The Learning Curve of Pearson

published 9 December 2015 updated 9 December 2015
written by:

Pearson is the world’s largest edu-business with business interests in the nations of the Global North and the Global South. The recent sale by Pearson of interests in The Economist and The Financial Times has liberated more than a billion US dollars for further investment in education. In the Global South, Pearson has supported ‘edu-preneurs’ to establish low-fee for profit schools through Pearson’s Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) (see Junemann and Ball, 2015 for EI). In the Global North, it has capitalized on what Sahlberg called the Global Education Reform Movement or GERM and a restructured state that has outsourced some functions, including test development, data management, professional development and research. This situation has enabled Pearson’s increased involvement in schooling well beyond the production of texts. We note that Pearson has a broad strategic goal of seeking to create a global policy consensus in education.

We comment here upon Pearson’s The Learning Curve (hereafter TLC), a report and associated database and website first published in 2012, as central to Pearson’s aim of strengthening its research capacity as evidence to underpin all of its products and services in education. This is one component part of Pearson’s Efficacy Framework, which, drawing analogously on the pharmaceutical industry, wants evidence to argue that its products and services have a research base and are ‘guaranteed’ to have an impact on learner outcomes. This move has been overseen by Sir Michael Barber, appointed as Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor in 2011, and former senior public servant in the Blair administration. Barber might be seen as a ‘boundary spanner’ working across public and private sectors and TLC seen as a new policy genre. This development demonstrates Pearson stepping into the space of data management for schooling systems and potentially schools.

TLC synthesises a pool of international comparative performance data and analysis in the context of the rise of ‘evidence-based’ policy making. The first iteration of TLC also draws on interviews conducted with 16 ‘experts in education’ and input received from an advisory panel. In our Journal of Education Policy paper*, we provide a comprehensive analysis of TLC and the data and people networks it draws upon.

In the foreword to the report, Sir Michael Barber outlines the purported need for TLC analyses, arguing that in an era of evidenced-based policy making, PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS data are not sufficient ‘to ensure a country is on track for economic and social success in the 21st Century’ (p.2). He builds the case for the development of TLC by arguing that ‘[Pearson] have assembled in one place a wide range of data sets which will enable researchers and policymakers to correlate education outcomes with wider social and economic outcomes more easily than ever before’ (p.3).

We can see the rationale for generating the concise 50-page TLC report that condenses well-established data sets into an easy-to-read format with clear policy prescriptions as part of the new policy genre that plays on the anxieties of national policy makers and offers easy to implement solutions unlike academic research.

While Pearson expresses caution about using their research as a ‘holy grail’, TLC nonetheless outlines five key lessons for educational policymakers in terms of reform:

  1. There are no magic bullets
  2. Respect teachers
  3. Culture can be changed
  4. Parents are neither impediments to nor saviours of education
  5. Educate for the future, not just the present (EIU 2012, 11)

Despite drawing out these ‘key lessons’, TLC was able to show only a handful of strong links: that higher GDP related to better PISA results; that better scores on the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index and Income Index are associated with higher upper secondary graduation rates; and that there is a link between more years spent in school and higher labour productivity. The report explains that straightforward correlations are difficult to find and as such ‘education remains a black box in which inputs are turned into outputs in ways that are difficult to predict or quantify consistently’ (p.7).

We note that TLC utilises data that have been paid for out of nations’ public purse, for example, for participation in the OECD’s PISA and the IEA’s TIMSS and PIRLS. Furthermore, with this step towards privatisation of the education policy community and education policy production, we see a potential democratic deficit, as Pearson’s bottom-line is profit and they have no political constituency. To some extent, this state of affairs has been enabled by the restructured state that has outsourced many of its policy related functions. We should be concerned about the ways that Pearson is seeking to build a global education policy consensus efficacious to their business interests.

* Hogan, A., Sellar, S. and Lingard, B. (2015) Commercialising comparison: Pearson puts the TLC in soft capitalism. Journal of Education Policy. DOI:10.1080/02680939.2015.1112922.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.