Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Another step forward (?) for commodified, homogenized education

According to a front-page story in today's Wash Post by Michael Birnbaum (link here), the Montgomery County, Maryland public school system is selling the rights to an elementary school curriculum-in-development to Pearson, a huge, for-profit publisher of textbooks and other educational materials. The superintendent says the school system is broke and needs the money. That may be, but public school systems should not be striking these kinds of deals with for-profit companies, certainly not with enormous conglomerates like Pearson. Such a deal carries the potential for conflicts of interest and, more importantly, it doesn't seem right. In return for a two-and-a-quarter million dollar advance and a smallish percentage of royalties, school officials "will open their classrooms to prospective customers [of Pearson] and speak on behalf of the program at Pearson's request."

And who's going to buy the product? The article's second paragraph says the curriculum will be sold "around the world," but is that likely? Most countries want to control their own curricula, I would think. Why should a school district in country X buy a pre-packaged curriculum designed in the United States? More likely is that the Montgomery County curriculum will be sold to other U.S. school systems. But which ones? Surely states like New York and Massachusetts, for example, which have their own elaborate educational bureaucracies, standards, and system-wide tests, could not possibly have any interest in this, or so I would guess. But Pearson obviously thinks it can sell it, otherwise it wouldn't be shelling out the 2 million bucks. A clue may be that, as the article reports, the curriculum, although geared to give more time to social studies and art by "integrating them" with reading, writing, and math, also "will be aligned with new common core standards for math and reading that are quickly being adopted across the country, including Maryland and the District."

The whole thing, in short, seems to further the tide of commodification and homogenization that appears to be engulfing public education in this country.


hank_F_M said...


Good points.

My friends in the teaching bussiness tell me that in the 90’s California mandated a curriculum state wide, the latest fad in Education Schools. Then these teachers had students transfer in from California, and the parents wanted to know why little Johnnie who got straight A’s in California was having to work to get a C in North Chicago. It took years of parent protests and rapidly declining test scores before the state school system was directed to get rid of it.

On the other hand every publisher has their curriculum integrated up and down and sideways, a twelve year program. With several publishers the schools can take their pick. I understand what happens is the English department likes one product, social studies likes another companies, math like another, and so on and no one has a consitant currcilum.

I don’t see a real problem here as long as it is one of many on the market and school districts get to chose, as well as private school options for parents to opt out of a school system that made a bad choice. If there is only one whether from a private or governmental source then your worries at the end of the post are understated.

LFC said...

I am more worried about the 'commodification' aspect than the 'homogenization' aspect. My concern is not so much a decrease in choice, which I don't think this particular deal necessarily will result in, but rather that it is unseemly and improper -- I know these sound like aesthetic objections but I don't know how else to put it -- for a public school system to be in business with a private publisher, i.e. not simply in the role of consumer ("I like your curriculum and I'll buy it") but in the role of joint venturer (Publisher: "Here's two million bucks, school district X. Now let us sell the curriculum you are developing, with our additions and tweaks, to anyone who wants it.") This just seems wrong to me. Obviously it doesn't seem wrong to a lot of other people, since the county school board approved the deal with only a couple of dissenting votes.