Transcript of the episode “Dodging responsibility for our children: Reducing learning to test scores”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m  Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Samuel E. Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Abrams is the author of “Education and the Commercial Mindset” and is also recognized as a leading scholar of Finland’s education system. Welcome, Sam!

Nice to be with you, Amy and Jon.

Sam, what do you mean by the phrase “education and the commercial mindset”? 

Sam A: [00:00:47] What I mean by that is that business has imprinted itself on education policy to a great degree, in the United States in particular, but even abroad, in Sweden and Chile and several other countries.

Jon M: [00:01:07] In what kind of ways? What do you mean by it’s imprinted itself?

Sam A: [00:01:10] Well, I guess you could say this has happened really in two ways. And we shouldn’t be so surprised in the United States. Calvin Coolidge, after all, did say that “the business of America is business.” But there are essentially two waves of the commercial mindset and education. One is very explicit, where we outsource the management of schools to for-profit providers. Okay. This idea gained a great deal of popularity on Wall Street in the 1990s. And we see Merrill Lynch take Edison schools public in 1999. The forecasters on Wall Street back in the 1990s thought that by 2010, 10 to 20% of America’s public schools would be run by for-profit entities. So there is that great push. So that’s a very explicit manifestation of the commercial mindset, that businesses can do a better job running public schools than municipalities. The other manifestation of the commercial mindset, which is so much more pervasive it’s with us every day is that we measure schools by reading and math scores. And these reading and math tests were mandated by No Child Left Behind, signed by George W. Bush in 2002. And we’ve come to see essentially reading and math scores as a business person would see profits and losses. So we have essentially two manifestations, I argue in my book, of the commercial mindset. One is very explicit with respect to the confidence that for-profit firms could do a better job managing public schools than the municipalities. And second implicit, much more implicit, is that we should be judging schools in the same way we run and judge any kind of company. 

Jon M: [00:03:01] Going back to your examples of Edison, for example. What are some other examples of privatization in education?

Sam A: [00:03:10] Well, we have privatization in many forms and it’s good when you’re talking about the provision of a discrete good or a service, you don’t want necessarily the school system to be manufacturing, producing its own, say scheduling software. There’s nothing wrong with going to an outside provider for that. There’s nothing wrong with getting textbooks from a for-profit publishing house or pens from a for-profit maker of pens. So you’re outsourcing there the production of lots of things. That’s a form of privatization. If the process is discrete, it’s very easy to judge the contract and whether the provider has delivered, there isn’t a problem. The problem with outsourcing management of schools is education is a very complex service and you have a great deal of opacity and the child is the immediate consumer. So that’s a different degree of privatization. So we have levels of privatization and some of them are good and I would say even necessary, but others necessarily generate market failure.

Jon M: [00:04:22] You’ve been talking about for-profit privatization. Would you distinguish between that and nonprofit privatization?

Sam A: [00:04:29] That’s an excellent distinction. And as I was saying before that forecasters on Wall Street had prophesied that by 2010, 10 to 20% of public schools would be run for profit. They were way off. It was under 1% by 2010 and remains there. However, we do have a great deal of outsourcing to nonprofit managers of schools. And this is really the domain of charter management organizations, CMOs, as opposed to EMOs, educational management organizations, who are the for-profit operators. But anytime you’re talking about a charter school, that’s a form of privatization. And in 90% of those cases, those are nonprofit enterprises, but you’re still outsourcing. You’re still turning over the education of children to a publicly funded, but privately managed organization.

Amy H-L: [00:05:26] So how does privatization actually harm students, especially those who are underserved?

Sam A: [00:05:34] Okay, well, it can harm, but we have to bear mind it can help too. So I don’t want to go down the road of saying it just can harm. And we have some charter schools that have done some very good things. We’ve learned from them and we have to understand where a lot of the advocates of these charter schools are coming from. They’re really not that much different from public school advocates, like Deborah Meier, who got frustrated with the public school system. So if I can just go down that road first before answering this other question about where it does harm and it does do harm, especially because we’re dodging the big question about how to help children.

Let me go down that first road. Initially, what we have to concede in fairness to the advocates of privatization is that public schooling in the United States, as much as we might love it, and I do love it, and I think it’s critical to a democracy, was not, a generation ago and earlier, paradise lost. We make a big mistake by saying that public education long ago was paradise lost. As early as 1968, you have Kenneth Clark saying that we have to have an alternative system of education, Ted Sizer, Christopher Jencks, David Rogers, all of these people were very critical of the public education system. They saw a bureaucratic pathology and they saw children being robbed of their opportunity to get an education. You can even take a look for perhaps a more accessible critique, Bel Kaufman’s classic, “Up the Down Staircase.” Now Bel Kauffman was a teacher in the New York City system. And “Up the Down Staircase” was a satire about the absurdity of so many rules in a big city system. Two years later, you get David Rogers’ sbrick of a book, “110 Livingston Street,”  which is a very academic sociological version of the same thing, critiquing the bureaucratic pathology of the system. But Kenneth Clark, for example, wrote back in 1968 in an article in Harvard Educational Review, “the rigidity of present patterns of public school organization and the concomitant stagnation and quality of education and academic performance of children may not be amenable to any attempts at change working through and within the present system.”

That is one damning observation from a civil rights, civil rights leader, Kenneth Clark and Ted Sizer and Christopher Jencks were saying very similar things. Christopher Jencks in 1968 in  The New York Times Magazine wrote that inner city schools were “little more than custodial institutions for keeping children off the street.” So in essence, we have very progressive roots for privatization. You don’t get more progressive than Christopher Jencks, Ted Sizer, David Rogers, and Kenneth Clark. They were disgusted with the public school system and, essentially, Bel Kaufman was making the same argument. And when Debbie Meier pushes for her autonomy in East Harlem, she’s asking for the same thing since she’s very critical of organized labor, too,  the teachers union, because while she was she’s an organized labor advocate and wanted unionized teachers, she adamantly opposed something called building tenure, where the staff had to hire somebody with the most tenure in the system. Now that was eliminated under Joel Klein through something called the open market system, whereby the principals and staff could make the decision about whom to hire. But before that, it was just seniority to determine that choice. So while Debbie Meier didn’t go down the path of privatization, she was pushing for autonomy in development of curriculum, autonomy in development of the day, the schedule, autonomy in hiring. And you have lots of other people in the privatization world who essentially said this can’t happen unless you break off. Now, and we do have, and I can think of many good people in the charter school world who did get so frustrated with the system that they felt that, working in the charter school area domain was the only answer. And they’ve stayed with it. And they’re as dedicated as teachers as any teachers I’ve ever come to know. I think  of a Frank Corcoran at KIPP in the Bronx, I’m thinking of Sharif El-Mekki at the Shoemaker Campus of Mastery Charter School in West Philadelphia. These are very dedicated people who got frustrated with the system.

Now to get to your question, Amy, about what’s negative about this. I’d say the fundamentally negative component of privatization is that we’re dodging the problem. And you can’t expect Debbie Meier or Frank Corcoran or Sharif El-Mekki to, as they say, boil the ocean. We all operate on the margin. We do what we can do. And people like Debbie Meier, and I think she’d be very much in league with people like Frank Corcoran and Sharif El-Mekki, would just say, look, this is what we can do here. But they would be in agreement that what we really have to do is address the underlying problems. And there are advocates of privatization, famously John Chubb and Terry Moe in their book in 1990, “Politics, Markets & America’s Schools,” which is a bible for people of choice, who actually said choice is a panacea, a cure all. That’s not true. We really, and this is the fundamental problem with privatization, is that we’re not tackling the problem head on, and to tackle the  problem head on, we do essentially have to boil the ocean, and that’s not a challenge that many people are up to because of the cost.

And what does it mean? It means high quality preschool. High quality preschool would cost three times more then what Head Start costs. We need afterschool programs. Many of us who’ve been educators or working in programs like Big Brothers, Little Brothers. I did Big Brothers, Little Brothers. I’ve been coaching the Ice Hockey in Harlem program for 14 years. We know the need for these extra programs. We also know how little these extra programs can ultimately do. I mean, they can do something, but there’s so much extra that’s needed and it costs a lot of money and we have to address, you know, water pollution, air pollution, causing asthma. All of these things that we see, these are the systemic problems.

And Paul Tough may be a good illustration of somebody who’s gone through this transformation. In 2012, he came out with a very popular book called “How Children Succeed.” And what he focused on was essentially a critical element of the privatization movement, and that is character education, grit. Okay. So he focused on character education in 2012. In 2016, he came out with a very slim book called “Helping Children Succeed.” So we went from “How Children Succeed” to “Helping Children Succeed.” And his 2016 book, very slim, it didn’t get much attention, and it certainly didn’t get the attention that was necessary for understanding the transmutation of Paul Tough’s perspective. He said, we’re not dealing with this problem head on.

If you take a look at a teaspoon of spittle, you can see cortisol levels for underprivileged children. And they manifest a lack of security. There are nutritional deficiencies that can be detected and these have real neurological impacts. So I’d say in answer to your question, Amy, the real downside of privatization is, and there are other downsides, but the real true downside is we’re not tackling the problem of underperformance head on. And that requires a structural approach to poverty that is too expensive in the eyes of many to take on.

Jon M: [00:13:57] So you’ve obviously just said an enormous amount within the last few minutes that’s really very fundamental. And I want to follow up on a couple of things you said. So somebody like Ted Sizer, you know, with “Horace’s Compromise” about what a typical American high school was like at that time in the eighties, and starting the Coalition of Essential Schools, which Debbie Meier for example, was also very active in, so they were talking about making change within the public school setting. Kenneth Clark, of course, laid a lot of the arguments that got used in Brown vs Board of Ed. And they were saying at the same time that the existing system of public ed was not working for kids, especially for the most vulnerable kids. And then you have the charter school advocates and voucher advocates and others who fundamentally are arguing that the only meaningful public response to failures of the education system is to privatize and for the state to essentially step out of the way as much as possible and hand it over to private entities. So I guess a question I have for you is do you see a way in which there can be a coherent public structuring of education along with the larger structural things you’re saying such as dealing with poverty directly and dealing with the economic issues and the broader issues of society? So what role, for people who are in the education world and whose jobs are teaching or they’re advocates in education, how does that dynamic work between having to make the larger social change and the fact that you can’t be waiting around for “the revolution” to happen? Whereas the privatization people would say just get rid of it all, turn it over to us and everything will be wonderful.

Sam A: [00:16:10] Well, what educators can do and have been doing, progressive educators, is battling this commercial mindset in terms of heavy testing. We’ve got the opt-out movement, for example, which has been pushing that heavily and bravely. So educators should combat this emphasis on testing that has a whole bunch of negative repercussions. School finance is something, you know, is something that also has to be battled. We have Michael Rebell, who’s been leading that fight for decades. It should be much more equal than it is. It depends on the states. That’s been deputized to the states ever since the decision of San Antonio versus Rodriguez in 1973, a 5-4 decision and Lewis Powell writing for the majority of that. There’s nothing in the Constitution explicitly about education.

Jon M: [00:17:06] We’ve had several episodes on those issues, which I urge listeners to go back and listen to. Go ahead.

Sam A: [00:17:13] So in terms of the institutional response, the educational response, we’ve got the pedagogical approach, which means getting rid of this high stakes testing. It’s no longer high stakes as much for the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, as there are no federal penalties if states, if schools, don’t meet adequate, what’s called Adequate Yearly Progress, but still the testing is significant. There’s the value added measurement of how teachers function. All of that stuff needs to be pushed off the table if we’re going to have effective schools. And you don’t have this kind of thing  in private schools, where so many policymakers send their own children. I mean, if you told educators at Sidwell Friends where Barack Obama sent his two daughters, that they were going to be judged by their students’ results, standardized exams, they would walk out en masse. So pedagogically, we we have to battle the testing movement, value added measurement. That’s the only way you’re going to get a well-rounded curriculum because you can’t have a well-rounded curriculum so long as you have this commercial mindset.

To get back to Amy’s original question about the measurement of the effectiveness of schools and teachers, just in terms of these reading and math scores. If you can get rid of all of that testing, then you can have art and music and crafts, which have been pushed to the margin, to say the least, because of this emphasis on testing.

As far as schools, in terms of finance, I think this is being fought at the state level. More than 20 States have come up with equalization formulas. But even with those equalization formulas, there are ways around the equalization formulas where independent school districts can issue bonds for building new schools, what have you, that wouldn’t happen in a poor district. So Massachusetts is a good example of that, which probably has a fairest system for equalizing funding, but still, you can have a town like Newton issue bonds to build a $280 million high school that can’t happen in, uh, Lynn, Lowell, Lawrence, Fall River, Worcester, Holyoke, and Springfield, but it can happen in places like Newton. So institutionally I think that’s what we have to think about. And we also have to think about teacher pay. The strikes that took place in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, back in 2018 were quite telling. Teachers are not getting paid what they ought to get paid. And you can’t have a strong teaching force if you don’t retain teachers. You don’t attract the people you need and retain them.

Jon M: [00:20:01] Before we move further into some of these structural issues within the public education system, how does privatization relate to issues such as separation of church and state in education? 

Sam A: [00:20:12] That’s a burning question and a decided question. And that’s actually, I mean, we’ll see how much more funding religious schools will get now with a decision handed down in June by the Supreme Court in Espinosa versus Montana Department of Revenue. But that decision is huge, and I would say that the big impact of the Trump administration was not anything that Betsy DeVos did. It was his appointment of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, because that meant that they could get that 5-4 decision in Espinosa versus Montana Department of Revenue. That decision meant that if a state has a tuition tax credit scholarship program, It must include religious schools.

So what’s the next step? The next step is in Albany and Boston and Hartford and Sacramento. You are going to have, I predict, huge lobbying efforts by religious school leaders who never had reason to go to the state capitals before for lobby for tuition tax credit scholarships, because all of these states had Blaine amendments, which meant that no public money could go to religious schools. That’s history. The Blaine amendments are done. So church-state, that wall came down to some degree with Zelman versus Simmons Harris in 2002, the decision concerning a Cleveland scholarship program. But now it’s history with this decision in Espinosa versus Montana Department of Revenue.

Amy H-L: [00:21:45] You said that you’re not opposed to drawing on all business lessons for education. What are some key business concepts that you would recommend be adopted?

Sam A: [00:21:57] Well, a good place to go for that, as I noted in the final chapter of my book on Finland, is W. Edwards Deming, a managerial expert who wrote a very good book summarizing a lot of his ideas, called “Out of the Crisis,” published in 1980. And, uh, what he says there that applies very much to education is you don’t want to pit workers against workers. Okay. So for example, value added management necessarily does that. Merit pay necessarily does that.

Jon M: [00:22:27] What is value added management, especially in a school context. What does that mean?

Sam A: [00:22:32] Value added measurement means, if you get a kid who finished seventh grade with certain scores, then your assessment is going to depend on how much you bring him up or see him fade by the end of eighth grade. All right. So it’s on you as a teacher to keep that student moving up. And there’s so many vitiating factors, so many adulterating factors that come into play with respect to what a teacher can do for a particular student. In theory, it looks beautiful, but in practice, it’s horribly messy.

Jon M: [00:23:10] Could you talk a little about that? Because we just spoke with a couple of teachers in Ohio who mentioned that 40% of their assessment as teachers depends on their students’ test scores or on this value added. Why is that such bad policy? What are some of the vitiating factors that you’re talking about?

Sam A: [00:23:31] Well, the most obvious vitiating factor, perhaps the most glaring one, is what it does to the curriculum. Typically the tests are in reading and math, so reading and math scores essentially become the currency of the school district. And you stop teaching, not just art, music, crafts and play. Okay. And don’t teach, play, but stop making time for art music, crafts, and play. You stop teaching history and science. You only teach really what’s on the test. You’re under so much pressure. Speaking of Newton, Massachusetts, I mean, I know of students there and that’s a great school district, where in seventh grade, sixth grade, they do little more than test prep until January. And they’re not doing literature in English. They’re just doing a lot of test prep. So there you have a glaring illustration of the problem with value added measurement. And this is essentially commercial mindset for assessing the impact of schools.

But to get back to W. Edwards Deming. I mean, you know, you want to steer clear of this kind of thing that you just mentioned, assessing teachers by these test scores. But moreover, you need to pay your teachers well to attract them. You can go back to 1915 with Henry Ford’s decision to double the the pay of assembly line workers from $2.50 to $5 a day. And people said that Henry Ford was crazy to do that. And he said, no, this is smart. I can hire the best people. Moreover I drive down the cost of supervision and drive down the probability that anybody’s going to show up to work late or drink on the job because if they lose that job, they’re going to have to explain to their wives. Back in 1915, we’re talking about a male workforce, but they just lost a job that paid twice as much as anything else in Michigan. And sure enough, economists have validated Henry Ford’s reasoning. It’s called the efficiency wage in economics. It costs less to pay more. So that’s a business lesson. We see it in Finland. An upper secondary teacher, that’s grades 10 through 12,  makes 110% of what her college classmate makes. Okay. And if you take a look at Norway, it’s 70%. Sweden, it’s 83%. In Iceland, it’s about 60%, and the United States is about 67%. So you’re priced out as a teacher. You have to pay teachers what other college graduates get paid. 

Moreover you have to give them autonomy, to treat them as professionals.That’s a lesson from professionals, from the business world too, that you cultivate ownership by giving employees autonomy, freedom to make decisions.

And moreover, I’d say lastly, and this is right from Deming as well, managers have to spend time on the floor, so to speak. Deming was a big advocate of that, that the engineers and he was a, he was a deity, remains a deity in Japan. His advice in Detroit was ignored. And he became a deity in Japan. David Halberstam wrote a great deal about this in his comparative history of Nissan and Ford called “The Reckoning,” which I think came out in 1987. And what he said was the engineers really had to be on the floor. They had to know what workers were doing. They had to give workers voice. And in that regard, there’s another lesson that we can take from Alfred Chandler, a great business historian, that you cultivate talent from within. Chandler learned that in the Navy, in World War II, that the best officers groomed people in the Navy and brought them up. And his book, “The Visible Hand,” won the Pulitzer prize, I think it was published in 1977, contended that the best corporations, consequently, cultivate talent from within, bring people up. And much of the commercial mindset in education has been “let’s bring people in from the outside.” And that’s a big mistake because you do need, as people like Alfred Chandler and W. Edwards Deming have acknowledged and documented, real feel for the work, real experience in the field. This is why there’s so much pressure on Biden, and has been, to pick a public school educator to be Secretary of Education. Betsy DeVos was the opposite of that, unfortunately. Even Arne Duncan had never been a teacher. He had been the CEO, which is telling itself in terms of the commercial mindset of education, that we use these corporate titles in public education, in Chicago before becoming Secretary of Education. But he hadn’t been a teacher. And I think if Arne Duncan and so many other people like him, whether it was Alan Berson in San Diego or Joel Klein in New York. These are all very smart, I think earnest, people, had they had, the experience of being teachers, their approach to managing school systems would have been tremendously different.

Amy H-L: [00:28:33] In addition to the great gap in teacher pay scales, what are some key differences between the Finnish education system and ours?

Sam A: [00:28:45] One, they don’t test the way we test. Okay. So there was another lesson from W. Edwards Deming that I didn’t mention. And that is sampling. So W. Edwards Deming said, you take a car off the assembly line. You don’t have to inspect each car. You take one out of, say, a hundred and take it apart. And likewise, what the Finns do and this is very important. Because the Danes don’t do it. The Swedes don’t do it. The Norwegians don’t do it. We do it in the United States. And that is a lot of heavy testing.

What the Finns do,  is they just test 10% of ninth grade, and over a 10 year period, they cover every subject in the curriculum. So it’s not just reading and math. It’s culinary arts, it’s physical fitness and agility. It’s music. And you might have actually, I have this in my book, to the best of my knowledge, the first time this has been published, it’s the national exam program for Finnish  students. And I have all the different subjects, how they’re tested. So for example, let’s see, in , music, two 45 minute exams and then two hours to compose a piece of music and perform it. For woodshop, two 45 minute written exams covering actually visual arts, music and crafts, and then four hours to craft a product in woodshop. They do something similar in culinary arts. So all of these things. it’s one 20 minute background questionnaire, 75 minute written exam, and two 45 minute cooking, baking tasks.

Okay. So the answer to your question. Yes, they pay their teachers better. They prepare them better. It’s a five-year master’s program. All right. So three years in content, two years in pedagogical theory and practice. And this has been since 1979 in Finland. They started phasing it in in 1972, but that’s not true in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, or the United States. So lots of people will reflexively dismiss the citation of Finland. Because it’s small and it’s homogeneous  and there’s a third factor there that’s slipping me right now. Oh, well, relatively wealthy, but the same can be said of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. As I document in my book, the PISA scores –  these are exams given every three years by the OECD – for Denmark, Norway and Sweden  are pretty much indistinguishable from the scores for the United States. But the Finnish scores have been about a half a standard deviation. If we take a look at 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, half a standard deviation above. Things have changed a little bit in Finland. The recession of 2008, 2009 hit Finland very hard. So there have been spending cuts, and the school system has felt it, but in answer to your question, better, pay, better preparation, and then sampling.

And what’s what that’s meant is a much richer curriculum because you don’t crowd out time for those subjects that students are not being tested on in other countries.

Jon M: [00:31:58] Finnish schools reflect the values of Finnish society and American schools seem to reflect the values of American society. So how can the changes that you’re recommending come about? How do we get there? 

Sam A: [00:32:13] This is a great question. And the good place to go again is to, Nordic comparisons. Compare Finland to Denmark, Norway, Sweden. And yes, they’ve got a low Gini coefficient, that is low income inequality, in Finland, much as they do in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. We have high income inequality, but we have real poverty here. We have unequal spending. You can even take a look, speaking of San Antonio at the same time, you have a district which is actually broken up into, I think, six districts. And that’s what led to that Supreme Court decision. It was filed first in 1968 in Texas, that a student in one section of San Antonio, a poor section of San Antonio called Edgewood, would see 50% of the per pupil spending in say an expensive part of San Antonio like Alamo Heights. Okay. That doesn’t happen in Finland. Okay. You don’t have that terrible disparity. So we have a lot of work to do here. They have great health care. They’ve got maternity/paternity leave at 90% pay for the first year. There are a whole bunch of macro differences, but on a micro level, the so-called endogenous institutional level, there are still many things we can do here in the United States. And we should start by getting rid of the standardized testing because once you get rid of the standardized testing, you just need NAEP,  the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Tests are given every two years to a statistically significant sample of fourth graders, eighth graders and 12th graders in every state in the country in math, reading, writing, and science.

We know what’s going on. And all of this testing has crowded out time, as I said, for art, music, crafts, and play, which is so important for enticing kids to come to school. And of course they learn so much math and science in courses like art and music and crafts, and it’s painless.

So can we be Finland? No, we can’t be Finland because that’s a social contract issue and we need the political will to view other people’s children in a magnanimous manner the way the Finns do. I mean, it’s one big family, it’s 5.5 million people. We’re 330 million people. And you can live on Central Park West and not care at all about the children in Frederick Douglass housing projects, and they’re just two blocks away. And that’s a tragedy. But there’s still so much we can do without the macro problems addressed. We have to address those macro problems. And this is what Paul Tough conceded in essentially rejecting his book, “How Children Succeed,” with his book, “Helping Children Succeed,” because Paul Tough said, “You know what,” essentially, and people, reviewers, didn’t get this, he said “I was wrong.” He did a 180 degree turn, in my opinion. And he said, “We’ve got to address the macro.” But in addition to the macro, operating on the margin, we can address the micro. And the micro is get rid of the testing, find ways to pay teachers better. Obviously we have to improve teacher prep. We should follow Finland in that regard. That’s going to cost a lot of money too, but getting rid of the tests, that’s not gonna cost any money.

Jon M: [00:35:27] Thank you so much, Dr. Sam Abrams, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Amy H-L: [00:35:35] And thank you listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles and subscribe to our monthly emails.

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