Anya Kamenetz wrote an illuminating and actually frightening article about Pearson’s ambitious plans to introduce for-profit education around the world. I quote the article at length because it is so important. I urge you to read it in full. It appears in “Wired” magazine.
Kamenetz went to Manila where she interviewed a mother who sends her school owned by Pearson. The classes in the local public schools are larger than in the Pearson school, and the parent doesn’t want her son to go to school with “those other children.” She is willing and able to pay $2 a day to get something for her son.
The sign on the Pearson school says, “APEC Schools: Affordable World Class Education From Ayala and Pearson.”
APEC is “a different kind of school altogether: one that’s part of a for-profit chain and relatively low-cost at $2 a day, what you might pay for a monthly smartphone bill here. The chain is a fast-growing joint venture between Ayala, one of the Philippines’ biggest conglomerates, and Pearson, the largest education company in the world.
“In the US, Pearson is best known as a major crafter of the Common Core tests used in many states. It also markets learning software, powers online college programs, and runs computer-based exams like the GMAT and the GED. In fact, Nellie already knew the name Pearson from the tests and prep her sister took to get into nursing school.
“But the company has its eye on much, much more. Investment firm GSV Advisors recently estimated the annual global outlay on education at $5.5 trillion and growing rapidly. Let that number sink in for a second—it’s a doozy. The figure is nearly on par with the global health care industry, but there is no Big Pharma yet in education. Most of that money circulates within government bureaucracies.
“Pearson would like to become education’s first major conglomerate, serving as the largest private provider of standardized tests, software, materials, and now the schools themselves.
“To this end, the company is testing academic, financial, and technological models for fully privatized education on the world’s poor. It’s pursuing this strategy through a venture called the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund. Pearson allocated the fund an initial $15 million in 2012 and another $50 million in January 2015. Students in developing countries vastly outnumber those in wealthy nations, constituting a larger market for the company than students in the West. Here in the US, Pearson pursues its privatization agenda through charter schools that are run for profit but funded by taxpayers. It’s hard to imagine the company won’t apply what it learns from its global experiments as it continues to expand its offerings stateside.
“The low-cost schools in the Philippines are one of Pearson’s 11 equity investments in programs across Asia and Africa serving more than 360,000 students. Two of the most prominent, the Omega Schools in Ghana and Bridge International Academies based in Kenya, have hundreds of campuses charging as little as $6 a month. They locate in cheaply rented spaces, hire younger, less-experienced teachers, and train and pay them less than instructors at government-run schools. The company argues that by using a curriculum reflecting its expertise, plus digital technology—computers, tablets, software—it can deliver a more standardized, higher-quality education at a lower cost per student. All Pearson-backed schools agree to test students frequently and use software and analytics to track outcomes.
“Not every Pearson-backed chain will succeed, but the company can use the outcomes to assess which models work best. Pearson will have a stake in the winners; the Affordable Learning Fund takes at least one seat on each board. The goal is to serve more than a million students by 2020….
“Pearson’s corporate reputation doesn’t help matters. In the US, just the mention of its name is enough to make some education activists apoplectic. In 2014 the company was implicated in an FBI investigation of unfair bidding practices for a $1.3 billion deal to provide curricula via iPads to the students of Los Angeles Unified School District. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Pearson monitored the social media accounts of students taking its Common Core tests and had state officials call district superintendents to have students disciplined for talking about the exam. Barber himself points out to me that his face appears as “the seventh-scariest person in education reform” on an anti-Common Core website.
“Yet in many parts of the world, low-cost private schools are a big step up from existing public schools, where buildings may be falling down, philanthropic grants are used to line local officials’ pockets, and teachers don’t bother to show up. The father of Nobel laureate and youth education advocate Malala Yousafzai himself started a chain of low-cost private schools in Pakistan.
“Barber’s thesis is simple: If his company can offer a better option, millions of families…will vote with their feet. “Technology and globalization are going to change everything, including the status quo in education,” he says….
“Because space is tight, the schools have no nurse’s office and no science lab. Some have no gym or play space. One amenity offered everywhere is closed-circuit cameras, a nod to parents’ paramount concern: physical safety.
“Pearson models do vary by setting and the visions of individual entrepreneurs. All of them, though, save money on teachers and claim they still deliver a superior education—even though most research shows that teacher quality is the single most important factor in a student’s education. Donnelly and Barber draw parallels to US charter schools, which employ younger, less-experienced teachers without union protections, and to Teach for America, which places recent college grads into the country’s most challenging classrooms with just five weeks of training….
“But a matchup between a $9 billion public company and the impoverished governments of developing countries looks lopsided, to say the least. If Pearson achieves its vision, only the most destitute would remain in public schools in the world’s largest and fastest-growing cities. Or those schools would close down altogether, as governments increasingly outsource education—a fundamental driver of development and democracy, a basic human right, and a tool of self-determination—to a Western corporation. Teaching would become a low-paid, transient occupation requiring little training. And Pearson would try to bring the lessons it learns in Africa and Asia to education markets in the US and the UK.
“One morning in Manila, I had breakfast at a five-star hotel with James Centenera, who…was key to launching the APEC schools. In his view, for-profit schools have quickly become an accepted part of the educational landscape here—just another option. “I’m glad people have stopped asking whether the schools are better.” Startled, I realized his remark spoke to a mantra of Barber’s: irreversibility.
“In other words, create enough momentum around any change and you’re no longer arguing the merits of your idea. You’re simply treating it as a fact on the ground and rallying others to the cause.
“What makes this a most effective path to change is also what makes it terrifying and infuriating to critics. Inserting itself into the provision of a basic human service, Pearson is subject to neither open democratic decisionmaking nor open-market competition. The only check on its progress will be the tests that Pearson itself creates.”