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Education Policy & Social Analysis

Education and the Commercial Mindset, a new book by Samuel Abrams

America’s commitment to public schooling once seemed unshakable. But today the movement to privatize K–12 education is stronger than ever. A veteran teacher and administrator, Samuel Abrams examines the rise of market forces in public education and reveals how a commercial mindset has taken over. 

For decades, Milton Friedman and his disciples contended that private markets could deliver better schooling than governments. In the 1990s, this belief was put to the test by Edison Schools and other for-profit educational management organizations (EMOs). Edison grew rapidly, running schools in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and many other cities across the country. Yet disappointing academic and financial outcomes soon pushed the company and its competitors to the margins. The focus of EMOs on efficiency and results nevertheless found expression in federal policy with No Child Left Behind in 2002 and Race to the Top in 2009. The new ethos also defined nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) like KIPP that surfaced in the wake of EMOs and flourished. But the dependence of CMOs on philanthropists, tireless teachers, and students capable of abiding by rigid expectations limits their reach. 

Abrams argues that while the commercial mindset sidesteps fundamental challenges, public schools should adopt lessons from the business world. Citing foreign practices, he recommends raising teacher salaries to attract and retain talent, conferring more autonomy on educators to build ownership, and employing sampling techniques rather than universal assessments to gauge student progress. 

On Monday, May 2, from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Milbank Chapel, TC will hold a talk and panel discussion about a new book, Education and the Commercial Mindset (Harvard University Press, 2016), by Samuel Abrams, director of TC’s National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. The book examines the rise of market forces in public education and reveals how a commercial mindset has taken over in public schools across the nation. 

After an introduction by Henry M. Levin, professor of economics and education, Abrams will trace the rise in the 1990s of for-profit educational management organizations (EMOs) like Edison Schools and their demise a decade later; the evolution in their wake of nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) such as Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP; the influence of free-market ideas on federal education policy; and, for international perspective, the divergent paths of Sweden, home to much educational privatization, and Finland, home to none. 

Abrams will be followed by a panel discussion including Carol Burris (EdD '03), executive director, Network for Public Education; Sharif El-Mekki, principal, Mastery Charter Schools, Shoemaker Campus, Philadelphia; LynNell Hancock,professor of journalism, Columbia Journalism School; and Jeffrey R. Henig, professor of political science and education and chair of TC’s Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis.

Abrams and the panelists will discuss how market forces have shaped public schools in the United States, and whether public education can survive. This free event is sponsored by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.

Published Thursday, May. 5, 2016

Education and the Commercial Mindset, a new book by Samuel Abrams

America’s commitment to public schooling once seemed unshakable. But today the movement to privatize K–12 education is stronger than ever. A veteran teacher and administrator, Samuel Abrams examines the rise of market forces in public education and reveals how a commercial mindset has taken over. 

For decades, Milton Friedman and his disciples contended that private markets could deliver better schooling than governments. In the 1990s, this belief was put to the test by Edison Schools and other for-profit educational management organizations (EMOs). Edison grew rapidly, running schools in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and many other cities across the country. Yet disappointing academic and financial outcomes soon pushed the company and its competitors to the margins. The focus of EMOs on efficiency and results nevertheless found expression in federal policy with No Child Left Behind in 2002 and Race to the Top in 2009. The new ethos also defined nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) like KIPP that surfaced in the wake of EMOs and flourished. But the dependence of CMOs on philanthropists, tireless teachers, and students capable of abiding by rigid expectations limits their reach. 

Abrams argues that while the commercial mindset sidesteps fundamental challenges, public schools should adopt lessons from the business world. Citing foreign practices, he recommends raising teacher salaries to attract and retain talent, conferring more autonomy on educators to build ownership, and employing sampling techniques rather than universal assessments to gauge student progress. 

On Monday, May 2, from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Milbank Chapel, TC will hold a talk and panel discussion about a new book, Education and the Commercial Mindset (Harvard University Press, 2016), by Samuel Abrams, director of TC’s National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. The book examines the rise of market forces in public education and reveals how a commercial mindset has taken over in public schools across the nation. 

After an introduction by Henry M. Levin, professor of economics and education, Abrams will trace the rise in the 1990s of for-profit educational management organizations (EMOs) like Edison Schools and their demise a decade later; the evolution in their wake of nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) such as Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP; the influence of free-market ideas on federal education policy; and, for international perspective, the divergent paths of Sweden, home to much educational privatization, and Finland, home to none. 

Abrams will be followed by a panel discussion including Carol Burris (EdD '03), executive director, Network for Public Education; Sharif El-Mekki, principal, Mastery Charter Schools, Shoemaker Campus, Philadelphia; LynNell Hancock,professor of journalism, Columbia Journalism School; and Jeffrey R. Henig, professor of political science and education and chair of TC’s Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis.

Abrams and the panelists will discuss how market forces have shaped public schools in the United States, and whether public education can survive. This free event is sponsored by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.

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