When Free Trips Overlap With Commercial Purposes
In recent years, the Pearson Foundation has paid to send state education commissioners to meet with their international counterparts in London, Helsinki, Singapore and, just last week, Rio de Janeiro.
The commissioners stay in expensive hotels, like the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore. They spend several days meeting with educators in these places. They also meet with top executives from the commercial side of Pearson, which is one of the biggest education companies in the world, selling standardized tests, packaged curriculums and Prentice Hall textbooks.
Pearson would not say which state commissioners have gone on the trips, but of the 10 whom I was able to identify, at least seven oversee state education departments that have substantial contracts with Pearson. For example, Illinois — whose superintendent, Christopher A. Koch, went to Helsinki in 2009 and to Rio de Janeiro — is currently paying Pearson $138 million to develop and administer its tests.
At least one commissioner, Michael P. Flanagan of Michigan, who went to Helsinki, decided not to participate in future trips once he realized who was underwriting them.
“While he does not believe those trips are unethical, he did see that they could be perceived that way, and for that reason he chose not to attend,” said Mr. Flanagan’s spokesman, Martin Ackley.
Mark Nieker, president of the Pearson Foundation, dismissed any ethical concerns about providing free trips to people his corporate cousin is pitching for business. “We categorically refute any suggestion or implication that the partnership is designed to enable Pearson ‘to win contracts,’ ” he said in a statement. Rather, Mr. Nieker said, the trips are “in pursuit of educational excellence.”
But Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a centrist group, compared the practice to pharmaceutical companies that run junkets for doctors or lobbyists who fly members of Congress to vacation getaways. “If we want that kind of corruption in education, we’re fools,” he said.
Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind law a decade ago, the demand for standardized tests and packaged curriculums has exploded. Pearson is one of the companies that have dominated this expanding marketplace, describing itself on its Web site as “the leading provider of assessment and education data management services in North America.”
Now, as more than 40 states move to adopt a set of national learning standards known as the Common Core, the company is seeking to own that new market. “Only Pearson offers complete and cohesive support to implement the new Common Core state standards,” its Web site says.
Those standards have been developed in large part by the Council of Chief State School Officers — the same group the Pearson Foundation has underwritten so its members are able to attend the international conferences.
(The Knowledge Network, a division of The New York Times Company that provides courses and education services, has also sponsored some events for the state school officers’ group. The Times has contractual relationships with Pearson divisions, including an agreement with Penguin USA to produce The Times’s 2011 almanac.)
Kate Dando, a spokeswoman for the commissioners’ group, did not respond to questions about the ethics of the arrangement. In an e-mail, she said the countries selected had made important contributions to education reform, noting that Brazil, the latest destination, “was recently recognized in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment as one of the three fastest-improving countries in education this decade.”
In a blog about the Brazil trip, Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said 12 state commissioners attended last week’s gathering, but neither Ms. Dando nor Mr. Nieker responded to requests to identify them.
Several commissioners interviewed — including Armando Vilaseca of Vermont and Patricia Wright of Virginia, as well as former commissioners Steven Paine of West Virginia and Rick Melmer of South Dakota — said they had no ethical reservations about the trips.
“I did not feel that Pearson had any expectations of the chiefs following the trips,” Mr. Melmer said. “And also did not initiate any business conversations during our trips.”
A spokesman for the Illinois commissioner said he had received prior approval for the trips from a state ethics officer, as required by state law.
Several said the fact that the trips were financed by the foundation rather than Pearson’s corporate divisions demonstrated that the purpose was educational, rather than commercial.
But nine executives of the Pearson company took part in the Singapore conference, including the president of its Brazil division, the president of Pearson Education South Asia, three corporate vice presidents and a chief marketing officer. A videotape of the conference produced by Pearson includes Steve Dowling, the executive vice president for corporate development at the time, saying, “Pearson, through the Pearson Foundation, has brought this group together.”
Several who have participated in the international trips did not respond to requests for an interview, including the former commissioners Eric Smith of Florida (Helsinki); Kathy Cox of Georgia (Singapore); Susan Gendron of Maine (Helsinki); and a former deputy superintendent, Gavin Payne of California (Singapore).
States whose officials have attended Pearson conferences and also have contracts with Pearson include: Florida, to administer state tests; Virginia, to provide online courses; California, Georgia and Michigan, for teacher certification programs; Iowa, to develop eTranscript and portal systems; and South Dakota, to create alternate assessment tests for the disabled.
It is unclear whether New York, which last year signed a $32 million, five-year contract with Pearson to administer state tests, has participated in the trips.
Mr. Nieker of the Pearson Foundation called the conferences “a natural and legitimate venture for a foundation that is deeply committed to the mission of helping students and educators succeed.” He said that “state and local education budgets could never provide the resources necessary for state chiefs and others to travel and collaborate in person with education ministers, reformers and innovators from Finland, Singapore, South Korea.”
Even as the foundation has been helping education officials travel the globe, the company has had major problems. In 2010, Pearson paid a $15 million penalty to Florida for delivering test scores a month late and a $5 million fine to Wyoming after its online testing system malfunctioned. Oklahoma officials have been debating whether to terminate a $16 million contract because of scoring errors.
“Pearson has the worst track record of any firm in the industry over the past decade, possibly because they have expanded so rapidly,” said Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for FairTest, an advocacy group opposed to standardized testing.
Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy says there needs to be more of a wall between test companies and state officials. “We shouldn’t let these companies — that make tests, textbooks, curriculum materials — buy the loyalty of educators the way the drug companies have bought the loyalty of doctors,” he said.