Global firm to pay Montgomery, Md., schools millions for elementary curriculum

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Montgomery County Public Schools could soon become a global brand.

The school system will be paid $2.25 million to develop an elementary school curriculum that an education company will augment and sell around the world. The school system will also receive a small percentage of sales revenue once the curriculum is completed.

The deal, rare in size and scope in the United States, was approved by the school board 6 to 2 Tuesday. Under the terms, Pearson, the world's largest education publisher, will acquire the expertise of one of the nation's top school systems and the right to use its name and its top employees as sales tools.

"I tend to look at it from the standpoint that we are broke," Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said. "You have to have new ways of doing things when you don't have money."

School officials say that the money from the deal will allow them to double the dozen people who have been working on the curriculum, speeding its completion and saving money on implementation. The curriculum gives more attention to subjects that have been played down in the past.

Pearson is a global conglomerate that sells curriculums, tests, textbooks and teaching technology. The company will hold the copyright, market the materials, and help develop the program's tests and training.

Montgomery school officials, in turn, will open their classrooms to prospective customers and speak on behalf of the program at Pearson's request. The company will have final say over content, although Montgomery schools will retain control over it in their classrooms. They will receive royalties of up to 3 percent on the curriculum's sales, a discount on Pearson materials and an additional $2.25 million advance on royalties regardless of sales.

Pearson officials said they had never signed such an extensive joint agreement with a school system. Pearson was attracted to Montgomery because of its national reputation for high test scores and innovative educational approaches.

"What Montgomery County Public Schools has accomplished for its students over the last 10 years is inspirational for the rest of the nation," said Pearson chief executive Marjorie Scardino in a statement.

The decision came the same day that the Board of Education approved a budget that cuts spending by 4.4 percent, or $97 million, next school year, when a 2 percent increase in enrollment is expected. Class sizes are rising by one student on average, and hundreds of teaching positions are being eliminated.

Although school officials are excited about the plan, critics on the school board and in the community raised questions about the propriety of a commercial relationship between a publisher and a public agency.

"It puts our system . . . in an untenable conflict, when we start to go into business and at the same time try to meet the needs of our students," said Board of Education member Laura Berthiaume (Rockville-Potomac). "Converting our employees into salesmen is not where I think we should be."

She also criticized the school system for "choosing winners and losers" among for-profit companies.

The school system did not submit the curriculum contract to a competitive bidding process and made it public only on the day before the Tuesday vote. School system chief of staff Brian Edwards said that Pearson is a publishing leader and that the contract was released Monday because it was still being negotiated over the weekend. He said the school system wanted it approved as soon as possible so that new hires could start work at the beginning of the fiscal year next month.

The school system had independently embarked on developing the curriculum, which officials say will give more time to social studies, art and other subjects by integrating them into math, reading and writing instruction, which have been a focus of federal education efforts. The program has been piloted in some kindergarten classrooms this school year and will extend to the first grade in the fall. Before Pearson, the plan was to finish developing the program up to the fifth grade in 2015. Now, officials expect to finish it by the 2012-13 school year.

Much of the curriculum will be available to teachers online, alongside supplemental training materials and tests that the school system expects Pearson to develop. And it 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.

Neither the independent National School Boards Association nor Pearson believed a publisher and a public school system had ever collaborated on an entire curriculum.

Across the Potomac, the Fairfax County schools used to sell their curriculum on their own, retaining the rights, until officials decided several years ago that tracking the money wasn't cost-effective. Now, they license it free of charge to public schools that ask for a copy, said schools spokesman Paul Regnier.

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