When Free Trips Overlap with Commercial Purposes

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In recent years, the Pearson Foundation has paid to send state education commissioners to meet with their international counterparts in London, Helsinki, Singapore and, just last week, Rio de Janeiro.

The commissioners stay in expensive hotels, like the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore. They spend several days meeting with educators in these places. They also meet with top executives from the commercial side of Pearson, which is one of the biggest education companies in the world, selling standardized tests, packaged curriculum and Prentice Hall textbooks.

Pearson would not say which state commissioners have gone on the trips, but of the 10 whom I was able to identify, at least seven oversee state education departments that have substantial contracts with Pearson. For example, Illinois ? whose superintendent, Christopher A. Koch, went to Helsinki in 2009 and to Rio de Janeiro ? is currently paying Pearson $138 million to develop and administer its tests.

At least one commissioner, Michael P. Flanagan of Michigan, who went to Helsinki, decided not to participate in future trips once he realized who was underwriting them.

?While he does not believe those trips are unethical, he did see that they could be perceived that way, and for that reason he chose not to attend,? said Mr. Flanagan?s spokesman, Martin Ackley.

Mark Nieker, president of the Pearson Foundation, dismissed any ethical concerns about providing free trips to people his corporate cousin is pitching for business. ?We categorically refute any suggestion or implication that the partnership is designed to enable Pearson ?to win contracts,? ? he said in a statement. Rather, Mr. Nieker said, the trips are ?in pursuit of educational excellence.?

But Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a centrist group, compared the practice to pharmaceutical companies that run junkets for doctors or lobbyists who fly members of Congress to vacation getaways. ?If we want that kind of corruption in education, we?re fools,? he said.

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind law a decade ago, the demand for standardized tests and packaged curriculums has exploded. Pearson is one of the companies that have dominated this expanding marketplace, describing itself on its Web site as ?the leading provider of assessment and education data management services in North America.?

Now, as more than 40 states move to adopt a set of national learning standards known as the Common Core, the company is seeking to own that new market. ?Only Pearson offers complete and cohesive support to implement the new Common Core state standards,? its Web site says.

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