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Diane Ravitch's Blog: Samuel Abrams Is Stepping Down at the National Center on the Study of Privatization in Education

Educators and policymakers need unbiased analyses of the effects of privatization of education, and that is what the National Center on the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University has provided since it was founded by noted economist Henry Levin in 2000. In 2015, Levin stepped down and was succeeded by Samuel Abrams, who wrote a superb study of The Edison Project called Education and the Commercial Mindset. For the best nine years, Abrams has run NCSPE with integrity. Privatization is rapidly spreading around the globe, and the public needs a reliable source to keep watch on it. I hope that TC can find someone as able and thoughtful to succeed him.

Samuel Abrams wrote this letter about his decision and the next chapter in his career:

After nine years as the director of NCPSE, I’m writing to share that I’m stepping down to become the director of the International Partnership for the Study of Educational Privatization (IPSEP).

IPSEP will be anchored at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Partner institutions will include, to start, the Department of Economics at Stockholm University in Sweden; and the Turku University of Applied Sciences as well as the School of Education at the University of Turku in Finland. To receive IPSEP publications, please sign up here to join the NEPC mailing list (in case you’re not already a subscriber).

The idea for IPSEP derived from my time last year as a Fulbright visiting professor at the University of Turku, where I studied the role of public-private partnerships central to apprenticeship programs at vocational secondary schools. Nearly 50 percent of secondary students in Finland attend vocational schools (in comparison to about 5 percent in the U.S.). Such public-private partnerships make such robust participation in vocational education possible and pave the way to impressive job training and placement.

The private sector has nevertheless failed to distinguish itself in other educational domains in Finland. For example, commercial firms are playing a growing role in managing preschools and running teacher professional development. In both cases, significant questions have been raised about quality. In addition, school districts have allowed tech companies to play a growing role in determining curricula, with iPads and tablets replacing books, which may explain to a significant degree the plunge in reading proficiency among Finnish youth. The mean score for reading for the Finns on PISA dropped from 520 in 2018 to 490 in 2022, which amounts to nearly a year of learning, generating alarmist headlines in newspapers across Finland. A country known since the publication of the first PISA results in 2001 as an education mecca for policymakers seeking pedagogical solutions had lost its shine.

The realm of preschools may be most telling. A company called Pilke is now running 227 preschools across Finland, up from 19 in 2013. Pilke, in turn, was acquired in 2020 by a Norwegian preschool operator called Læringsverkstedet. Both Pilke and Læringsverkstedet now operate as subsidiaries of a parent company called Dibber, which counts over 600 preschools in its portfolio across several countries, from Norway, Sweden, and Finland to Latvia, Poland, Germany, South Africa, the UAE, India, and Hong Kong. In the spring of 2023, workers at Pilke went on strike twice to protest low pay and poor working conditions.

Such outsourcing in Finland echoes what’s happening in its Nordic neighbors as well as countries around the world. Across the Gulf of Bothnia, after all, Sweden went much further in introducing vouchers in 1992, allowing parents to send their children to private schools with public funds and permitting commercial firms to run such schools. Three decades later, about 15 percent of students at the primary and lower-secondary level and 30 percent of students at the upper-secondary level employ vouchers to attend private schools, about 75 percent of which are managed by commercial firms. On top of substantial documentation of corner-cutting by such commercial firms in the name of profits, segregation, grade inflation, and poor academic outcomes overall have been attributed to this dramatic transformation of the Swedish system.

With educational privatization clearly now a multifaceted global phenomenon, there is a need for an international multi-institutional version of NCSPE involving scholars abroad to conduct comparative research and disseminate findings. The outsourcing of management of preschools as well as teacher professional development, the prominence of vouchers in countries like Sweden as well as Chile, and the encroachment of ed tech on classrooms represent merely a slice of this story. Educational privatization has taken many other forms around the world: low-fee private schooling has proliferated across Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Pakistan; “free schools” and “academies” in England (functioning much like charter schools in the U.S.) now enroll more than 50 percent of the nation’s primary and secondary students; and “shadow education” in the mold of after-school tutoring to aid students prepping for exams for admission to secondary schools as well as universities dominates the lives and strains the budgets of many families in many countries.

With NCSPE, Henry Levin laid the foundation for how a research center can address such issues in a dispassionate, rigorous way. While a professor at Stanford serving on an advisory board to assess the implementation of school vouchers in Cleveland in the mid-90s, Levin concluded that a glaring absence of reliable information on educational privatization precluded informed debate. To fill that void, Levin set to work on creating a research center that would provide impartial documentation, publish working papers, conduct research, and hold conferences. Lured in 1999 to Teachers College by then-President Arthur Levine to assume an endowed professorship and establish this center on Morningside Heights, Levin launched NCSPE the following year and ran it until 2015, when he asked me to take over.

It has been an honor to serve as the director of NCSPE. Following 18 years as a high school history teacher, I joined NCSPE as a visiting scholar in 2008 to work on a book on educational privatization. That book became Education and the Commercial Mindset (Harvard University Press, 2016), an exploration of the impact of market forces on public education in the U.S. and abroad. The last two chapters concern educational reform in Sweden and Finland, respectively. In doing the research for those two chapters, which involved school visits and interviews in Denmark and Norway as well as Finland and Sweden, I quickly learned the immense value of comparative analysis. To know one’s home, one must leave it.

In running NCSPE, I have had the privilege of collaborating with a range of gifted scholars in editing their working papers and contextualizing them in my announcements to the listserv. I have also had the privilege of getting to know a parade of visiting scholars from numerous countries and of working with a group of talented research associates who wrote book reviews and news commentaries for the NCSPE site. To all, I express my profound gratitude for all they have taught me. Finally, to Henry Levin, I am indebted for his faith in me to run this center and for his example of erudition, diligence, and openness. Levin has indeed been a role model for scholars everywhere and in all fields.

Going forward, I would like to thank Faith Boninger, Alex Molnar, and Kevin Welner, professors of education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and experts on privatization, for their warm welcome to NEPC. In addition, for making this partnership international, I would like to thank Jonas Vlachos, a professor of economics at Stockholm University and an expert on privatization; Vesa Taatila, the rector of the Turku University of Applied Sciences and an expert on public-private partnerships; and Mirjamaija Mikkilä-Erdmann and Anu Warinowski, professors of education at the University of Turku and experts on teacher education. A board of advisors for IPSEP will be posted on the NEPC site in due time.

NCSPE is slated to remain operating at Teachers College. An update about the center’s status should appear on this site before long.

As I have continued to serve as a visiting scholar at the University of Turku, you may reach me with any questions at

Samuel E. Abrams
NCSPE Director
May 6, 2024


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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...