Holding business to account for learning outcomes – what are the risks?

With quality of education becoming recognized as a vital component of post-2015 development goals, measuring how much children are learning is high on the global agenda. The Learning Metrics Task Force recently brought together education experts to discuss how to improve learning through measurement and assessment. Soon after, a World Bank symposium featured wide-ranging and informative debates on what international, regional and national assessments of learning can tell us.

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Click to enlarge

At the same time, Pearson – which refers to itself as “the world’s leading learning company” which operates “in virtually every sphere of the education landscape, from schools to higher and professional education; from publishing textbooks to operating entire institutions” – has announced that it is setting itself targets not only for revenue and profits but also for making sure that children using its products are learning. Referring to the EFA Global Monitoring Report’s estimate that a quarter of a billion children are not learning the basics, the company describes its approach as a “bold and brave aspiration”.

Pearson anticipates that by 2018 it will be carrying out rigorous and externally audited reporting on progress in improving learning outcomes. The company intends to determine what learner outcomes its products are designed to deliver and under what circumstances; how many learners are intended to benefit and to what extent; and how progress towards these goals is to be measured.

Pearson’s model is not proposing anything new – we already know it is vital to focus not only on inputs to education but also on processes and outcomes, including the importance of qualified and experienced teachers able to motivate students. And bringing business-speak of products, sales and profits into education raises the fear that it comes with an intention to commercialize education more generally. But it is noteworthy that a company would hold itself to account for learning outcomes.

It is worth asking, however, how effective Pearson’s plan will be, and how it will fit into the broader need for countries to improve learning. If a company such as Pearson does not make a profit, there are real business consequences; but what would be the consequences of it not meeting learning targets? What type of learning would be measured, and would this be sufficient? What instruments would be used (hopefully not limited to its own products)? Is it possible to disentangle Pearson’s contribution to learning outcomes from others?

It is also crucial to ask whether Pearson’s approach could leave behind disadvantaged learners who are likely to cost more to reach – for example, children from ethnic minorities who need textbooks in different languages. Pearson’s model does not currently mention explicit targets for overcoming inequalities.

Governments ultimately have the responsibility of ensuring that no one is left behind in education. Could an approach like Pearson’s have the unintended consequence of undermining government efforts?

There is a broader question of whether Pearson’s approach can inform wider discussions on measuring learning within a post-2015 framework. Equating the two (a business holding itself to account, and holding governments to account for learning goals) would need to be done with caution, however, as they have very different purposes.

Let’s hope that out of these various perspectives and the consultation processes under way a common understanding will emerge of how to measure learning in ways that ensure all children and young people, regardless of their circumstances, receive a good quality education.

Such a common understanding was missing when the sixth Education for All goal, on quality of education, was established to ensure that “recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all”. We need a stronger starting point for tracking progress towards such goals after 2015 – so that by 2030, we’ll no longer have to report that as many as a quarter of a billion children not even learning the basics.

This entry was posted in Basic education, Donors, Equity, Ethnicity, Finance, Innovative financing, Language, Learning, Out-of-school children, Post-2015 development framework, Quality of education. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Holding business to account for learning outcomes – what are the risks?

  1. Hello,
    I would like to draw readers’ attention to the article I wrote for the European Campaing “Education we have a Problem” that tackles the social exclusion in Education launched by my organisation OBESSU. The article talk in specific about privatisation and commodification of Education and explains why we think that measurement of learning outcomes and the standardised tests are the biggest threat for Education nowadays at European and global level.
    Daniele Di Mitri


    • Danette Likens says:

      Thank you for this insightful post. I have been curious about how other countries are approaching changes to the educational system. There had been talk about privatization of education in the United States, but I think we have moved more toward creation of standardized learning opposed to revamping the system into a private industry. Although, moving in this direction may actually be a quicker step forward in standardizing goals and measuring outcomes.


  2. Great points, Pauline. The perils are clear, and hopefully the advantages can be made available without undue burden.


  3. Danette Likens says:

    The problem Pearson will have is establishing the ‘standard’ by which they intend to measure. In the United States, the country has a minimal expectation, however each state sets its own standard of learning. If we cannot set a single standard within a country, how does Pearson expect to determine international goals? There are certain milestones which can be measured, but can ‘law of averages’ really be set? It is my opinion, setting such an expectation could have detrimental impacts on global learning.


  4. riya says:

    Education is an important factor in human life, here person will understand the actual need of study. Education helps a person to stand in front of society with a good moral value, and also help a person to get better upcoming future, financial secured throughout the life.
    Learning is the is never ending process, it is related to our life, learning is the only tool which helps a person to become a perfect human being in life, here person will actual understand the difference between education and learning.
    it doesnt mater where you learn….


  5. Kerry says:

    So, a for profit company wants to set the learning (own the content) measure the learning (own the assssment tool/s), report on student outcomes (own the reporting) and analyse the data for governments and education authorities. That’s a lot of licencing revenue countries and authorities will be require to pay annually. Would it not be better to increase profesional learning for teachers, allow them to teach in their specific context, set appropriate assessements related to the children and context of learning and allow them to report on student achievement to their parent body. Or do we standardise to profitise.


    • Danette Likens says:

      I think these are valid points, teaching should be left up to teachers. However, I think what has happened in many areas is that the standards vary so dramatically that there is not a level playing field. for instance, The united States has at least 50 different sets of standards. One cannot even go across country without finding children at differing levels of education and learning standards let alone trying to go around the world. I think it is important to have core standards that we then empower all teachers to meet or exceed for the appropriate age/grade level. I am not an advocate of industrializing this process as I think there needs to be a non-biased governance board to oversee or at a minimum analyze the findings. While Pearson may be the largest (not sure) of the publishers of texts and learning material, they are not the only one. The method developed by Pearson may be the tip of the sword in a movement toward standardizing and evaluating learning outcomes. I feel all involved should look to this as an opportunity to improve the process and help with data collection and analysis if nothing else.


  6. brakri says:

    Good point, Kerry. States need to have the tools available for schools free of charge so there is a level playing field. Not all districts can afford the tools needed and the tools efficiently provide the data needed for daily individualized decision making. Pearson products are excellent.


  7. Roberto says:

    Many important reservations have already been brought up and I am more than pleased that the promotional rhetoric is not simply taken at face value. I will simply voice my stance by saying that there are vast chasms that often separate cultures which will need to be accounted for. The other thing would be how effective, valid, reliable and illuminating will the instruments used to evaluate be, not just considering the present cultural makeup of communities, but also their demographic profiles in 2018 and beyond. I wish to remain optimistic, but always a comprehensive researcher at heart.


  8. Pingback: Holding business to account for learning outcomes – what are the risks? » hcmg2

  9. Pauline Rose says:

    many thanks for all these thoughtful comments. It seems there is a common view that for Pearson’s proposal to hold itself to account for learning outcomes to move beyond being a public relations exercise to something that will really promote learning for all, there is a need for the risks and potential unintended consequences to be clearly articulated (including those raised here), and to outline ways in which the company will seek to avert these from happening.


    • Kerry says:

      Pauline – Wikipeadia Pearsons PLC – This will display the long held intentions and redirection of this multi-national moving out of print into all things education. The call that “where here to help” may be (hopefully not) hollow. Downloading content, downloading exams and assessment, marking software and reporting software aplenty. Technology has changed Medicine and Defense in every country. Education is usually the third biggest spend of all governments. Lets be wary and skeptical before we give control over to muli-nationals offering us the world – using enticing “big data”. Its tempting…….


      • Danette Likens says:

        Reading your post regarding downloading of content, assessment, etc. I hadn’t given that much thought until I read it in your post. That does make it easier to standardize things. My only concern would be the integrity of exams and assessments. This is something we struggle with as we are moving more toward electronic means of education. Do you have any concerns over how will be maintained, how secure it will be, etc.?


      • Kerry says:

        Danette. it will be secure as a bank secures accounts. It will be standardised – that’s the point. And it will be pay per view/upload. This is ‘the’ business plan. And it will be THEIR IP (intellectual property. Do we sell the farm?. Teacher quality is being questioned all around the western world and those to gain from this message (that teaching is poor) are those who peddle information that they can “raise standards” by having ‘common” parameters. We must have a voice because the reality is that many teachers are excellent, overworked and underpaid. Who do you think benefits by creating a crisis in teacher quality. The problem is many Educational leaders and politicians are believing this rhetoric. Heaven help us…..PISA and TIMMS are ver clunky assessment tools that do not assess people on level playing fields. ie Shanghai is not a country……These should be questioned – but the media again see a quick story. I am very very concerned when businesses try to make profits from children….


  10. Saad Rizvi says:

    Dear Pauline,

    Thanks for your post – this is exactly the kind of thoughtful debate we want to ignite by taking our work publicly. I’d love to discuss our efficacy work in more detail, answer your questions and take your input into strengthening our work. If you can get in touch at saad.rizvi@pearson.com I’d be happy to set up a time to talk.

    Best wishes,

    Saad Rizvi
    Executive Director of Efficacy

    80 Strand
    WC2R 0RL

    E: saad.rizvi@pearson.com
    UK: +44-7834-982536
    US: +1-203-508-5806
    Skype: saad.h.rizvi
    Twitter: @saadhrizvi


  11. Pauline Rose says:

    Hi Saad

    many thanks for your comment – and glad our blog is helpful in engaging in the debate. I’ll send an email so we can follow up



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