When he was still Montgomery County schools superintendent, Jerry D. Weast traveled to Australia last year on an educational exchange underwritten by the Pearson Foundation that is now being criticized by a local parent group.
Joining Weast on the July 2010 trip were schools chiefs Jack D. Dale of Fairfax County and Edgar B. Hatrick III of Loudoun County. The trip was organized by the American Association of School Administrators and funded by the nonprofit arm of one of the world’s largest education companies.
This promotional video from the Pearson Foundation follows the superintendents’ journey, from LAX airport to Melbourne, Australia, where they rode tour buses and met with education officials.
Pearson is a major supplier of textbooks, standardized tests, and curriculum. Montgomery County signed a contract with Pearson in 2010 to help develop and publish an elementary curriculum in an unusual private-public venture.
The Parents’ Coalition, an activist group in Montgomery, called the Australia trip a “junket” on its blog, and questioned why the Pearson Foundation and the Montgomery school system were not more forthcoming about it.
The local education chiefs, contacted for this report, said they learned a lot about Australian education and did not see a conflict of interest in taking the foundation-funded trip.
“There was no product or persuasion on this tour,” Weast said in an interview. “Foundations have to follow rules.”
Ten county superintendents attended, including school leaders from Mercer County, W.Va., Allegany County, Md., and Jessamine County, Ky. Hatrick attended as president of the AASA, and said in an email that the trip was “quite enlightening.”
Weast, Dale and Hatrick said they also paid to bring their wives along.
A few Pearson executives went along with them, though Weast and Dale said they were not sure if they worked for the foundation or the company. Kathy Hurley, senior vice president for strategic partnerships, was the lead on the foundation side, Dale said.
According to her online bio, Hurley appears to work for both the foundation and Pearson Education.
They flew to Canberra, where they snapped pictures of kangaroos and visited the parliament house. And they ended the trip in Sydney with more meetings.
The video intercuts views of the Opera House, city skylines, and crowded train stations with board room conversations and interviews with the superintendents about what they were learning about academic standards, technology or approaches to private education in Australia.
Similar international trips organized for state education commissioners and funded by the Pearson Foundation have been drawn scrutiny in The New York Times recently, with questions raised about Pearson’s business stake in public education.
Mark Nieker, president of The Pearson Foundation, posted a response
to the articles on the organization’s home page, saying that the “International Summit” trips are not designed to help Pearson win contracts.
“Regrettably, 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, Brazil, or other nations who are more than willing to share their insights and best practices with us. If it were left to public funds, it simply wouldn’t happen, and the opportunity to improve our schools would be lost,” the letter said.
Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, said he helped organize the trip because superintendents wanted to learn more about Australia’s efforts to create national standards, as similar work was getting underway in the United States.
“We like to go to places that are doing innovative things.. and import them back to the states,” Domenech said.
The AASA approached Pearson Foundation for funding, he said. Domenech recalled that that the per person cost of the trip was about $6,000 and that the foundation covered about $5,000.
”There was absolutely no merchandizing of Pearson products in this at all, as far as I know, and I don’t believe that any districts did any business with Pearson as a result of the trip,” he said.
Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright has also been criticized for taking trips to London, Portugal, Finland and Brazil, funded in part by the foundation. Pearson has a $110 million contract to develop standardized tests for the state and a $3.2 million contract to build and operate a new longitudinal data system.