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Commercialization in Education

Summary and Keywords

In the literature, a range of terminology is used to describe the reorganization of public education. In much critical policy sociology the terms marketization, privatization, and commercialization are used interchangeably. Our argument is that each of these denotes distinct, albeit related, characteristics of contemporary schooling and the impact of the Global Education Industry (GEI). We define marketization as the series of policy logics that aim to create quasimarkets in education; privatization as the development of quasimarkets in education that privilege parental choice, school autonomy and venture philanthropy; and commercialization as the creation, marketing, and sale of educational goods and services to schools by external providers. We explain the manifestations of each of these forms and offer two cases of actors situated within the GEI, the OECD, and Pearson PLC, to outline how commercialization and privatization proceed at the level of policy and practice.

Keywords: marketization, commercialization, privatization, education policy, Global Education Industry, public education


In analyses of how state provision and regulation of compulsory schooling is changing, commercialization, privatization, and marketization are often used synonymously. Our argument is that each of these three terms speaks to different, yet allied, aspects of the reorganization of public education that has been occurring since at least the end of the 20th century. Traditionally, compulsory schooling in most developed countries has been divided along public and private lines. In this distinction, public schools are those that are financed, operated, and regulated by the state, while private schools are those that are operated by external authorities such as religious organizations. In many jurisdictions, however, the demarcation between public and private is now somewhat blurred. For example, many private schools in Australia receive a significant portion of their funding from the state and are required to conform to various regulations concerning curriculum, teacher accreditation, and assessment requirements.

Furthermore, since the 1980s in many developed countries, education and education policy has been influenced by two shifts in logic. First, there has been a shift in the purposes of government and governance and how it relates to public sector endeavors such as education and health. This shift is evident in the language of education reform from education as a common good to education as an economic priority. Secondly, globalization has impacted economic structures and social relations, and this is particularly evident in the restructuring of the state’s role and investment in schooling.

This article proceeds in three sections. First, we will carefully define marketization, privatization, and commercialization and discuss how these processes are related. Second, we will outline how these processes manifest in what Verger, Lubienski, and Steiner-Khamsi (2016) call the Global Education Industry (GEI). Finally, we will pay particular attention to commercialization in education, offering two cases examining how commercialization proceeds at the level of policy and practice.


Marketization is the creation of a series of policy logics that aim to create quasimarkets in education.

Ball (1994) defines marketization as simply “the introduction of market forces into education” (p. 86). Whitty and Power (2000, p. 94) expand on this to argue that marketization “refers to the development of ‘quasi-markets’ in state funded and/or state provided services.” They argue that in education this is often represents a combination of school choice and school autonomy agendas, accountability infrastructures, and a reduction in government regulation. Ball (2006, p. 116) makes a similar distinction adding that the market form encompasses “supply and demand, producer and consumer behavior, privatization and commodification, values and ethics and distributional outcomes.” Thus, marketization is the combined effect of the privatization of education services and delivery and the opening up of schools and their practices to goods and services from commercial providers with the express purpose of leveraging profit from schools. As Figure 1 shows, the marketization of education, which is coconstitutive of the GEI, is produced through two forms: privatization and commercialization.

Privatization is the development of quasimarkets through institutional and policy structures that privilege parental choice, school autonomy and venture philanthropy, often with the state regulating for public accountability. It happens to schools.

Ball and Youdell (2008) suggest that privatization in education is either “endogenous,” in which ideas, techniques, and practices are imported from the private sector to make the public sector more business-like, or “exogenous,” in which public services are opened to private sector participation where the private sector designs, manages, or delivers aspects of public education (p. 9). As Ball and Youdell (2008) observe, these forms of privatization are not mutually exclusive and are often interrelated. The privatization of education is a “policy tool” that works to “reflect, respond to and reinforce changes in the forms and modalities of the modern state” (p. 68). This includes a shift “from the government of a unitary state to governance through goal-setting and monitoring and the use of diverse participants and providers to drive policy and deliver programmes and services” (p. 112). Ball and Youdell (2008) refer to this process as “controlled decontrol,” in which contracts, targets, and performance monitoring can be used to steer policy systems from a distance. In fact, many of the different forms of privatization being introduced to school systems around the world are the result of deliberate policy under the umbrella of “educational reform.”

Commercialization is the creation, marketing, and sale of education goods and services to schools by external providers. It happens in schools as opposed to happening to schools.

Marginson (1991, p. 1) argues that commercialization “assumes some or all of the forms of market (exchange-based) production: sale of goods or services, scarcity and competition, profit making, etc.” While privatization is about the logics of who conducts education, commercialization is about how actors profit from the “commodification” of education. Commercialization can occur without privatization; for example, a public school can purchase assessment support services from commercial providers. What defines commercialization is the relationship between centralized, public bureaucracies, and the work that these organizations traditionally undertook, and its outsourcing for the commercial gain of individuals or corporations. We are careful to note, however, that historically there has been an ongoing relationship between public and private interests in education; for example, the commercially produced textbook was central to the conduct of schooling in the United States in the early 20th century (Callaghan, 1964). However, as Kenway et al. (1993) observe, it is the scale of commercial production and the impact that the formation of quasimarkets have on the value of public education that is important. Our argument, then, is about intensification rather than novelty. The creation of quasimarkets provides fertile ground for new educational goods and services. This is particularly evident in relation to educational technology. Schools and governments now purchase products and services from the private sector that are tied to test development and preparation, data analysis and management, and remedial services that enable further commercial opportunities. Thus, in many circumstances, commercialization and privatization work most profitably together.

Commercialization in EducationClick to view larger

Figure 1. The Relationship Between Marketization, Privatization and Commercialization.


Since at least the 1980s, many governments have reconfigured how they manage the interactions between the interests of (a) public institutions and society and (b) private corporations and individuals. This is evident in the rise of quasimarkets, public–private partnerships (PPPs), and the promotion of structures and policies that privilege choice, competition, and accountability. Ball (2006, p. 116) argues that the market form in education is constituted through “competition, supply and demand, producer and consumer behavior, privatisation and commodification, values and ethics and distributional outcomes.” Marketization, then, is the broad concept under which commercialization and privatization present themselves as logical solutions to ongoing challenges in the provision of education services.

Policy analysts refer to these relationships as constituting new rationalities for democratic governance. Rhodes (1997) describes a shift from government to governance, where central governments involve private actors in what was once the proprietary sphere of government and/or bureaucracies. This includes public policy decision-making, the outsourcing of government services, and the creation of PPPs in areas such as education and health. Rhodes (1997) argues that these relationships between the state and civil society emphasizes, or intensify, (inter)dependencies. Held and colleagues (1999) describe how these dependencies proceed through competitions and rivalries between organizations and individuals, such that “effective power is shared, bartered and struggled over by diverse forces and agencies at national, regional and global levels” (p. 447). Castells (2010) defines this context of power-sharing and negotiated, or competitive, decision-making as constituting a complex web of network interactions. It is through this network or web of actors that public services are being delivered through an increasingly diverse mix of strategic alliances, joint working arrangements, partnerships, and many other forms of collaboration across sectoral and organizational boundaries. This shift in the loci of political power, from centralized government bureaucracies to multiple, independent actors operating within and beyond government, is framed by the principles of marketization, commercialization, and privatization. These three principles are promoted as necessary governance configurations for national economic competitiveness within the global marketplace.

The shift from government to governance, and the role of nonstate (or private) actors, is particularly evident in education. For example, Robertson et al. (2012, p. 6) argue that PPPs identify a range of practices of governance, including

quite heterogeneous phenomena, ranging from straight-out private service provision, to contractually-based service arrangements, to less formal types of collaboration and partnership between the private sector, private philanthropic organizations and governments, based on trust and joint commitment to the common good.

The marketization of education refers to the creation of quasimarkets for education, both in terms of commodities/products (commercialization) and in terms of systemic financing via new forms of delivery of schooling such as for-profit schooling (privatization). Marketization requires more market and less state; more individual responsibility and less welfare provision; and more focus on the individual and less on the common good. Shamir (2008) suggests these logics largely elide any distinction between society and the market, producing in turn a “neo-social” (Rose, 1999), where corporate rationalities are deployed to inform conduct beyond the market itself, in social relations, and at the level of the individual.

This shift to new modes of governance and the associated adoption of market-oriented management has been a key means to reform the public sector. To this end, Harvey (2005) argues that domains previously regarded off-limits to the calculus of profitability have been opened to capital accumulation, and public utilities of various kinds have now been privatized to some degree throughout the advanced capitalist world. The argument for the privatization of public services derives from market theory, which Burch (2009, p. 3) explains in the following terms: “the higher the competition across suppliers, the higher the quality product and the lower the production cost.” From this perspective, the outsourcing of public services previously performed by the state ideally creates a competitive market for public services, hopefully increasing the quality of those services and reducing costs for consumers.

This market logic explains the shift from top-down, hierarchical education structures to networked structures (Ball & Junemann, 2012) where, as Wanna (2009) suggests, governments redefine themselves as facilitators. A key aspect of this facilitation is managing contracts between the state and private sector organizations that steer education policy, develop curriculum and assessment, and operate schools. As Ball (2012, p. 112) summarizes:

In effect, to different extents in different countries, the private sector now occupies a range of roles and responsibilities with the state … as sponsors and benefactors, as well as working as contractors, consultants, advisers, researchers, service providers and so on … selling policy solutions and services to the state, sometimes in related ways.

The amount of commercial services now required by the modern state has meant there are multiple profit opportunities in education; hence, the emergence of the GEI worth $4.3 trillion annually (see Verger et al., 2016).

The expansion of the GEI has been underpinned by various global trends. Verger et al. (2016, pp. 6–11) identify six significant factors here, including: economic globalization, the commodification of schooling as a positional good for families, the financialization of the education sector, changes in the governance of education, the emergence of an evidence-based policy paradigm, and the intensification of the technology to learning relationship. Essentially, the expansion of the GEI is based on the idea that education is the key means to national economic competitiveness and individual success. This means national governments, systems, schools, teachers, parents, and individuals are more willing to invest their money in education and education-related products and services targeted at improved student outcomes (Burch, 2009). What has worked particularly well for private sector organizations operating within the GEI is that policy has become globalized. Think here of the ways that policymakers look to other countries and systems for evidence of best practice, and how we have seen a proliferation of standardized testing and accountability infrastructures as a common way to drive national educational reform (Sellar & Lingard, 2013). Setting global policy reforms and common standards has enabled private-sector organizations to sell curriculum materials to a global market, where, for instance, a product developed for American students will have relevance for students in the U.K., Australia, Italy, France, South Africa, Brazil, and so on. Thus, in the GEI we have networks of private actors offering a proliferating volume of educational goods and services.

Thus, while public education has historically been conceived as a “common good” and as necessary in securing a nation’s future civic order and economic prosperity, it is now increasingly seen as a source of private economic gain by a range of corporations and entrepreneurial individuals. This explains why private sector organizations are beginning to diversify, restructure, and rebrand their businesses to take advantage of the rapidly growing and increasingly lucrative education market. Indeed, the most recent sales figures from the likes of Pearson, the world’s largest edu-business, indicate that the company made over $5 billion in sales during 2015 and had an adjusted operating profit of over $1 billion (Pearson, 2016).


Privatization is an approach to bring about the supposed benefits of marketization for education systems. Whitty and Power (2000, p. 94) see privatization as a “multi-faceted series of processes” organized around four possibilities: “charging for public services previously paid for out of taxation”; “letting the private sector run a service that continues to be paid for out of taxation”; “selling public services and transferring their functions to the private sector”; and “deregulating the private sector or liberalising arrangements that previously prevented the private sector from competing with state-provided services.” Privatization agendas need not demonstrate each of these four characteristics and in some contexts single manifestations are more evident. However, what these processes share is an underpinning belief that privatization is a legitimate and potentially lucrative means of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the state. The adoption of this approach has challenged the ideology of traditional, state-centered, public provision of schooling, opening it instead to market-based processes of reform (Plank & Sykes, 2003). In many instances, forms of privatization “are articulated in terms of ‘choice,’ ‘accountability,’ ‘school improvement,’ ‘devolution,’ ‘contestability’ or ‘effectiveness’” and these “draw on techniques and values from the private sector, introduce private sector participation and/or have the effect of making public education more like a business” (Ball & Youdell, 2008, p. 8).

It is worth noting that the private sector can make valuable contributions to public education. From our perspective, these contributions can be considered valuable if they promote democratic, nondiscriminatory, and equitable delivery of schooling. However, some research suggests that many business interests in public education are “hidden,” with civil society having very little idea of what happens behind closed doors between politicians, businesses, philanthropies, and entrepreneurs (Reckhow, 2013). Indeed, there is an emerging view that we need greater transparency and better understanding of the extent to which our public schools are being privatized.

School Choice

The key device of privatization in education is the proliferation of forms of “school choice” facilitated by the weakening or removal of bureaucratic regulations over school enrollment, school funding, and creating policy conditions that encourage student movement within the school system (Ball & Youdell, 2008). The rationale for school choice is linked to a belief that competition between schools will raise standards across the system. The publication of test scores, school inspection reports, and value-added measures of teaching effectiveness are intended as resources for parents’ to make “informed decisions” about their child’s education. Despite this intention, empirical evidence reveals that parental choice can work to increase inequity between schools along lines of ability, socioeconomic status, and ethnic background (see, e.g., Berends, 2015; Windle, 2015). These many alternatives to the traditional public school must compete for clientele in ever-growing schooling quasimarkets.

School Principal as “Manager”

Within these policy conditions that enable school choice the school principal holds a role (Carpenter & Brewer, 2014; Thompson & Mockler, 2016). As Rousmaniere (2013, pp. 3–6) explains, the principal is expected to be “both an advocate for school change and the protector of bureaucratic stability.” They are “authorized to be employer, supervisor, professional figurehead, and inspirational leader” and must act “on a daily basis as the connecting link between a large bureaucratic system and the individual daily experiences of a large number of children and adults.” The modern school principal is conceived as a middle manager that works to translate education policy from the central office to the classroom, and in doing so has multiple responsibilities. Goldring and Schuermann (2009) summarize these multiple responsibilities as including: responding to accountability demands; focusing on instructional improvement to increase student achievement; planning, allocating resources, and making decisions based on data; and, ensuring they engage and function effectively within a market-oriented and competitive environment. Bloxham, Ehrich, and Radha (2015) have made the point that high-stakes accountability environments encourage principals to adopt a corporate, managerialist approach to leading education. In many respects, the characteristics of school leadership are now described as forms of management that emphasize efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability at the expense of a more pedagogical orientation to the role (Dempster, Freakly, & Parry, 2001).

Principals have adapted to this approach and are finding opportunities to implement innovative thinking and vision for their schools while also meeting state regulations for accountability of outcomes (see Schoen & Fusarelli, 2008; Heffernan, 2016). This involves taking risks and becoming “resource investigators” that foster new initiatives and find support and the funding required for school development and improvement by establishing commercial and entrepreneurial connections with diverse external agencies (Yemini, Addi-Raccah, & Katarivas, 2014). Yemini et al. (2014) make the point that principals could now be regarded as institutional entrepreneurs that are required not only to comply with systemic demands and regulations, but also to assume a proactive role in advancing strategic initiatives that reflect the needs of their school.

Performance Management and Performance-Based Pay

Performance management mechanisms have also been imported into schools from the business sector to produce increased accountability and transparency in the work of schools and teachers. However, as Ball and Youdell (2008) contend, these mechanisms can actually reorient the work of schools and teachers, changing the values and priorities of classroom activities. For example, Amrein and Berliner (2002) found that student performance on high stakes tests in the United States remains largely the same, or in some cases, decreases. They also reported that the unintended consequences associated with these testing policies were concerning, and included increased student dropout rate, teaching to the test, sanctioned cheating on tests, and teachers leaving the profession. In the U.K., Wyse and Torrance (2009, p. 222) argued that national tests inevitably suffer from a plateau effect. The “plateau effect is particularly notable, since it has previously been identified by Linn (2000) … that ‘the pattern of early gains followed by a levelling off is typical of … high stakes use of tests.’” They similarly attribute this plateau effect to the unintended consequences associated with high-stakes testing. These effects are exacerbated when student test scores are linked to teachers’ pay. The justification for testing as an accountability measure comes from the logic of business whereby teaching becomes an input and student achievement an output in a reductively simple equation. This, of course, creates markets for testing products and services in classrooms and schools.

According to the OECD (2012), teachers in Austria, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Estonia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Turkey, and the United States are rewarded with supplemental pay for “outstanding teaching performance.” However, this same report highlights that “the overall picture reveals no relationship between average student performance in a country and the use of performance-based pay schemes. In other words, some high-performing education systems use performance-based pay while others don’t” (p. 2). As the OECD argues, pay is only one aspect of a teachers work environment, and countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have tended to do so through raising the status of the profession, offering significant career prospects and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform.

Venture Philanthropy

There has been a long history of individuals and philanthropists “giving back” to public institutions in countries like the United States. However, as Saltman (2010) describes, this benevolence has shifted from the “scientific” philanthropy of the 20th century to the “venture” philanthropy of today. The difference between these forms is in the movement from “social obligation” where funders had no control over how the money could, or should be used, to “social investment” where funders seek to maintain control of the money (Saltman, 2010) and often direct its use in an effort to influence education policy and policymaking (Au & Ferrare, 2014; Au & Lubienski, 2016; Lipman, 2015; Reckhow, 2013; Reckhow & Snyder, 2014).

Lubienski et al. (2016) argue that philanthropic donations continue to grow each year in the United States. In education, they identify the “big six” philanthropies’ (2014, p. 60) which are the Bill and Melinda Gates, Walton Family, Michael and Susan Dell, Robertson, and Eli and Edythe Board Foundations and the Dorise and Donald Fisher Fund. One goal of the “big six” is to leverage their extensive philanthropy to influence U.S. education policy and practice. An example of this is their use of targeted grants to support initiatives and “astroturfing” organizations that advocate for deregulated models of public education (Au & Ferrare, 2014; Lubienski, 2013; Reckhow, 2013). Reckhow (2013) explains a prominent effect has been the promotion of charter schools over public schools. Similarly, Williamson (2016, p. 3) provides an example of how Silicon Valley philanthropists are creating “startup schools” that “are designed as scalable technical platforms, underpinned by software engineering expertise” which propose “to reinvent, reimagine and rebuild education in the mould of Silicon Valley itself.” Williamson argues that these schools are offering a corporate solution to the perceived problems with public education. Thus, as Saltman (2010, p. 13) summarizes, venture philanthropy contributes to “both the privatization of public schools and the transformation of public schools on the model of the corporation.”

School Delivery

The private delivery of schooling is increasing dramatically around the world. One example has been the introduction of low-fee, for-profit schools in the developing world, including sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. The last decade has witnessed rapid growth of these schools as either an alternative to public schooling or a substitute for it (Macpherson, Robertson, & Walford, 2014; Riep, 2015; Srivastava, 2016). Some aid from Global North nations to developing nations in Africa has been targeted at the creation of low-fee, for-profit schools. The Department for International Development (DfID), the U.K.’s aid ministry, targets aid funds in this way (Olmedo, 2014; Ball, 2016). The world’s largest edu-business, Pearson, created the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) in 2012 with initial capital of $15 million (U.S.) and now have committed a further $50 million over the next three years to support for-profit companies and “edu-preneurs” to deliver affordable education in poor nations.

In nations with more highly developed public schooling systems, the for-profit motive for school provision has manifest in a variety of overt and covert ways, such as the introduction of Swedish Free Schools, some British Academies, and in the private management of publicly funded charter schools in the United States. In Sweden, “free schools” are publicly funded by a voucher system and are also allowed to extract profit (Ronnberg, 2017). Ronnberg explains that out of Sweden’s 6,000 schools, approximately 1,300 of them are free schools. She also makes the point that due to the profit-making capacity of these schools there has been a shift in ownership from the 1990s when foundations and not-for-profits owned free schools, to at least two-thirds being run by corporations today. In a similar move to privatize schooling in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana government reshaped the structure and governance of the public school system to allow for new actors, methods, and greater choice and accountability through the broad application of the charter school model. Education provision in New Orleans is delivered through seven models of charter school where 139 charter schools now operate across the 21 parishes of the state. Despite the government arguing these schools would deliver innovation, choice, and improved student outcomes, the weight of evidence suggests these reforms in New Orleans have actually worked to deepen inequality and access to schools, especially for African-American students (see Henry & Dixson, 2016; DeBray, Scott, Lubienski, & Jabbar, 2014).


As we outlined above, commercialization is the creation, marketing, and sale of education goods and services to schools by for-profit providers. This can also be referred to as the commodification of education. Commercialization is big business. Many commercial providers generate large profits for shareholders by selling goods and services to schools, districts, and systems. While there are many types of commercial activity, the most common are those directed at teaching, learning, and assessment, digital and computer technologies, professional development for teachers and principals, and a variety of services designed to support schools administrators. One common way of thinking about commercialization is as a form of outsourcing, where public entities such as education departments or school districts outsource a variety of tasks to private companies.

Mol (2007) defines outsourcing as the state or process of procuring goods and services from external suppliers. It involves a multitude of practices that vary in complexity on the basis of the range of goods and services outsourced, the amount of control exercised between an outsourcer over a supplier, the embeddedness of the social relationship between outsourcer and supplier, and the level of formality governing the outsourcing agreement (Davis-Blake & Broschak, 2009). The effects of outsourcing are relatively unknown, with much research focusing on the ways that commercial players affect education policy and practice on global and national scales without necessarily extending to analysis of what is happening at the local level in schools.

Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Materials

In the GEI there is no shortage of companies offering commercial products to help schools, teachers, and even parents improve student outcomes. For example, in Australia, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) offers a suite of assessment and reporting tools that schools can purchase to gather further standardized data on their students. Its Progressive Achievement Tests in Mathematics, Reading, and Science can be purchased for $7 per student and are currently taken by 2.5 million students each year (see Hogan, 2016). ACER is also one of the formative companies in the move towards online writing assessments for students, already offering eWrite to schools for students in years 5–8, where students interact directly with the online system that automatically marks the students’ work, producing a detailed report “pinpointing individual students’ writing strengths and weaknesses” (see Teaching, learning, and assessment are the core business of schools, and new technologies have enabled new opportunities for commercial providers to offer products to meet perceived and mandated needs.

Digital and Computational Technology

Perhaps the most rapidly advancing example of commercialization occurs in the areas of digital and computational technology. Advances in areas such as computational power, speed and efficiency, coupled with improved software design, have significantly increased the range and complexity of technology that is being offered to schools and systems. In 2014 the Education Technology Industry Network of the Software and Information Industry Association published their U.S. Education Technology Market: PreK–12 Report. This report measured the size of the U.S. education market from prekindergarten to year 12. This report focused on nonhardware education technology defined as “education software and related platforms, products, and services sold to institutional markets within the U.S. These products and services can be used both in and outside of the classroom, including professional development but excluding hardware” (Richards & Stebbins, 2014, p. 4).

The report estimated the size of the 2014 U.S. market for education software and digital content to be $8.38 billion annually, an increase of 5.1% from 2013. The report is organized around three related markets: Instructional Support (including Testing and Assessment, Learning Management Systems, online professional development (PD), productivity tools), Enterprise Management (which included School Admin Tools, Data and IT Management Tools, IT Consulting and Digital Content Repositories), and Content (which covered curriculum areas such as Reading/Language Arts/Literacy/English/Literature, Arithmetic/Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies/History). The largest market segment was Content ($3.3 billion), with Reading/Language Arts making up the largest Content category, followed by Mathematics/Arithmetic. The Instructional Support segment was almost as large ($3.2 billion). Testing and Assessment ($2.5 billion) was the largest single category of any market segment (Richards & Stebbins, 2014, p. 3).

This demonstrates the size and the scope of ed-tech markets in K–12 education and the extent of commercial activity. The report concludes on an optimistic note that the ed-tech industry will continue to grow. In particular, it identifies opportunities for further growth in Testing and Assessment and Ongoing Professional Development because these areas are “often tied to other products and services in the educational space, making it a promising area for growth” (Richards & Stebbins, 2014, p. 41). Furthermore, the report identifies Data Analysis and Integration associated with the emergence of big data and formative assessment as profitable opportunities to “help schools efficiently collect, analyse, and make actionable their student data” and the need for support in “basic testing, attendance, and grading information, but also for social networks (established and custom-built), new adaptive learning platforms, and relevant family and community information” (Richards & Stebbins, 2014, p. 41).

Professional Learning

The research literature focusing on teacher professional learning (PL) is comprehensive and represents a clear consensus that effective PL is linked to improvements in teacher and student learning (Darling-Hammond, 2008; Mayer & Loyd, 2011). This has opened a significant space to be populated by private providers offering workshops, seminars, and conferences to teachers in the name of continuing professional development, school improvement, and “performance enhancement” (Ball & Youdell, 2008). Codd (2005) argues that not only are these commercially available programs growing exponentially in New Zealand, but also that teachers are more inclined to take up these opportunities given the external expectations and accountability infrastructures now imposed on them to meet a range of specified competencies and standards each year. To date, little research has been undertaken on the commercial provision of PL in terms of the extent to which private providers are being used to deliver PL or the effectiveness of these programs for teacher and student learning.

School Administration

Software packages have been developed by private providers to assist with school finance, timetabling, personnel, reporting, and so on. In fact, Barta, Telem and Yev (1995, p. 17) note that in Australia, the U.K., the United States, and the Netherlands “a considerable number of applications have been developed.” They also highlight that very little research has been undertaken to understand what these programs are, or indeed, the positive and negative effects of their use. However, their research illustrated that school administrators see benefit in the use of these programs and applications, generally citing improvements in pupil and staff administration, efficiency of school administration, and the availability of information on pupil achievement, as well as improved absentee systems and timetable construction. Butler and Visscher (2014) track the history of the school administrative use of computers since the 1990s summarizing that “governmental departments proved to be the least likely to be successful in the evolution of computerized administration” and “as a consequence huge wastes of energy, time and finances results” and as such, it is “far more efficient to let the market decide what works best” (p. 201).

Pearson, Quasimarkets, and Profiting from Educational Solutions

Pearson is a particularly interesting player in the GEI, representing a corporation that is focused on both the privatization and commercialization of education to increase its market share and thus, profitability for its shareholders. As Pearson’s annual report (2016, p. 17) states, “we reach learners, through content and digital services in individual classrooms, through broad partnerships with public and private education institutions and, in certain markets, by directly expanding capacity through our own schools and colleges.” Pearson is an important case because as an organization its business interests encompass both privatization agendas—such as in its work with Bridge Academies in Africa—and commercialization—such as with the commercial products and services offered to schools in areas such as curriculum, assessment, and digital learning. As we have argued above, privatization and commercialization are clearly not the same, but they both concern the ways that the public sphere is being reimagined in education.

Pearson has an extensive portfolio of products and services, specializing in courseware, assessment, and learning technology. These commercial products are available internationally for any system, school, teacher, parent, or student to purchase. For example, last year in the United States alone, Pearson delivered almost 50 million assessments in K–12 schools via digital devices through its “TestNav” application (see Pearson “MyLab” and “Mastering” are products designed to offer online adaptive learning for students across 30 different disciplines, encompassing content and instructional material, homework, quizzes, and assessment, as well as an online grade book that automatically tracks students’ results and reports them to their teacher (see Pearson also offers educator development through professional learning and consultancy services (see

In terms of privatization, Pearson delivers K–12 schooling through a number of platforms and strategies. In the United States it operates “Connections Academy,” which is an online public school available in 21 states with more than 40,000 enrolled students. These virtual charter schools are publicly funded and free to access for parents and students wanting to choose an alternative to traditional schooling (see In the U.K., it offers academic qualifications through “Edexcel,” including the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and the more advanced A-levels, as well as an extensive range of vocational qualifications (see Pearson also makes equity investments in for-profit companies that deliver low-fee private schooling across the developing world. Indeed, the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) has invested in 10 companies spanning five countries, including Spark Schools in South Africa, Omega Schools in Ghana, Lekki in Nigeria, APEC Schools in the Philippines, and Avanti, Zaya, Sudiksha, Experifun, and Karadi Path in India (see Each of these examples is dependent on the policy logics and degree of state regulation of school delivery in each of these countries.

It is clear that Pearson’s commercialization and privatization businesses are distinct but can also work to complement each other. For example, through Connections Academy, Pearson has developed a quasimarket that they can also sell educational products and services to. Indeed, Pearson is named as one of the nine commercial companies listed as “content partners” for Connections Academy. Thus, Pearson is receiving public funds to both run and resource its online school. The prevailing argument throughout this brief case is that Pearson is a successful business in the GEI as it has been able to utilize policy logics in different regions and geographies to either privatize and/or commercialize education, and in doing so, create strong financial returns for its shareholders.


In summary, in this article we have argued that commercialization and privatization are distinct yet related aspects of the marketization of education. Each of these three terms speaks to different aspects of the reorganization of public education that has been occurring since the end of the 20th century. Marketization refers to the creation of quasimarkets in education through policy interventions that create the conditions for these markets to thrive. Privatization is the creation of structures that enable the importation of business ideas, techniques, and practices in such a way as to shift responsibility for the operation of educational institutions from the state to private entities. For-profit schools, some charter schools, and some forms of academization can be seen as examples of privatization. Commercialization, on the other hand, refers to the creation, production, and sale of goods and services to schools to satisfy some educational need. We have then given examples of these in practice to illustrate how it is that commercialization, privatization, and marketization function.

What remains unresolved is the impact that these are having, and will continue to have, on public education. Recent policy moves and political appointments in countries such as the United States, Sweden, and England suggest that the creation of quasimarkets, privatization, and commercialization will only gather momentum in the next few decades. Of particular interest, and concern, is the emergence of private companies in the Global South that have contractual arrangements with governments to provide schooling on a for-profit basis. The effects of this will continue to be debated and researched, but at the very least it seems reasonable to argue that we are witnessing a radical restructuring of what constitutes the “public” in public education.


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