By GAIL COLLINS
Let’s talk about talking pineapples.
Actually (spoiler alert!) I’m going to use the pineapple as a sneaky way to introduce the topic of privatization of public education. I was driven to this. Do you know how difficult it is to get anybody to read about “privatization of education?” It’s hell. A pineapple, on the other hand, is something everybody likes. It’s a symbol of hospitality. Its juice is said to remove warts. And you really cannot beat the talking-fruit angle.
This month, New York eighth graders took a standardized English test that included a story called “The Hare and the Pineapple,” in which you-know-what challenges a hare to a race. The forest animals suspect that since the pineapple can’t move, it must have some clever scheme to ensure victory, and they decide to root against the bunny. But when the race begins, the pineapple just sits there. The hare wins. Then the animals eat the pineapple. The end.
There were many complaints from the eighth graders, who had to answer questions like: “What would have happened if the animals had decided to cheer for the hare?” They were also supposed to decide whether the animals ate the pineapple because they were hungry, excited, annoyed or amused. (That part bothered me a lot. We’ve got a talking pineapple here, people. You don’t just go and devour it for having delusions of grandeur.)
Teachers, parents and education experts all chimed in. Nobody liked the talking pineapple questions. The Daily News, which broke the story, corralled “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings, who concluded that “the plot details are so oddly chosen that the story seems to have been written during a peyote trip.”
The state education commissioner, John King, announced that the questions would not count in the official test scores. There was no comment from the test author. That would be Pearson, the world’s largest for-profit education business, which has a $32 million five-year contract to produce New York standardized tests.
Now — finally — we have tumbled into my central point. We have turned school testing into a huge corporate profit center, led by Pearson, for whom $32 million is actually pretty small potatoes. Pearson has a five-year testing contract with Texas that’s costing the state taxpayers nearly half-a-billion dollars.
This is the part of education reform nobody told you about. You heard about accountability, and choice, and innovation. But when No Child Left Behind was passed 11 years ago, do you recall anybody mentioning that it would provide monster profits for the private business sector?
It’s not just the tests. No Child Left Behind has created a system of public-funded charter schools, a growing number of which are run by for-profit companies. Some of them are completely online, with kids getting their lessons at home via computer. The academic results can be abysmal, but on the plus side — definitely no classroom crowding issues.
Pearson is just one part of the picture, albeit a part about the size of Mount Rushmore. Its lobbyists include the guy who served as the top White House liaison with Congress on drafting the No Child law. It has its own nonprofit foundation that sends state education commissioners on free trips overseas to contemplate school reform.
An American child could go to a public school run by Pearson, studying from books produced by Pearson, while his or her progress is evaluated by Pearson standardized tests. The only public participant in the show would be the taxpayer.
If all else fails, the kid could always drop out and try to get a diploma via the good old G.E.D. The General Educational Development test program used to be operated by the nonprofit American Council on Education, but last year the Council and Pearson announced that they were going into a partnership to redevelop the G.E.D. — a nationally used near-monopoly — as a profit-making enterprise.
“We’re a capitalist system, but this is worrisome,” said New York Education Commissioner King.
The Obama administration has been trying to tackle the astronomical costs of 50 different sets of standardized tests by funding efforts by states to develop shared models — a process you will be stunned to hear is being denounced by conservatives like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas as “a federal takeover of public schools.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has also begun giving out waivers from the requirement that children in failing public schools be given after-school tutoring. Idea sounded great. Hardly helped the kids at all. But no for-profit tutoring company was left behind.
The pushback against privatization isn’t easy. We’re now in a world in which decisions about public education involve not just parents and children and teachers, but also big profits or losses for the private sector. Change the tests, or the textbooks, or the charters, or even the rules for teacher certification, and you change somebody’s bottom line.
It’s a tough world out there. Ask the talking pineapple.