In writing Education and the Commercial Mindset, Samuel Abrams set an extraordinarily ambitious agenda for himself: nothing less than an empirically grounded, rigorous analysis of the last twenty-five years of the school privatization movement in the United States. As I noted in my review, the result was a very significant contribution to the literature. There is no other published work that even approaches the thoroughness and care of Abrams’s scholarship on school privatization.
But when an author is as ambitious as Abrams was, it is a real challenge to accomplish everything he sets out to do. There were a few important points where Education and the Commercial Mindset fell short. In his reply, Abrams agrees with my major criticism: that the book did not investigate the symbiotic link between the school privatization movement and efforts to eviscerate teacher unions, and in particular, the role of educational philanthropy in this relationship. He takes issue, however, with four points I made in support of this criticism.
First, he disagrees with my argument that his account of the efforts of KIPP AMP teachers to organize themselves into a union was told from the viewpoint of KIPP management. While Abrams concedes that he did not interview anyone on the union side and that such an interview would have provided a much fuller account of what had taken place, he says that he also did not interview KIPP management on the subject—he relied on the accounts of the school principal and a few teachers. I accept Abrams’s word that he never broached this particular subject with top KIPP managers David Levin, Richard Barth, and Jack Chorowsky when he interviewed them for the book, as noted in his acknowledgements: all three men were involved in the events that took place around KIPP AMP. But the principal in question—whose views clearly shaped Abrams’ account in a significant way—was also KIPP management. At the start of the school year and several months before the teachers organized themselves, he had left the school’s principalship to take a senior position in KIPP management; he only returned to the school after the teachers had announced that they had formed a union to manage what was now a critical issue for the entire KIPP network. Moreover, this principal was the primary agent of the union busting campaign in the school, a campaign that is missing from Abrams’s account.
Second, Abrams complains that I did not credit his analysis of student demographics at KIPP. In my review, I had noted that he “touched” upon the subject, but Abrams finds that wording a slight of his work, which he argues was more substantive. I want to avoid a debate over semantics, so let me be clear about the basis of my criticism. What I found lacking was not Abrams’s analysis of student demographics at KIPP, which is indeed thorough and includes discussion of all of the published literature on the subject. Rather, my issue was that that Education and the Commercial Mindset did not adequately address the significance of those demographics for what is a central contention in debates over school privatization: the claim that KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools are more academically successful than district public schools.
In my review I showed how KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools are able to exercise extraordinary influence over their student demographics, using the lottery process and punitive discipline to minimize the numbers of their students with academic and behavioral challenges. In short, it is the school—and not the parents—that gets to do much of the “choosing” in school choice. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, a school’s academic success has been measured, unfortunately, by the performance of its students on standardized exams. Student demographics engineered to minimize the students who are more challenging to educate provide an extraordinary advantage in comparisons of student test scores among different schools. That is a crucial point which, in my judgment, is largely lost in Abrams’s narrative, left for the reader to infer.
Third, Abrams simply mischaracterizes my argument on KIPP’s “no excuses” educational program: I am not at all concerned with the “intentions” of KIPP founders David Levin and Michael Feinberg in developing this program. American education is littered with examples of the “best of intentions” that have proven disastrous. Intent is immaterial. What is important is how an educational program functions and the effects that it has on teaching and learning. “No excuses” educational programs such as KIPP’s establish an educational vicious cycle: they place extraordinary time and work demands on teachers, leading to burnout and very high rates of turnover. The resultant churn means that their teachers lack the conditions for becoming skilled in a demanding and challenging craft that requires years to master. “Teacher proof” pedagogy and much longer days, Saturdays, and summer months—the hallmarks of “no excuses” educational programs—compensate for that lack of teacher skill, but lead to further burnout and turnover. An educational program so conceived may be able to produce strong student scores on standardized tests, but the ends of education in a democratic polity and society are largely ignored, and too little attention is paid to such higher order skills as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and problem solving.
Fourth, on the matter of the philanthropic advantage enjoyed by KIPP schools, Abrams seems to be retreating from his own argument. In his book he first cites the study I reference, which continues to be the only major scholarly study of the subject, and then recites the criticisms KIPP and other charter advocates made of that study. He describes the exchange as an “intense debate,” but nowhere credits either side as having the better argument, as he suggests now. Indeed, he concludes that “KIPP depended heavily on philanthropic dollars, whether it was $2500 per student or far more.” On this count, his reply feels more like an attempt to score debating points than any substantive difference.
I do not want to end on a negative note. Without question, Education and the Commercial Mindset breaks new ground in the study of school privatization, and sets a high standard of scholarly rigor for work that will come after it. Its flaws are few, albeit important. Any reader concerned with the future of American education and on the role of the school privatization movement in it should read this book.
Leo Casey is executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank and policy advocacy arm of the American Federation of Teachers. While vice president for New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, he directed the union’s charter work. He taught for twenty-seven years in New York City public schools.
Read Leo Casey’s original review of Education and the Commercial Mindset.
Read Samuel Abrams’s response.