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Erect Wall Between Test Companies and School Officials

In the wake of the stock market crash, Congress wisely passed the Glass-Steagall Act in 1933. The landmark legislation successfully separated investment and commercial banking activities until it was repealed in 1999. Many economists today believe the decision to do so played a major role in the country's financial meltdown.

I see a dangerous parallel taking place in education. As columnist Michael Winerip explained in "When Free Trips Overlap With Commercial Purposes" (On Education, The New York Times, Sept. 19), test companies are increasingly involved in the decisions made by state education officials. Winerip detailed how the Pearson Foundation through its commercial side paid to send top state education officials abroad to meet with their international counterparts.

The Pearson Foundation denied that the trips were designed to enable Pearson to win contracts. Instead, they were arranged "in pursuit of educational excellence." I suppose it's purely coincidental that Pearson invited Christopher Koch, Illinois superintendent, to go to Helsinki and Rio de Janeiro in 2009 when Illinois is paying Pearson $138 million to design and administer its tests. The argument that the trips were financed by the foundation itself rather than by Pearson's corporate divisions is also not convincing.

Let's not forget that profits are the reason that companies exist. The fact that companies happen to be in the business of selling standardized tests and curriculums does not negate this truth. As David Sirota wrote: "First and foremost, there's a ton of money to be made in the education 'reforms' that Big Money interests are advocating" ("The bait and switch of school 'reform," salon.com, Sept. 12).

Sirota went on to cite the sweetheart deal between Joel Klein and Rupert Murdoch. When Klein was New York City schools chancellor, he signed a lucrative contract with Wireless Generation, an educational technology company that Murdoch had just bought. Soon thereafter, Klein resigned to become executive vice president of Murdoch's News Corporation. Was this also purely coincidental?

With pressure mounting on states to produce evidence of learning, the money available for products to meet the demand is irresistible to educational companies. That's why a firewall like Glass-Steagall needs to be put in place straightaway. If it isn't, education will suffer in its own inimitable way.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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