Friday, August 21, 2015



with the retirement of longtime NPR/PBS education correspondent John Merrow - and the sale of his production company to EdWeek [ ] – hopefully NPR/PBS won’t go over to the dark side and just start rewriting the Pearson/Gates/Broad/Walton press releases.  Hopefully.

How The World's Biggest Education Company Will Spend The Next $2 Billion

Anya Kamenetz | National Public Radio |

5 Big Ideas That Don't Work In Education

Anya Kamenetz | National Public Radio |


<< Students pose for a selfie with John Fallon, the CEO of Pearson in Brownsville, Texas, on May 16. Fallon delivered the commencement address to more than 300 students at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville.  Brad Doherty/AP Images for Pearson

August 21, 2015 8:43 AM ET   ::   Pearson was already the biggest education company in the world. Now its education business is getting even bigger. In the past several weeks, the company has sold off its two major media brands, the Financial Times (for $1.3 billion) and The Economist (for about $730 million).

This move is part of a general moment of back-to-school upheaval in the education industry. News Corp. just announced that its much-hyped ed-tech brand Amplify is a $371 million write off. Yet at the same time, ed-tech venture capital deals have doubled in the past 12 months to a reported total $2.3 billion. Chinese ed-tech companies, in particular, are raising lots of money.

There is a lot of room for everyone to grow. Pearson says it currently does $5 billion worth of business annually in the U.S. That's out of what the company estimates is a total of $1 trillion spent each year on education — most of it public money.

As digital technologies continue to play a larger role in both instructional delivery and assessment, many observers see a larger role for private industry as well.

"In the future world there are going to be more public-private partnerships in education," says Pearson's North American CEO, Don Kilburn. In other words, this isn't just about the expansion of a few companies — this is about the maturing of an entire sector.

Pearson CEO John Fallon announced that thanks to The Economist and FT sales, the company is now "100 percent focused on our global education strategy." In a blog post, he elaborated:

"In recent years, we've developed an increasing focus on our biggest, most exciting opportunity — to help people make progress in their lives through learning ... it's become clear to me and the Pearson board that the scale of the challenge requires our undivided attention."

But is all this money and attention good news for learners?

Prove You're Good

Amar Kumar says it will be. He is a senior VP at Pearson and part of a relatively new unit called "Efficacy & Research." And he says the company wants to bring more "rigor and transparency" by measuring the impact of everything it does.

"This company is serious about doubling down on education," he says. "We care about it. We feel like we're well-equipped to do it. The efficacy agenda ensures that when we do it, it's going to be with the right level of quality and rigor."

Since 2013, Kumar says, Pearson has been evaluating all its investments and partnerships not only on financial performance (Can we get customers and make money?) but also on educational performance (Can we help learners succeed?).

It may seem like a pretty basic proposition: Invest in products and services that can prove they do what they say on the label. But this outcomes focus is not exactly prevalent in the world of ed-tech.

Amplify is a case study. Just three years ago, it was among the highest-profile launches this industry had ever seen. The company spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing tablets and electronic curricula. Some of the company's products, especially the games, were award-winning. But they failed to find a market with teachers. And as for the devices? In some cases they literally melted down.

"There are 'big' startups with lots of users and venture funding that have yet to show impact on outcomes relative to the investment being made in them," says David Schiffman, former director of global education strategy at Samsung, who now consults to ed-tech startups. "Pearson's recent divestments ... are about them focusing on the elements that will make an impact in education."

Access, Success, Progress

The company uses a pithy slogan internally to describe its priorities: Access, Success and Progress.

Access means bringing education to underserved communities. Kilburn points to College Park Academy, a partnership with the city of College Park and the University of Maryland to create a charter middle school with both online and on-the-ground programs that he says is performing well with a "fairly challenged demographic."

Success means measuring students' learning in terms of useful skills for life and the workforce. Kilburn mentions the MyMathLab software product, in use at colleges around the country, which he says has demonstrated success with remedial math students.

And progress means helping students move from K-12 through college and eventually to careers. Kilburn cites Pearson's partnership with Arizona State University, where Starbucks employees can enroll for free online. "We are helping power their online program," he says. "We recruit students, enroll students, create mentoring and help for those students, and measure their performance."

Pearson's efficacy practice increasingly includes publishing the work of independent researchers, like John Hattie, whose findings don't always agree with the company's sales pitches.

But as the company expands, it will have to work hard to counter some severely negative public perceptions. "Pearson is not a beloved brand — far from it," as Audrey Watters, ed-tech blogger and author, puts it.

The British conglomerate began expanding rapidly into education in 1998. It purchased an American testing company for $2.5 billion in 2000. That purchase instantly made it the leading scorer of standardized tests in this country. It also put the company front and center in the expansion of standardized testing under the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind. As both tests and the Common Core rocketed to national controversy, Pearson has increasingly incurred bad press.

This past spring, the Los Angeles Unified School District formally severed a $1.3 billion contract with Pearson and Apple, saying it was "extremely dissatisfied with the work of Pearson." And in New York State, 20 percent of students refused to take Pearson-produced state tests; in July the state dropped Pearson as a vendor.

Asked if the company has a credibility problem, Kilburn said, "I think there's quite a few educators and learners right now that trust us quite a bit, but I believe our journey should solidify and grow that trust. If we continue to focus on learner outcomes and get our story out, I hope we will be recognized for that."

In a way, the circumstances that hurt Pearson's brand are the same ones that help its business. It finds itself without a competitor of similar size focused as intensively on educational innovation. The competition it does have comes from the old-guard of textbook publishers on the one hand (McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and the educational division of the big tech companies on the other (Apple, Google), plus startups and an outlier group of nonprofits (The College Board, Educational Testing Service, PARCC).

That means when a state or group of districts is looking for a vendor for a new test, say, bidding processes are sometimes less competitive than they might be. And when an education policy becomes unpopular, Pearson, which is set up to make a profit on that policy, is a fat target.

So while Pearson is trying to become known as a standardbearer of quality in the industry, what might really improve perceptions of the company and conditions for learners is more good old-fashioned market competition. "It would be good for outcomes to have many people doing this," Kumar says.

Better measurements help make learning visible, says John Hattie. i

Better measurements help make learning visible, says John Hattie. Arthur MacDonald/Internet Archive

August 13, 2015 6:03 AM ET   ::  There are few household names in education research. Maybe that in itself constitutes a problem. But if there was an Education Researcher Hall Of Fame, one member would be a silver-haired, plainspoken Kiwi named John Hattie.

Hattie directs the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He also directs something called the Science of Learning Research Centre, which works with over 7,000 schools worldwide.

Over the past 28 years he has published a dozen books, mostly on a theory he calls Visible Learning. His life's work boils down to one proposition: To improve schools, draw on the best evidence available.

Obvious? Maybe, but it's rarely honored in reality, Hattie claims. "Senior politicians and government officials clearly want to make a difference," he says. "But they want to do this, that and the other silly thing which has failed everywhere else, and I want to know why." In a new paper, "What Doesn't Work In Education: The Politics Of Distraction," published by Pearson Education, Hattie takes on some of the most popular approaches to reform.

Small classes. High standards. More money. These popular and oft-prescribed remedies from both the right and the left, he argues, haven't been shown to work as well as alternatives.

Hattie doesn't run his own studies. Nor does he analyze groups of studies on a single variable, a technique called meta-analysis. He goes one step further and synthesizes the findings of many meta-analyses, a kind of meta-meta-analysis.

Over the years, he has scrutinized — and ranked — 1,200 different meta-analyses looking at all types of interventions, ranging from increased parental involvement to ADHD medications to longer school days to performance pay for teachers, as well as other factors affecting education, like socioeconomic status. He has examined studies covering a combined 250 million students around the world.

The good news, he says, is that most education reforms tested in published studies show at least some positive effect (this should not be surprising, because studies that show no effect or negative effects are less likely to be published).

If you are the kind of person who finds certain graphs sexy, beholding Hattie's ranking of educational effect sizes will be exhilarating.

The average effect, across all the studies he's analyzed, is 0.4. standard deviations. This average also happens to translate — roughly — to the amount of progress a student can be expected to make in one year of school. Hattie believes that all educational reforms should concentrate on interventions with proven effects that fall above that line.

In his ranking, socioeconomic status has an effect size of 0.57, meaning that a student growing up in poverty may be expected to perform roughly a year and a half behind an otherwise similar student growing up more wealthy.

Putting televisions in the classroom, on the other hand, has an average negative impact of -0.18. Holding students back a grade really does hold students back, with an effect of -0.16.

"The problem is there are a lot of effects that are very small," he says, while others are huge. And yet, he says, "We never have a debate of relativity — why are we spending billions on things that have small effects?"

Technical Challenges

Hattie's grand unified theory is simple — maybe too simple. Critics have taken issue with his approach to research, the precision of some of his calculations, even his grasp of concepts as basic as probability.

"Meta-analyis is relatively new in education, and ... particularly problematic," says Dylan Wiliam, professor emeritus of educational assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London, and an expert on assessment.

He argues, for example, that averaging together studies done on students of different ages, in different settings, with different kinds of interventions and different measures of outcomes may produce entirely misleading results.

There's a danger, Wiliam says, of mushing good studies together with bad ones, or comparing apples and oranges.

"In education, meta-analysis presents a number of significant technical difficulties," he explains. "Some of these are unavoidable but Hattie does not mention these."

Others, Wiliam adds, "are avoidable, but Hattie does not avoid them."

"The synthesis approach is not an established method," agrees John O'Neill, director of the Institute of Education at Massey University in New Zealand. O'Neill is a coauthor of a 2009 paper critical of Hattie's work, titled "Invisible Learnings?"

At the same time, he acknowledges, Hattie's work "has had a profound effect on education policy and practice globally."

Many of Hattie's basic observations have been upheld by other researchers. And he and his organization continue to advise and influence governments and school leaders all over the world.

Here are five of the most common policy ideas that, he argues in his new paper, are wrongheaded — and the alternatives Hattie suggests.

1. Achievement standards. "It seems very sensible. You set up minimum standards you want students to reach; you judge schools by how many reach them. But it has a very nasty effect," Hattie tells me. "All those schools who take kids in difficult circumstances are seen as failures, while those who take privileged students and do nothing are seen as successful."

By the same token, it seems to make sense to set achievement standards by grade level, but the further along students get in school, Hattie points out, the more of them are performing either behind or ahead of the schedule that's been set.

The alternative: a focus on growth and progress for each student, no matter where he or she starts.

2. Achievement tests. High-performing schools, and countries, don't necessarily give more standardized tests than low performers. They often give fewer.

The alternative: testing that emphasizes giving teachers immediate, actionable feedback to improve teaching.

3. School choice. Many education reformers tout school choice as a tool for parent empowerment and school improvement through competitive pressure. But Hattie says his research shows that once you account for the economic background of students, private schools offer no significant advantages on average. As for charter schools? "The effect of charter schools, for example, across three meta-analyses based on 246 studies is a minuscule .07," he writes.

The alternative: teacher choice. In the United States, variation within schools accounts for 70 percent of the differences in scores on the international PISA exam, while variation between schools makes up the rest. Hattie argues that if parents had the right to select the best teacher in a given school, that could truly be empowering. It would also be challenging to implement.

4. Class size. This has been one of Hattie's more controversial claims. In the U.S., groups such as Class Size Matters are dedicated to the proposition that fewer students per teacher is a recipe for success. This, Hattie argues, would come as a surprise to Japan and Korea, two of the highest-performing education systems in the world, with average class sizes of 33. Russia is the outlier in the other direction, a below-average performer with average classes around 18.

The alternative: Hattie says reducing class size can have a positive impact. That's if teachers are coached and supported to take advantage of it by actually changing the way they teach — to collaborate, offer personalized feedback and continuously measure their impact for improvement, for example.

5. More money. $40,000 per child, from age 6 through high school graduation. That's the rough threshold for reasonable school performance, according to Hattie: Countries that spend less than $40,000, which are all poor, tend to have much lower reading scores on the international PISA exam, and their performance correlates strongly with the money they spend. But for countries above that threshold, there is almost no relationship between money spent and results earned. For example, Korea and Finland far outscore the U.S. on PISA, while spending $60,000 and $75,000 compared with $105,000.

The alternative: Money's a necessity, but more money is not a panacea, says Hattie. "We spend millions on things that don't matter, and then we get jaundiced."

Hattie's forthcoming book, in September, will present case studies of 15 schools that are implementing some of the ideas that have the strongest evidence behind them. He says many of these boil down to empowering teachers to work collaboratively and continuously improve.

"Around the world there is so much excellence," he says. "Have we got the spine to identify and grow that?"

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