Back in the 90s, Sweden had free Pre K for all students. There was no selective admissions. Everyone went to public schools. The system thrived, and their first PISA achievement scores were very high.
Then the Swedes bought into school choice. They have the greatest decline in achievement of any OECD nation. What happened? We can learn from them.
Sweden’s education minister acknowledges the slide in quality and blames politicians, not teachers. He says that ‘instead of breaking up social differences and class differences in the education system, we have a system today that is creating a wider gap between the ones that have and the ones that have not.”
The 34 member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report in May 2015 stating that no other OECD country showed a steeper decline in reading, math, science between 2000-2012 than Sweden.
The early 1990s hit Sweden hard. The economy faltered and the new government embraced an extensive reform of public schools. This was the era when privatization of public education gained currency–so to speak. Sweden introduced vouchers for private school tuition. Parents could also choose any public school, not just their neighborhood school. A centralized educational system was decentralized allowing changes at the local level in teacher training and the examination and grading systems. Competition was supposed to strengthen schools and support innovation. Sound familiar?
The economic downturn reduced funding. Class sizes and the use of computers were gradually increased. Teacher salaries were decentralized resulting in high disparities among schools. Teachers have better options and leave the profession. Attracting high qualified teachers is difficult.
WHAT WAS THE RESULT?
The competition among schools had unanticipated consequences. Grade inflation ensued. A complacency among students was noted. Instructional methods were more forgiving. Racial and economic segregation gradually increased. Achievement scores declined significantly.
Vouchers alone did not differentiate areas where achievement declined. Choice for regular public schools further divided communities. Achievement scores declined for both higher and lower socioeconomic groups.
What did increase were the effects of crony capitalism. The business lobby used its influence to thwart demands for more control and regulation. National scandals occurred and public opinion on for-profit schools declined.
What decreased was time in school. Sweden’s children spent 741 hours in school compared to 942 for other OECD countries. As the author noted: “Real capitalists know that corporations can be opportunistic and will cheat on quality if you let them.” He argues that more choice results in a greater need for regulation. It isn’t that choice in itself is wrong, it is choice without regulation creates serious problems.
HOW CAN THE SYSTEM BE IMPROVED?
OECD Recommendations: Ensure quality with equity by:
- raising standards and aspirations for all students;
- supporting immigrant and low income students;
- improving teacher and leadership quality;
- equitably funding schools;
- shifting the system culture to responsibility for results. Integrate independent schools into national planning, improvement and support strategies.
- providing ‘controlled choice’ to ensure a more diverse distribution of students.
Florida’s choice system is different but not better. Our vouchers are tax credit scholarships to private schools. Private schools do not have to follow state curriculum and participate in assessments. Teachers and administrators are not covered by state certification rules. Comparisons between public and private school achievement are not valid.
Charters follow state curriculum, assessment, and certification requirements. Sweden and Florida’s charters have the same issues with teacher salaries and turnover. Student enrollment concerns about resegregation by race and economic status are similar. Problems with corruption and crony capitalism exist in both systems. Florida touts its academic achievement, but in fact it is mediocre. It is time for Florida to face the realities associated with privatization. Thus far we have to take the good with the bad. What is good for some is bad for others.