(Update: Pearson responds to Weingarten)
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is sending a letter (see below) to the executives of Pearson, the world’s largest education company, asking them to stop a “gag order” that is part of their $32 million contract with New York state to design new standardized tests aligned to the Common Core. The “gag order” bars teachers and principals from talking publicly about what’s on the exams, including any mistakes that educators find.
AFT representatives are also delivering the letter to a meeting of Pearson shareholders in London on Friday.
A New York City school principal, Elizabeth Phillips, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times recently citing a number of problems with new Pearson-designed standardized tests that New York students recently took but said she couldn’t be specific because she wasn’t allowed to. She wrote:
I’d like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.
Exactly who insisted on the “gag order” in the contract — the state or Pearson — is unclear. But Pearson contracts with other states to develop standardized tests have included the same sort of “gag orders.” Weingarten’s letter says that such lack of transparency is fueling mistrust among educators and parents. She wrote in part:
This is the third consecutive year that Pearson’s standardized tests have led to headline risk and repetitional damage to the company. We’re concerned that Pearson is using gag orders to cover up — rather than address — problems with its standardized tests. If Pearson is going to remain competitive in the educational support and testing business, the company must listen to and respond to the concerns of educators like Elizabeth Phillips who report that the company has ignored extensive feedback.
Here’s the text of Weingarten’s letter:
April 24, 2014
London WC2R ORL
London WC2R ORL
Dear Mr. Fallon and Mr. Moreno:
I was deeply disturbed to read recently in the New York Times and other newspapers of the issues teachers, principals, parents and students raised about Pearson tests. Principals and teachers in New York who recently administered the Pearson-developed Common Core tests have said they are barred from speaking about the test content and its effects on students. This appears to be a result of a Pearson contract term that has been construed as disallowing them from expressing their concerns and views. Elizabeth Phillips, the principal at Public School 321 in Brooklyn, N.Y., summarized these concerns in a recent New York Times opinion piece. On behalf of teachers, parents, students and your shareholders, including our pension plans, I ask you to immediately remove these prohibitions (referred to as “gag orders” in the press) from existing and future contracts.
These gag orders and the lack of transparency are fueling the growing distrust and backlash among parents, students and educators in the United States about whether the current testing protocols and testing fixation is in the best interests of children. When parents aren’t allowed to know what is on their children’s tests, and when educators have no voice in how assessments are created and are forbidden from raising legitimate concerns about these assessments’ quality or talking to parents about these concerns, you not only increase distrust of testing but also deny children the rich learning experience they deserve.
Continuing these practices may also have severe financial consequences for your corporation. Growing mistrust and concerns by parents, teachers and others over the asserted lack of transparency at inBloom appears to have been a driving factor in the company’s recent decision to end operations.
This is the third consecutive year that Pearson’s standardized tests have led to headline risk and reputational damage to the company. We’re concerned that Pearson is using gag orders to cover up — rather than address — problems with its standardized tests. If Pearson is going to remain competitive in the educational support and testing business, the company must listen to and respond to the concerns of educators like Elizabeth Phillips who report that the company has ignored extensive feedback.
Parents, students and teachers need assessments that accurately measure student performance through questions that are grade-appropriate and aligned with state standards-especially since standardized tests have increasingly life-altering consequences for students and teachers. By including gag orders in contracts, Pearson is silencing the very stakeholders the company needs to engage with. Poll after poll makes clear that parents overwhelmingly trust educators over all others to do what is best for their children; educators’ voices, concerns and input should be included in the creation and application of these assessments.
We intend to bring these concerns to the attention of senior management, the board and other shareholders during your annual meeting on Friday, April 25. We also are asking that you meet as soon as practical with stakeholders to discuss a comprehensive response to their concerns and to this serious threat to the company’s reputation, brand and share price. If you have representatives in the United States who meet with potential customers routinely to sell Pearson products, we believe you also can meet with stakeholders.
We look forward to your reply. Pearson must move quickly to address a serious and emerging threat to its brand, business model and ability to generate long-term value for shareholders.
Pearson issued this response, and Fallon directly responded to Weingarten.
Here’s Pearson’s response:
“At Pearson, everything we do starts with the recognition that teachers are central to the learning process, and their subject matter expertise and insights about our students are critical to improving outcomes for all our learners. In every state we serve, local teachers participate throughout the development and implementation of assessments that provide one important indicator of student progress.
“Pearson does not set state policies. Each state education agency develops policies and practices to ensure the security and validity of their statewide assessments. We are a services provider, and we work with our state education customers to help implement their policies in concert with research-based, industry best practices to ensure a fair, valid test for every student.
“We believe states should regularly release test questions and that the content and structure of the test should be transparent to parents, students and teachers. Each state sets its policies about releasing the full test or specific test questions following the annual testing session.”
And here’s Fallon’s response to Weingarten:
Thank you for sharing your concerns. As you know from when we met, I completely agree that teachers are at the very heart of the education system and have every right to express their views as to how best to educate their students. I also agree that States should regularly release test questions and that the content and structure of the test should be transparent to parents, students and teachers.
Myself, or my colleague, Doug Kubach, our global President of Schools and Assessment, would be very happy to meet with you and your members to better understand your concerns and to work together to improve educational opportunities for all young people.
I look forward to meeting again soon.