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Posted at 4:30 AM ET, 06/ 9/2010

MCPS selling its reputation to Pearson

By Valerie Strauss

Some may call Project North Star a pretty smart deal. I would use less flattering words to describe the deal into which Montgomery County Public Schools just entered with the world’s largest for-profit educational publishing company to nationally “brand” a newly created K-5 curriculum.

Under the arrangement
, the school district will effectively turn its classrooms into Pearson Education Inc. showrooms, and sell to a private company the right to trade on the system’s high-achieving reputation, built over years with public funds, to enrich itself.

Other than that, there’s nothing wrong with the contract.

Oh, wait. Yes, there is.

Under the contract, Pearson will provide the county with up to $4.5 million in development funds -- one half of which will be “considered an advance against future royalties.” So the total is really something like $2.25 million to hire people to collaborate on a new curriculum to be aligned with the newly released Common Core standards for math and English language arts.

The school system, which has applied for a federal grant to obtain public money for this enterprise, would get a maximum 3 percent of royalties on domestic sales beyond that amount, my colleague Michael Birnbaum wrote in a Post news article.

The contract hails the arrangement as an easy way for the cash-strapped school system to make money, especially since it was already planning to revamp its curriculum and now will get outside funding.

With the enormous budget cuts school districts are facing, a desperate desire to find a funding source somewhere, anywhere, is understandable. Almost.

Selling its name and reputation to a for-profit company has serious, unfortunate consequences. It allows business concerns to dictate the two-year curriculum development schedule; being the first, or one of the first, to market a curriculum aligned with new standards adopted by many states could be quite a lucrative business move.

And it gives Pearson customers the right to come into MCPS classrooms to look at the product in action - effectively making staff and students salespeople. Lovely.

Meanwhile, the contract gives Pearson the right to change some of the materials for its national edition of the curriculum (the county is allowed to object, but only so long as its objections are not unreasonable, according to the contract). But it would still be marketed as a MCPS curriculum.

Nobody but Pearson and Montgomery County would know the difference, which is a problem only when you consider that buyers presumably want a curriculum used in one of the highest-achieving districts in the country, not a Pearson-altered strain.

Would that be false advertising?

And there’s this: If Montgomery County decides it wants to use any of the materials that Pearson issues in its national versions, MCPS will have to pay, albeit at a 60 percent discount. Remember that this material is going to be predominantly online. Why should Montgomery pay for any material in this arrangement?

Raising money in education is inescapable. Buying textbooks; upgrading technology and other materials; providing tutoring; offering standardized tests and test prep as well as managing schools by private companies are all big business. And it's become incraesingly more apparent in the past decade under No Child Left Behind.

But with all of the new products and programs put into the marketplace and the billions of dollars private companies have made on public education, the education crisis that we have been so obsessed with reforming has only deepened.

Private companies have gotten richer while public schools get whacked by budget cuts that force staff and teacher layoffs and reduced opportunities for students.

Still, some other districts, including Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, give away their curriculum. That helps the systems who might need it most -- the poor systems.

Instead, Montgomery County Public Schools will be making its curriculum available to systems that can afford it.

Such is the nature of the education era that we are in, one in which reformers talk ad nauseam about “accountability” but don’t seem to mind when for-profit companies aren't accountable to anyone (except their stockholders) rule the day. I wish I could, but I don't see a good end to this.


By the way, coincidentally, I wrote about Pearson on Monday in another context: The big trouble it has encountered with its contract to administer and score the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. You can read the details of that mess here.

The Naples News on Tuesday gave Pearson an “F” for its failure to deliver test scores as promised.

Just saying.


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 9, 2010; 4:30 AM ET
Categories:  Montgomery County Public Schools  | Tags:  mcps, mcps curriculum, montgomery county public schools, pearson and montgomery county schools, pearson education, pearson education and curriculum, project north star  
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I am stunned. The word that keeps coming to mind over this situation is prostitution. MCPS has prostituted its school system, no wait, the education of its citizenry to Pearson. I see one room schoolhouses on the horizon (okay several rooms). What else can combat this polical, profit driven, "data driven", ravenous monster that is devouring education in America, churning it about, and producing who knows what, other that monies for slick businessmen and their stockholders, money that was wrougt from the tired backs of taxpayers?

The greasy beguiling of school boards, of companies such as Pearson, in aligning programs with the new core standards (or whatever)in order to appear the savior of the day (to further secure funds from Duncan as well) reeks of a rat.

Posted by: shadwell1 | June 9, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

"Such is the nature of the education era that we are in, one in which reformers talk ad nauseam about “accountability” but don’t seem to mind when for-profit companies aren't accountable to anyone (except their stockholders) rule the day."

So true, so true. But most journalists and politicians support the for-profit companies. At least you tell the truth.

Posted by: jlp19 | June 9, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Montgomery County has an excellent foreign language curriculum. I'm surprised they are not marketing that.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 9, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Follow the money and see who is profiting from Pearson getting the bid.

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | June 10, 2010 6:41 AM | Report abuse


This is Montgomery County. There's no bidding. There was no RFP. There was no public discussion.

This was a surprise memo Monday and the Board of Education voted on it Tuesday.

Posted by: jzsartucci | June 10, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

I don't believe it! Is this a DREAM? A VERY BAD DREAM?

Posted by: EllenBedlington | June 12, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

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