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An Interview with Paul Horton: Monopolies, Tomfooleries, Conspiracies and Skullduggery

Aug 29, 2013 by

Paul Horton

Paul Horton

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Paul, there has been a lot written about certain book companies, and test companies being almost a monopoly. It has been years since I took economics, but does the concept of a “monopoly“ still hold true?

I have spoken to the top anti-trust lawyers in the country at the two remaining ant-trust institutes, one here in Chicago and the other in Washington D.C. I was told that anti-trust laws were essentially gutted in the mid and late 1980s. It is very difficult to bring a complaint to court against, say a major Education vendor, which will not be easily dismissed. The lawyers that these companies retain know the law very well because many of them have worked in the DOJ Anti-Trust Division on the other side. Findings against major corporations are rare and require leaked information from disgruntled competitors or whistleblowers within companies that push monopolistic practices. Two things have to be proved in court to get past the initial hearing stage: 1) there must be substantial evidence that a company is intentionally using practices that limit competition 2) a company has 70% market share.

One kind of case that anti-trust lawyers are now trying to build and bring to court is the “redefinition of the market case.” This kind of case could be used against Pearson Education. When the Race to the Top Mandates were approved, Pearson was ready to out bid its chief competitor, McGraw-Hill because it was better prepared to respond to new market conditions brought about by RTTT. Pearson has redefined itself by moving aggressively into digital learning by acquiring Connections Academy, developing digitalized value added assessments for teachers together with Microsoft, and signing on with PARCC to develop Common Core assessments.

The Pearson Education Foundation flew several Harvard Education School professors and a dozen state education superintendents to paid junkets to Helsinki, Rio, and Bejing. It should not be surprising that most of these state superintendents purchased Pearson assessment products for their states to assess the Common Core Standards. When the Kentucky Superintendent of Education was asked by the New York Times if going on these trips impacted her decision to push for Pearson product for her state, she said what she was probably told to say: that she pushed for Pearson over McGraw-Hill even though McGraw-Hill package was cheaper, because Pearson’s package was more comprehensive.

These are also political factors here: Pearson seems to be closer to the Obama Administration: it gave 94% of its publically disclosed contributions to the Obama campaign in the last election cycle and Microsoft has let major contracts with Pearson.

I am a teacher, not an Anti-Trust lawyer, but I was told that a “white paper” has to be prepared that argues that the Education vendor market place has been so redefined by Pearson and RTTT that Pearson has found ways to gain an unfair competitive advantage over competitors and has severely restricted competition. I would argue that the Obama Education Department has assisted with this process because it declared that Pearson’s value added assessments of teacher performance were the “most valid.” It also raises red flags that Pearson had all of the products in place to push McGraw-Hill out when the RTTT mandates were adapted.

We have two huge companies now: a biopoly. Pearson is more associated with the Obama Administration and Bill Gates and McGraw-Hill is more associated with the Bush family, especially Jeb. You can pick which one is Darth Vader. At the very least, it is absolutely mind boggling that the DOJ has not asked Pearson to file successive competitive impact statements with each huge chuck of the Education market place that it gobbles up. Pearson-Penguin was named in the price-fixing suit that the European Union and the DOJ later joined that found against Amazon and Microsoft. What about Pearson Education? We need concerned lawyers to complain to DOJ and we need one business lawyer concerned enough with standardized testing to step up and dig through business reports, interview the people at McGraw-Hill and other vendors that have been marginalized by Pearson, and write a “white paper” that can make it past the hearing stage in a federal court. Free enterprise in education markets is being demolished. Somebody has got to stand up to the big guys. This is like the law west of the Pecos, Pearson pretty much does what it wants.

2) Now, I know that “favors“ are often done when schools and systems adopt text books and get “ freebies “. Is this ethical, moral, legal?

In terms of freebies, the major vendors and influencers of education policy at the state and national levels are foundations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, The Eli Broad Foundation, The Joyce Foundation, Students First, and Mayor Bloomberg essentially get around most state laws because the are not counted as lobbying groups in most states. They essentially bribe state superintendents and school board officers with huge sums of money. Together these and other foundations control well over 50 billion dollars. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest donor, and funnels large chunks of change to anyone who will support corporate education reform, including the Common Core Standards. Another problem is that most of the press simply parrots the propaganda produced by these foundations, no matter how inaccurate it may be. Here in Chicago, for example, editorial writer Paul Weingarten merely repeated a policy paper and survey produced by the Joyce Foundation that astronomically over sampled the white parents of Chicago Public School students. The publication of this series of editorials was clearly rolled out and coordinated to support the closing of what turned out to be 50 schools in Chicago. In a more recent case, the AP repeated a study done by the Joyce Foundation that suggested that most parents supported standardized testing.

In a hard-hitting investigation of the Joyce poll questions, serious bias was revealed in the construction of questions to achieve a preconceived result. Jimmy Kilpatrick posted this study on Sunday. We need more reporters who can see foundation surveys and reports for what they are: propaganda that twists reality to create support for a most undemocratic corporate education reform agenda.

3) I remember the word “collusion“ being thrown around in college- does such a thing still exist in this day and age?

There is definitely collusion, but the foundations pushing this whole agenda are using a well-conceived strategic plan. They have hired the best lawyers to make end runs around state and federal law, they have created think tanks that constantly feed the press misinformation, they have hired the best Madison Av. PR firms, and the slickest and best web-designers. The Education Secretary’s press office is on the phone constantly to the editorial boards of the country’s major newspapers and Arne Duncan’s friend, Michelle Rhee, bullies editorial writers endlessly.

4) Now the powers that be seem to be labeling those who disagree with race to the top as extremists or right wing lunatics or maniacs, or left wing maniacs or lunatics…..I guess if someone disagrees with the conventional wisdom, we simply label them as a left or right wing fanatic- True or False?

Yes, anyone from any political background is labeled a right wing conspiracy theorist if they ask any reasonable questions about the Education Department’s policies. This canard has been repeated hundreds of times and is completely ridiculous. I think the conspiracy theory canard has several purposes:

  1. to infuriate the right and the right libertarians to the point of confirming the accusation in public responses to the statement
  2. to encourage liberals who know nothing about education policy to support the Secretary Duncan’s policies (i.e. Bill Keller’s recent OP-ED in the NYT)
  3. to intimidate progressive Democrats like me for speaking out
  4. to convince the majority of the public that knows very little about education policy issues to be complacent
  5. to protect the Education Secretary from incriminating himself during interviews because he and his Department have been advised by White House and DOEd counsel that the construction of his policies are in violation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that prevent the Ed. Department from influencing or constructing curriculum in the states.

5) It also seems that Bill Gates and company seem to want to impact or influence education- or perhaps sell more laptops- Am I off on this?

More accurately, the future does not look good for Microsoft stock. Gates is spending a lot of foundation money as a way to bulldoze his way into the Education marketplace. This is not just about computers, it is about billions of dollars in potential contracts with Education vendors like Pearson. A contact on the Rochester, New York School Board has recently informed me that Gates is peddling consulting services around the country with McKinsey. Teachers and school boards around the country need to be aware that when McKinsey gets in, they will try to reduce staff by twenty to twenty-five percent. When this is done, you know what the solution will be: digitalized products from Microsoft. This is not rocket-science, it is predatory capitalism trying to destroy anything that is publically owned to open up new markets.

6) Also there are these foundations that seem to be promoting a certain type of learning- can you give us an example?

Almost all of these foundations are pushing digitalized learning to sell product, reduce expensive certified teaching staff, increase class size, and reduce the power (if there is any left) of teacher unions. The vision is sixty to seventy kids in a class with one teacher and two noncertified assistants who will direct students through self-paced digital programs. Forget about experiential or process learning in this scenario.

7) Let’s talk history—are the students of today, studying the same history that you and I studied, all those years ago?

Most teachers who are trained as historians hate textbooks and try to use as many documents as possible to teach. Most good teachers construct Document Based Questions of the sort that are used on the AP exam as a central assessment tool. The Byrd Grants, which are expiring this year, really pushed this approach. The idea is that kids learn history when they are encouraged to become historians. However, in most public schools that are forced to consider end of the year subject tests, the emphasis seems to be on teaching to the test to prepare for subject exit exams. Texas has really shown the country the way to go on standardized tests. I left John Jay High School in San Antonio because my principal told the entire history department that we had to spend more time on test taking skills and less time on history content to get the school’s test scores up. We have come full cycle: now Texas has ended the obsession with standardized testing and the rest of the country will have to learn what Texas administrators, parents, and teachers learned over 25 years: that standardized testing reduces the quality of what is taught, kind of like trivial pursuit pretending to be knowledge.

When it comes to methods, it is important to understand that no one method will reach all kids. History teachers need to create of loose structure of activities that allow the kids to feel safe, take risks, and get involved. If kids don’t feel comfortable enough to take risks, they will not learn anything valuable.

We as History teachers need to encourage kids to read entire books. Dover editions are cheap and Modern Library short histories are outstanding as is the entire “Short History” series. We also need to work everyday on building writing skills. Students should write something every day! They need to produce short research papers and get used to it. Teachers don’t need to point out every comma splice, but the more kids write and the more they read, the more proficient skills they will achieve. I have taught in all kinds of schools and the common denominator for success is that the kids have to learn to work, there simply is no substitute for hard work.

8) Your biggest concerns about education at this point in time?

The public Education system in the country is under attack and citizens need to step up and do something about it. The people of Texas have demonstrated the gumption of the original settlers of Texas by standing up. It is time that the people of the rest of the country to stand up. I am an historian of populism, a movement that was born in Lampasas, Texas and spread throughout the entire country in the late 1880s and 1890s. We need to stop waving the bloody shirt of the 60s culture wars like the populists stopped waving the bloody shirt of the civil war. We all need to come together against a 50 billion dollar juggernaut.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Everybody needs to read Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, which will be published on September 15. You can preorder on Amazon. Remember that Diane is a true Texan and she is our country’s leading authority on Education issues. You can learn a lot from her if you take the time to read her book.

 

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