The power of Pearson threatens academic integrity

On Campus Summer 2015, Pearson threat image


Pearson is everywhere. 

Those textbooks you order every year—the ones with the astronomical price tags your students complain about? Pearson published them. The Miller Analogies Test (MAT) that landed your graduate assistant her position in the department? Pearson wrote it. The online program your university just launched? Pearson. Even the Penguin paperback you brought to the beach this year is from a publisher partially owned by Pearson. 

Pearson also owns the Financial Times, Prentice Hall, Adobe Press and part of Nook. It follows students from recruiting software through online courses, lectures, PowerPoints, discussion questions, study programs and grading rubrics. 

Most important for colleges and universities, Pearson has monopolized the online learning industry. Riding its reputation as a decades-old source of educational materials, from grade school geography to graduate-level texts, it has become the go-to company when an institution wants to expand online learning programs but may not have the resources to do it with in-house staff. In fact, some institutions are so anxious to jump into bed with a familiar name, they forgo the usual bidding process.

That was the case at the University of Florida, according to an exposé Politico published in February: Administrators awarded Pearson a $186 million, decadelong, no-bid contract—claiming it was an extension of a much smaller contract for an entirely different service—and now Pearson is building an online college there. Two colleges in Texas acted similarly, hiring Pearson to create online coursework for $9 million. And Northern Arizona University signed on for more than 100 online Pearson-designed courses, for about $8.7 million.

All of this doesn’t begin to touch the preK-12 market, where Pearson is best known for assessments such as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (known as PARCC), but it also provides test prep, tutoring, teacher evaluation and curriculum. 

Pearson is so ubiquitous that it “has become almost like a shadow national Department of Education unto itself,” says Michael Apple, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of United Faculty and Academic Staff. Pearson “has also become even more powerful in teacher education,” he says, citing Pearson’s role operating edTPA (formerly the Teacher Performance Assessment), a popular assessment tool sometimes required of new graduates looking for a teaching job. According to Apple, edTPA gives short shrift to critical social and cultural knowledge, “thereby making it even more unlikely that … important foundational courses in education (history, philosophy, sociology) will be seen as necessary at institutions of higher education.” 

“Many of us are more than a little worried that education will be transformed into simply preparation for an unequal economy rather than a place for learning about civic responsibility and critical citizenship,” he warns. “Yet these are among the most important aims of any education.”

Pearson’s aim, however, is profit. The British-based company reported £4.9 billion in sales in 2013, or approximately $6.86 billion, 60 percent of which is earned in the United States. The company receives up to 60 percent of student tuition dollars collected for its online courses. And get this: If it doesn’t meet enrollment goals—and frequently, it does not—Pearson still gets paid. In other words, if it promises 100 students, it gets paid tuition for 100 students, even if only 50 show up. That leaves the university holding the bag.

On Campus Summer 2015, Major digital content image

Much of this goes on behind a screen of corporate privacy, since Pearson is not, despite its multiple contracts at public institutions, a public entity itself. The screen does not extend to test takers, however: Pearson has been found monitoring the social media accounts of students taking the PARCC test, and has declined to join other education-technology firms that have signed the Student Privacy Pledge designed to limit the collection, maintenance and use of student personal information.

A backlash has begun to take hold. According to Politico, California State University scrapped a 2012 contract for $25 million after online recruiting flopped. Howard University canceled Pearson plans for online program development, for undisclosed reasons. And in Texas, a $90 million contract for standardized testing was “too vague” to renew.

Unionized faculty at Rutgers were able to stop further involvement with Pearson this spring, with their resolution to reject any new online degree programs managed by the company (see article below). The move was not designed to limit online teaching, but rather to preserve the faculty’s essential role in directing it themselves.

Pearson may not be a bad corporation. It makes lots of money—that’s what corporations do. But Pearson is not set up to value academics over profit. That is what faculty do. We must ensure that we continue to shape the heart of higher learning, not just filling classrooms but reaching students with inspiring pathways to knowledge and innovation driven by scholarship, not profit. 

AFT On Campus, Summer 2015 Download PDF (2.18 MB)
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