Pearson Education Welcomes You to Oceania

New Jersey brought us Felix the Cat, Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, David Cassidy, Blondie, and Chris Christie.   The duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton was in New Jersey.  It’s the home of Princeton University, and the cast of the Jersey Shore.  Stephanie Plum, one of my favorite literary characters, and Albert Einstein, my favorite hair model, both live / lived in Jersey.

I’m not the least bit surprised that this latest scandal comes from New Jersey.

If you’ve read about the spying scandal in New Jersey, skip ahead.  If not, below is a brief overview.  You can find a more detailed synopsis in this article from the Washington Post.

Several days ago, high school students in public schools in New Jersey took the PARCC exams.  The PARCC exams were developed by Pearson and are one of the two Common Core approved exams offered in the United States.  After completing his / her exam and after school hours, a student sent a text to another student that mentioned one of the exam questions.  Whether the “mention” of the exam question was innocent or was a full recitation of the exam question has not been revealed.  Several hours later the Superintendent of the student’s school district was notified by representatives of the New Jersey Department of Education that Pearson had initiated a “Priority 1 Alert for an item breach in their school”.  In the alert, the NJ Dept of Ed revealed that Pearson was monitoring student posts to and comments on social media regarding the PARCC exams.

It appears that Pearson initially indicated to the NJ Dept of Ed that the social media posting in question had occurred during the exam and was a photo.  Further investigation by the school division revealed that the posting was after the exam was over and after school hours, and was a comment, not a photo.

Controversy has now erupted over whether Pearson is justified in monitoring our children’s social media postings and accounts for mention of questions asked on their exams.

Was the student who posted the comment cheating, or helping his / her friends cheat?  Possibly.  We don’t know what the student posted, so no one, except the student and recipient of the posting, know.

If the post was along the lines of,  “that exam was so easy” or “PARCC stinks” or “that question about owls was straight out of our textbook” then I’d say no.  That sort of banter about exams happens all the time and clearly isn’t cheating (though Pearson using extracts from their textbooks as exam questions certainly rises to the level of cheating in my opinion).

If the post was along the lines of “there’s a question about negative integers,” or  “be sure you know the first 12 multiples of 8,” or, “don’t worry about stem-and-leaf plots, they aren’t on the exam” and the post went to someone who had not taken the exam, then the post is clearly cheating.

Whether the post rises to the level of cheating and what, if any, punishment is delivered as a result of the post, in my opinion, is something the student’s local school district should determine and isn’t something any of us should be involved in.

The issue of monitoring of social media accounts by a private company or public entity is something we should all carefully consider.

Private companies monitor social media for comments about their products and services all the time.  Bad reviews on social media can destroy a company. Candidates for public office monitor social media for comments about themselves to see how certain phrases or statements are faring in the public eye, and to watch for and respond to attacks.

These days you can buy software or subscribe to applications and services that will do the monitoring for you, for little money.

That a private company would monitor social media for comments about the products they sell and services they provide, shouldn’t shock or surprise anyone.  If you are shocked by it, then you need to get your head out of the sand.  Successful companies generally aren’t run by stupid people, and those not-stupid people know that social media has the power to make or break their company.

Pearson is a big company.  The people who run it are not stupid.  They’ve managed to insinuate themselves into almost every aspect of public education in the US today, and have bought donated to and entertained enough politicians and public officials that their position of power borders on monopolistic.  I stand behind my belief that Pearson owns public education in my home state of Virginia.

Pearson’s monitoring of students taking the PARCC exam falls into the creepy category because what they’re monitoring for are comments by minor children about tests they were given in public school, with the full knowledge and consent of their state’s Department of Education.

I think the fact that their children were being monitored without their knowledge has some parents a bit freaked out.  Reality check here folks – your child has been monitored by organizations and individuals outside your control since the day you let them establish social media accounts.  Every time your child posts or tweets something, it gets picked up.  If their comment, post, or tweet includes the name of a business, public individual, or product, then there is a high probability that their comment was picked up by that business or public individual.

Like it or not, your social media account is not private.  Nor is your child’s.  It is public, and everything you post on it is subject to public scrutiny. That’s reality and the sooner you educate yourself and your children about it, the better.

What makes Pearson’s monitoring controversial, is that they developed the PARCC exams as a proxy for our federal and state governments.  This isn’t the local Tippy’s Tacos monitoring social media for positive reviews, or hiring people to post those positive reviews. This is Pearson, a company with near monopolistic control over education in some states, acting on behalf of our state and federal government and monitoring our children’s social media.

Pearson secured the contract to develop the PARCC exams under the Common Core State Standards.  Gathering data about students and their families is part of the state-wide longitudinal data systems, which are mandated by the US Dept of Ed under the guise of the Common Core Standards.    Included in the data points that must be gathered about our children are things like whether their parents are registered voters, whether they and their families have health insurance, whether their parents voted in the last election, and other data points that really don’t seem to have much to do with whether the child can read or write effectively.

So, while Pearson is a private company, what concerns me, and ought to concern you, is that when it comes to state and federally mandated exams, Pearson is acting on behalf of the state and / or federal government.

I think this controversy highlights an issue we all ought to contemplate.

Years ago we learned of “warrant-less wiretapping”, wherein the federal government, in an effort to protect us from terrorists, began monitoring phone calls and social media accounts of individuals linked with known or suspected terrorists.  With “warrant-less wiretapping”, at least in theory, you had to be linked in some way, shape, or form with known or suspected terrorists to be subjected to extra scrutiny.

This action by Pearson takes that one step further because they were monitoring the social media accounts of students just because they took an exam that was mandated by state law. These students did nothing wrong.  They weren’t linked with known or suspected cheaters.  All they did was take an exam that had to taken, by law.  In exchange for following state law, their social media accounts were monitored by a private company under contract with the state government; not just during the exams, but after them as well.

Even though Virginia isn’t  PARCC state, the exams our public school students take are Pearson exams.  Is Pearson monitoring the social media accounts of Virginia public school students?

That’s probably a question our state representatives and Governor ought to ask.

To me, as I think about it more and more, it seems pretty clear.  Welcome to Oceania.

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4 Responses to “Pearson Education Welcomes You to Oceania”

  1. chip64 Says:

    Very good post.

    A much more balanced perspective than I’ve seen elsewhere. While I might quibble with the description of children being monitored, it’s a minor point. It’s really a case of terms and keywords in public forums being monitored. At least you give a clear example of why a company might want to monitor public posts for terms that impact their business.

    I also appreciate that you were thorough in examining the involvement of the government in this example. As with Math Investigations, the government (whether Federal, State, or local) is the instigator in events such as these. Unfortunately, so many are either employed by the government, have a financial interest in it, or buy into the story that it’s all for our own good, that they are quick to point the finger at the very private industry that made this country what it is today.

    Finally, thank you for avoiding the term “spying” that has been so recklessly used in other forums. I particularly appreciate that you explained why it is not spying. As someone who has worked in the technology field more than 30 years, I am amazed how often people are surprised that the “terms of use” that people accept are first thing they skip. Some people don’t even bother to try to understand the social media they use (or sometimes don’t use but claim to understand). These people are often the first to scream at the top of their lungs when the free service they use but don’t learn doesn’t behave exactly at THEY believe it should.

    Some parents may have a right to be concerned about this. Others may see it differently.In either case, the finger of blame, if there is to be one, should be pointed where it belongs. At the one group whose sole purpose is to act in our own best interest. Our governments..

  2. Stacy Shaw Says:

    As a native New Jersey, I have to offer one correction. It is not the home of the cast of the Jersey Shore. They are not really from NJ; they just film there in the summer. However, we do lay claim to Thomas Edison, moving pictures, the “NY” Giants and John Stewart.

  3. Stacy Shaw Says:

    Meant to say as a native of NJ.

  4. chip64 Says:

    Edison is great, but he got the AC/DC thing wrong. And Lumiere might argue about the moving pictures point. As for The Giants, and John Stewart, it’s debatable whether those are bragging rights. And you did’t even mention Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi… and that makes me feel old…. 😦


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