From NEA’s President

Lily Eskelsen García is the president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the United States. (It is in fact the largest union of any kind in the country.)  In this post, she looks at current education reform efforts and calls for education companies to be transparent about what they are doing and how it is affecting young people.

By Lily Eskelsen García

There’s a line in one of my favorite movies that reminds me of why it’s important to say what we mean. In the “The Princess Bride,” after misusing the word “inconceivable” several times, Vizzini, one of three outlaws who capture the princess, is challenged by his fellow kidnapper, Inigo, who tells him, “…you keep saying that word, I do not think that means what you think it means.”

We know that when someone says “education reform,” it can mean any variety of things.  If you look at the sprawling edu-business sector, the meaning can be summed up by two ideas: over-reliance and misuse of standardized testing, and the notion that for-profit corporations should run our school systems.

I’ve seen figures ranging from $2 billion to $60 billion in terms of the worth of the U.S. testing market; the global market for edu-business and for-profit schooling is in the ball-park of $4 trillion. The real profit margins may be shifting, but they are certainly growing and the opportunity costs—the trade-offs made in service to expanding these profit margins are beyond measure.

I’m generally not a pessimist. Really, I’m not. But there seems to be a growing correlation between the brightening profit forecasts for the testing industry and the growing alarm over the misuse and overreliance on standardized tests among parents, educators and advocates; the dollars invested in U.S. testing companies are fueling efforts that are hurting students here in the United States and throughout the developing world. I’ll give you two examples of what I mean.

Here in the United States, Pearson was recently called out for concerns with how it was monitoring students’ social media activity, relative to certain school exams. I am very concerned that, according to news reports, Pearson is mining information posted on social media, and matching it with students’ private information that Pearson collects as a test provider.  Is student privacy being sacrificed for the sake of profits?  We don’t know, but Pearson needs to come clean about everything it is doing with student information. All education companies do; Pearson is not the only company that does such monitoring.

Concerned parents, students, teachers, and school administrators need to know that this information is being used only for legitimate educational purposes, and not for commercial gain.  At a minimum, Pearson, and all other standardized test producers should agree to the Student Data Principles for using and safeguarding students’ personal information. These principles were developed and put forward by dozens of education organizations, including NEA.

The potential misuse of data is one of Pearson’s most recent offenses in the United States, but the company’s conduct abroad is raising other serious concerns.  Have you ever heard the term “pay-as-you-learn?” It is a business model that provides a student with access to school, only if the student has paid a daily fee to enter the doors on a given day. The model has been launched in Ghana in the Omega Schools, funded by the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund. Touted as a “low-fee” and “low-cost” way to provide children in the developing world with an education, the PERI Initiative, a respected global research and networking initiative, has looked into the new initiative by Pearson and found that it is far from an opportunity for poor children. In developing countries this ‘pay-as-you-learn’ model can mean that small children themselves may have to work to afford to attend school and it can also mean that families may spend the bulk of their meager incomes to send just one child to school.  It is a disturbing and growing trend and the potential profit for the testing industry is enormous.  Let me be very clear that while I’m describing things that are happening in the developing world, American educators may well recognize some of these same conditions and ideas taking seed here in the United States.

These are just two examples of acts in the name of education reform.  How did we get here and what are the seeds and conditions that make this possible? Well, there are several, including powerful corporations; a devalued teaching profession; a uniform school-in-a box approach, complete with a standardized script for teaching and learning; and an insatiable appetite for profits.  Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish scholar who is an expert on international education,  once appropriately described this phenomenon as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and America is not the only nation stricken by this growing trend; we’re witnessing the spread of new mutations across the globe.

Once when we said public education, we meant the greatest American ideal of all—universal and free quality education for each and every student.  Public education has been the engine of our economy, the cradle of our democracy, and a model for the world.  It is still the greatest education idea we’ve ever had, but we’re seeing the twisting of its meaning and we must rededicate ourselves to restoring the ideals that focused first and foremost on people—not on profits.