pearson PLC Plan is closely aligned with ESSA and looks mighty similar to the Canadian People for Education “Broader Measures” model being promoted by Annie Kidder and B.C. education consultant Charles Ungerleider. Whether standardized testing recedes or not, it’s abundantly clear that “testopoly” made Pearson and the dominance of the learning corporations is just entering a new phase.
How did Pearson and the learning corporations secure such control over, and influence in, public education systems? What’s behind the recent shift from core knowledge achievement testing to social-emotional learning? Is it even possible to measure social-emotional learning and can school systems afford the costs of labour-intensive “school improvement” models? Will the gains in student learning, however modest, in terms of mathematics and literacy, fade away under the new regime?