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Sam Abrams, Finnish Knight, Defender of Children`s Right to Play

He doesn’t ride to work on a white steed or wear a mail vest, but Samuel E. Abrams is TC’s very own knight.

Abrams is the new director of TC’s National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) and an instructor in the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis. He is also an authority on Finnish schooling. In recognition of his advancement of the understanding of Finnish methods, the Finnish government awarded Abrams the Insignia of Knight, First Class, of the Order of the Lion of Finland in May 2014.

The Holyoke, Massachusetts native has for several years written and spoken about Finnish education. In a widely cited article in 2011 for The New Republic entitled “The Children Must Play,” Abrams wrote that the United States should follow Finland’s lead in emphasizing arts, crafts, and play; in confining standardized testing to small samples of students rather than testing all students; and in granting teachers significant autonomy to devise curricula and assess their students.

After 18 years as a high school teacher of economics and history, Abrams came to TC in 2008 as a visiting scholar to work on a book on school reform. The book grew out of a thesis Abrams had written in 2006 for a master’s degree at TC under Professor Henry M. Levin. To be published by Harvard University Press in 2016, the book addresses the conflict between the prevailing managerial approach to schooling in the United States and a well-rounded education. According to Abrams, the growing focus on test results hinders development of the whole child.

The NCSPE was founded by Levin, the William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, in 1999 amidst a surge in growth of many forms of educational privatization: charter schools; for-profit management of charter schools as well as conventional public schools; vouchers as well as tax credits for tuition at private schools; and commercial operation of colleges and universities.

Levin, for his part, wanted to subject this transformation to nonpartisan, rigorous academic analysis. With the NCSPE, Levin and his staff not only organized and hosted conferences but also posted nearly 220 working papers by scholars from around the world on the research center’s website. As the new director of NCSPE, Abrams said he will continue this work and plans to post a new working paper at the beginning of each month.

Levin said Abrams is a perfect choice to lead the NCSPE.

“He actually has a deeper knowledge of issues about privatization than anyone whom I know. He has gone so thoroughly into the field and is so knowledgeable about it, that he was just a natural to take over.”

Abrams continues the center’s nonpartisan, academically rigorous study of privatization in schools without taking a side pro or con. In this respect, the center is unique among organizations that study this issue.

“We search out papers—not just ours, but from anywhere—that have taken a reasonably balanced approach to privatization issues,” Levin said. “Universities are supposed to study things, and we want to make clear that that is our goal. Our role is to study privatization, not to advocate, not to detract.”

In addition to running NCSPE and teaching Educational Privatization and School Choice (EDPE 4155), Abrams is also immersed in his own research. In January he posted a working paper on the website of Levin’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education that deconstructed the longstanding myth that teachers in the U.S. put in many more classroom hours than their counterparts in countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In setting the record straight, Abrams redirected attention to significant differences in curricula and teacher pay. Entitled “The Mismeasure of Teaching Time,” the study generated a front-page story in Education Week.

Getting comparative data on instructional time right is indeed important. Yet if Abrams is on any knightly mission, it is to protect children’s right to play. “The focus on testing in schools today,” Abrams said, “has reduced essential time for play as well as arts, crafts, and physical education.”

For Abrams, play is personal. He says he learned a lot about empathy, creativity, collaboration, fairness, and leadership through recess in elementary school as well as youth hockey.

Abrams nurtures those same lessons on Friday and Sunday nights during the winter months as a coach of peewees (age 10 to 12) in the Ice Hockey in Harlem program at Lasker Rink in Central Park.

Exercise in cold weather turns out to be a touchstone for Abrams. At the outset of his article in The New Republic, he recounted a conversation in Finland that inspired the title.

“While observing recess outside the Kallahti Comprehensive School on the eastern edge of Helsinki on a chilly day in April 2009, I asked Principal Timo Heikkinen if students go out when it’s very cold. Heikkinen said they do. I then asked Heikkinen if they go out when it’s very, very cold. Heikkinen smiled and said, ‘If minus 15 [Celsius] and windy, maybe not, but otherwise, yes. The children can’t learn if they don’t play. The children must play.’ ”

Published Thursday, Apr. 16, 2015


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