Teachers College Students Urge President to Cut Ties With Pearson

George Joseph

Columbia University's Teachers College held two Masters convocations on May 21. During the ceremonies students held up signs that read "I am not a number" and "not a test score."

Colum­bia University’s Teach­ers Col­lege, long esteemed as a pre­mier insti­tu­tion for pro­gres­sive ped­a­gogy, is hav­ing an iden­ti­ty cri­sis. While majes­tic quotes from edu­ca­tion philoso­pher John Dewey remain etched across the walls of the school’s Morn­ing­side Heights head­quar­ters, his words ring increas­ing­ly hol­low as Teach­ers Col­lege Pres­i­dent Susan Fuhrman con­tin­ues to serve on the board of — and hold 12,927 shares in — Pear­son, the world’s largest edu­ca­tion­al resource cor­po­ra­tion, which dis­trib­utes every­thing from stan­dard­ized tests and text­books to teacher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and cur­ricu­lum pro­grams. Argu­ing that this role ham­pers their abil­i­ty to speak out against the dis­as­trous pol­i­cy of high-stakes test­ing, stu­dents at Teach­ers Col­lege began a cam­paign last month demand­ing that Fuhrman divest from Pearson.

Over the past few years, Pear­son has risen from a small British pub­lish­ing firm to an edu­ca­tion resource” giant, rak­ing in the prof­its that come with the increas­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion of the Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Pearson’s involve­ment in shap­ing edu­ca­tion in New York state is a prime exam­ple. In 2010, when the state, long known as a bea­con for its strong cur­ricu­lum stan­dards, was for­mu­lat­ing its new stan­dard­ized Com­mon Core” pro­gram, law­mak­ers hand­ed Pear­son a gen­er­ous five-year, $32 mil­lion con­tract to admin­is­ter tests, in addi­tion to anoth­er $1 mil­lion for help­ing the state Edu­ca­tion Depart­ment with test­ing ser­vices. Hav­ing seized con­trol of stan­dard­ized test­ing in states like New York, Pear­son has also made its own cost­ly text­books essen­tial for teach­ers under pres­sure to turn out high-test scores, there­by turn­ing addi­tion­al prof­its while trans­form­ing class­rooms into Pear­son test-prep centers.

To many Teach­ers Col­lege stu­dents, Fuhrman’s asso­ci­a­tion with Pear­son places her at odds with the school’s rep­u­ta­tion as one of the strong­holds of crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy,” an edu­ca­tion­al phi­los­o­phy that empow­ers stu­dents to real­ize their free­dom and com­bat diverse forms of pow­er. Pearson’s mod­el, man­dat­ing that stu­dents spend weeks of class fill­ing out hun­dreds of Scant­ron bub­bles, doesn’t exact­ly jibe with Teach­ers College’s vision for edu­ca­tion­al empowerment.

Many stu­dents also feel stung by Fuhrman’s Pear­son con­nec­tion in light of the state’s recent deci­sion to adopt Pearson’s Teacher Per­for­mance Assess­ment, which will require teacher trainees to send two 10-minute videos of them­selves teach­ing to Pear­son offices and fill out a Pear­son-approved take-home test in order to be con­sid­ered for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion — and pay Pear­son a $300 fee. As Daiyu Suzu­ki, a fifth year doc­tor­al stu­dent, put it, Qual­i­ty teach­ing, which must be shaped around the unique cir­cum­stances of its stu­dents, can­not be eval­u­at­ed on the basis of Pearson’s one-size-fits-all test­ing rubric.”

In response, the stu­dents of Teach­ers Col­lege have closed their books and tak­en mat­ters into their own hands. On May 9, more than 50 stu­dents packed the hall­way out­side the fac­ul­ty vote on Fuhrman’s pro­posed annu­al bud­get, hold­ing up signs decry­ing Fuhrman’s ties to Pear­son and the creep­ing cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of edu­ca­tion. Encour­aged by their pres­ence, the fac­ul­ty vot­ed down the administration’s aus­tere pro­pos­al, elic­it­ing a 10-minute round of applause as pro­fes­sors tri­umphant­ly filed out, high-fiv­ing stu­dents and thank­ing them for their support. 

After this strong ini­tial show­ing, stu­dents began meet­ing reg­u­lar­ly to orga­nize. Unit­ed with fac­ul­ty mem­bers, stu­dents have a wide list of con­cerns, rang­ing from the dis­con­nect between exec­u­tive admin­is­tra­tors’ bonus­es — report­ed­ly total­ing $315,000 — and the weak­en­ing finan­cial sup­port for doc­tor­al and master’s stu­dents, to Pres­i­dent Fuhrman’s cor­po­rate con­nec­tions. At the school’s May 21 com­mence­ment, hun­dreds of stu­dents in caps and gowns held up signs read­ing, I am not a num­ber” and not a test score,” direct­ly in the view of Mer­ryl Tisch, New York’s Chan­cel­lor of the Board of Regents, who was being award­ed the Medal for Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice. As the head of New York State’s edu­ca­tion sys­tem, Tisch was instru­men­tal in Pear­son receiv­ing its $32 mil­lion contract.

Per­haps the most griev­ous con­se­quence of Fuhrman’s tenure at Teach­ers Col­lege is an emerg­ing cyn­i­cism with­in the stu­dent body, threat­en­ing the school’s very capa­bil­i­ty to train and turn out inspi­ra­tional teach­ers. As Diane Rav­itch, for­mer U.S. Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion, wrote in an email:

Test­ing is big busi­ness these days. Edu­ca­tors must be free to crit­i­cize the tests and their pub­lish­ers. Fac­ul­ty mem­bers at [Teach­ers Col­lege] might feel con­strained by the fact that the pres­i­dent of the insti­tu­tion is on the board of Pear­son, my own sense is that she has a con­flict of inter­est, because as a board mem­ber she is not [in] a posi­tion of inde­pen­dence to speak out against the mis­use and overuse of test­ing and how it hurts chil­dren and warps education.

Many stu­dents say they have grow­ing doubts that teach­ing could ever live up to the ideals they eager­ly stud­ied in the class­room. Diana Rodriquez-Gomez, a doc­tor­al stu­dent, says that Fuhrman’s very posi­tion led her to ques­tion her deci­sion to become a teacher:

It’s fun­ny because we read so much about [Paulo] Freire and Dewey, then when we come to school, it’s like Are you kid­ding me?’…For me it’s an eth­i­cal mat­ter; she’s sit­ting at two tables that accom­plish com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent things. A uni­ver­si­ty pro­duces crit­i­cal knowl­edge. Pear­son pro­motes the pri­va­ti­za­tion of edu­ca­tion. When you’re a teacher, and you see what stan­dard exams do, you don’t know if you want to keep doing that!

Fuhrman was unavail­able for an inter­view, but on May 15 she released a state­ment argu­ing her ties to Pear­son could only help facil­i­tate bet­ter discourse:

I real­ize that my affil­i­a­tion with the board of Pear­son is dis­turb­ing to var­i­ous mem­bers of the TC community…However, I believe strong­ly that the best way to rep­re­sent those views is to be ful­ly engaged in — and, I would hope, influ­ence — the dis­cus­sion of the role of the pri­vate sec­tor in pub­lic education.

But as stu­dents made clear in their response, it is the dis­cus­sion itself — the cor­po­rate nar­ra­tive that has for so long vil­i­fied teach­ers, her­ald­ed high stakes test­ing, and pro­mot­ed the pri­va­ti­za­tion of the pub­lic school sys­tem — that must be chal­lenged. As Suzu­ki argues: We, as a stu­dent group, find it iron­ic that she repeat­ed­ly uses the dom­i­nant dis­course as excus­es to jus­ti­fy the unjust prac­tices of TC, where­as we are say­ing it’s that same dom­i­nant dis­course that we need to dis­rupt and change.”

John Dewey once wrote, As long as pol­i­tics is the shad­ow cast on soci­ety by big busi­ness, the atten­u­a­tion of the shad­ow will not change the sub­stance.” Per­haps Pres­i­dent Fuhrman needs a lit­tle refresh­er course.

George Joseph is a reporter focus­ing on edu­ca­tion and labor issues in New York City. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @georgejoseph94.
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