Samuel Abrams on Education and the Commercial Mindset

Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is the author of the newly published Education and the Commercial Mindset (Harvard University Press, 2016). In a recent conversation, we spoke with Abrams about the book, particularly his chapters on Finland and Sweden. Abrams also discussed with us a recent controversy in Finland sparked by some of his comments in an interview printed in the Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s major daily. Abrams and colleagues, Jeffrey Henig and Henry Levin among them, will discuss the book at Teachers College on Monday, May 2.

Twenty years ago, Wall Street forecasters in the United States estimated that by 2010 approximately 10,000 to 20,000 of the nation’s 100,000 K-12 public schools would be run by for-profit firms. As Abrams details in his new book, those predictions were wrong. In reality, the tally was about 750. Disappointing academic and financial outcomes had pushed this sector to the margins, Abrams noted.

At the same time, Abrams said, those same analysts were correct that federal policymakers would embrace a bottom-line approach to assessing school effectiveness with a focus on student performance on standardized tests in reading and math. The high-stakes testing prescribed by No Child Left Behind in 2001 and the Race to the Top initiative in 2009, Abrams said, has constricted curricula, crowding out time for history, science, art, music, crafts, physical education, and play. Such testing, he added, has also generated unnecessary stress for students and teachers alike.

To deepen his analysis of the rise of market forces in U.S. education, Abrams analyzes in his book the divergent paths taken by Sweden and Finland. As Abrams puts it, Sweden and Finland provide a study in contrasts. He writes that Finland’s relatively high performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) cannot be dismissed because Finland is small, homogeneous, and egalitarian. Abrams explains that Finland’s Nordic neighbors—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—are also small, homogeneous, and egalitarian; however, these nations have repeatedly posted PISA results indistinguishable from those posted by the United States.

According to Abrams, the difference between Finland and its Nordic neighbors has been deliberate steps taken by Finnish policymakers to improve school curricula as well as the preparation, pay, and treatment of teachers. Abrams writes that Finnish policymakers had concluded in the 1960s that because the nation was young (having only declared independence in 1917) and poor in natural resources (with little more than timber), they had to invest significantly in schooling to develop the nation’s human capital. Economic necessity and national pride together forged education policy, he said. By contrast, Sweden, Abrams writes, was long a regional power, benefitted from its wealth in mineral resources, and prospered from its highly developed industrial and banking sectors; Denmark, too, was long a regional power, with strong agricultural and industrial sectors; and Norway benefitted from not only oil discovered in the North Sea in 1969 but also abundant fisheries and hydroelectric power.

The divergence of Finland and Sweden, in particular, may be seen at two points, Abrams explained. First, in 1962, Swedish authorities introduced a comprehensive school program (grundskola), merging students with different aptitudes in grades one through nine with the plan to reform teacher education so teachers would be better prepared to differentiate instruction. But such reform of teacher education never took place. Finnish authorities introduced their own comprehensive school program (peruskoulu) for students in the same grades in 1972 with a similar plan to reform teacher education. And the Finns followed through, requiring that all teachers from 1979 forward earn a master’s degree in pedagogy. Thirty-seven years later, Finland remains the only Nordic country with this requirement.

Second, Swedish authorities in 1992 embraced privatization while their Finnish counterparts never did so. For the Finns, Abrams said, schooling has been an instrument for nation building. Outsourcing school management to private providers, he said, did not comport with that purpose. For the Swedes, schooling was not about nation building. Outsourcing school management accordingly didn’t pose the same problem.

In addition, Abrams said, the Swedes had been under the Social Democratic Party from 1932 to 1976 and again from 1984 to 1991. He suggests the desire for change and, specifically, school choice was accordingly understandable. In 1991, only 1 percent of the nation’s primary and secondary schools were under private management, Abrams writes in his book. By 2010, the portion of primary and secondary schools in Sweden under private management had grown to 22 percent; and of that portion, 76 percent, or 17 percent of the country’s primary and secondary schools in total, were run by for-profit operators.

To Abrams, the problem with for-profit operation of schools is not that businessmen are making money off the provision of a public service such as education. Textbook publishers, software developers, and bus operators all make money from schools and should, he said, but they are all providing a discrete good or service that can be easily evaluated. “School management, on the other hand, is a complex service that does not afford the transparency necessary for proper contract enforcement,” he said. “Without such transparency, there’s client distrust: parents, taxpayers, and legislators can never be sure the provider is doing what was promised; and the child as the immediate consumer cannot be in a position to judge the quality of service. Regular testing has been promoted as a check on quality. But teachers can teach to the test. And worse, as we know from cheating scandals in Atlanta and many other cities, teachers can change wrong answers to right answers on bubble sheets once students are done.”

In sum, Abrams said, the idea that schools could and should be run like businesses resulted from “a blinkered laissez-faire triumphalism prevailing in the wake of the rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and the fall of the Berlin Wall.” According to Abrams, the economist Arthur Okun, whom he quotes in his prologue, got it right: “The market needs a place, and the market needs to be kept in place.”

Ironically, at the same time that Abrams highlights in his book what he sees as numerous strengths of the Finnish approach, he generated controversy in Finland with comments in an interview published by Helsingin Sanomat. Shortly after his book was released, Abrams was asked in the interview about growing concerns over declines in Finland’s most recent scores on the PISA test. Abrams contended that the concerns were groundless, as the decline reflected the improvement of other countries, primarily Asian countries and jurisdictions like Shanghai, that have focused explicitly on improving PISA performance. Under these circumstances, on a normed test like PISA, Finland’s scores would be expected to go down, Abrams said, but would not necessarily suggest any real decline in the quality of education. Finnish scholars nevertheless subsequently argued in one article after another in the same newspaper that the performance of Finnish students had indeed declined, particularly in mathematics. According to Abrams, this decline is a modern problem, echoed in similar nations, not a Finnish problem.

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