Who’s Selling You Shovels?

Pearson Snake Oil

In 1848, Sam Brannan ran up and down the streets of San Francisco yelling, ”Gold! There’s gold in the American River!” Brannan had no intention to dig for gold himself, of course. Just before he made the announcement, he had purchased every pickaxe, shovel and pan available in Northern California. He knew that the people who came to California to dig for gold were suckers; a few might find wealth, but most would simply line his pockets.

Today, politicians, state education officials, district superintendents and school board members are suckers in the new “gold rush.”

In the “Race to the Top,” we have lined the pockets of gurus, computer hucksters, and corporate consultants galore—and the further we go, the higher the price tag gets. In the search for “gold,” we spend plenty of it.

So who’s our Sam Brannan? Well, Pearson Publishing has applied for the position, and appears to be the front-runner. But watch out, because these guys are famous for sloppy in-house “research” to support their money-making initiatives.

Take, for example, Cogmed, a “brain-training” system Pearson claims will “effectively change the way the brain functions to perform at its maximum capacity.” According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, it’s all bunk. Dr. Douglas K. Detterman, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and founding editor of the influential academic journal Intelligence says, “Save your money. Look at the studies the commercial services have done to support their results. You’ll find very poorly done studies, with no control groups and all kinds of problems.”

Pearson also markets “SIOP” (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) as a “scientifically based” program for ELL students. The Institute of Education Sciences found that No studies of … (SIOP) … meet … evidence standards.” Another study also found major deficiencies, stating “Because of the widespread use of the SIOP and its far-reaching advertising, published research supporting the SIOP should be made of sterner stuff.”

The Common Core and PARCC tests are baloney, too. There is no evidence that the CCSS “standards” positively affect learning or that performing well (or poorly) on these tests is any indication of future performance in college or career—and test results certainly have no relevance to becoming a productive member of our society. All evidence indicates that Pearson is making plenty of money, however.

Sam Brannan was a heartless capitalist, but at least his picks and shovels did the job. The guys at Pearson who have concocted the Kommon Kore Swizzle Quizzes can’t even claim that. They’re flogging bogus products, a pattern of behavior that seems well established.

Why have we allowed ourselves to be suckered? Several obvious factors include:

  • A sincere, but misguided desire to “guarantee” that all students make lockstep progress, despite poverty or other intervening variables.
  • Political and financial pressure—Arne Duncan demands that states accept the CCSS and use test scores to evaluate teachers…or face restricted use of federal funds for education.
  • Unwitting and unwarranted trust in companies that sell products to assist already overworked educators.

In the end, the only people who find gold in education today are companies like Pearson, whose main objective is a higher profit margin, not the development of young citizens for active participation in a democracy. They are snake oil salesmen of the lowest variety. They cynically peddle their products with false promises of better learning which is “scientifically based,” leading school districts to expend limited funds on unnecessary and unhelpful items. Those expenses rob students themselves of funds that might better be spent on decreased class size and an expanded, more personal curriculum.

So what does one teacher do?

You can start at your own staff meetings by forcing public acknowledgment of the stark realities of Testing über Alles:

  • Ask your administrators if the tests you are required to give have been tested for reliability and validity—and to supply the research on which that determination is based. If they can’t, assume it doesn’t exist.
  • Ask them for specific examples of “instructional decisions” that the tests will influence for the students you have at present. I’ll bet the results won’t be available until the little darlings have flown your coop.
  • Ask them how much money is spent per pupil on each test…and if they’d prefer to spend the money on some other frippery…like maybe additional staff?
  • Ask administrators for evidence that test scores actually reflect differences in classroom learning, and not income level or other intervening variable. All evidence is to the contrary.
  • Let members of your community know that it is legal to opt-out of standardized testing—and ask your administration for specific district guidelines parents should follow to do so. Advocate that those guidelines be published and distributed to parents along with all other information about standardized testing.
  • Then, when you are accused of being “unprofessional” because you are forcefully challenging decisions made by district or state officials above your pay grade, ask them how it can be unprofessional to expect that educational decisions be based on “real science” that shows a benefit to both teacher and student rather than the wallets of Pearson investors?

The moral of the story is that since we aren’t in the gold digging business, we don’t need to buy shovels from anyone.

And if you just can’t accept that, at least don’t buy your shovels from companies like Pearson, whose only goal is gold by any means necessary.

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