Thursday, December 12, 2013

And national experiments

I strongly believe in being careful when generalizing the results from one country to another, particularly when those countries are as different as the US and Sweden. On the other hand, when considering radical shifts in national policy, you have to at least consider how well those policies have worked in other countries.

Somewhat surprisingly, Sweden is perhaps the best test we've had of the kind of privatization advocated by many in the education reform movement. As a result, the country's reforms were embraced by such unlikely supporters as the Heritage Foundation.

Here's a 2010 Foundation interview with Thomas Idergard, Program Director of Welfare and Reform Strategy Studies at Timbro, a "free-market think tank" based in Stockholm:
The Swedish school voucher program was introduced in 1992 by the then Center-Right government. First, the Social Democrats opposed the reform, but after having returned to power in 1994 they not only accepted it but also expanded the legislated compensation level of the voucher. Today there is almost a total national political consensus—with the one and only exception from the small Left (i.e., former Communist) Party—on the foundations of school choice in Sweden.

Since the 1970s, the Swedish school system had declined regarding quality and student attainment. One reason for this was the lack of choice. Only the very rich, who could afford private schools with private tuition fees on top of our very high taxes, had a right to choose. For all the rest, the school was one monolithic organization in which all students were considered to have the same needs and to learn the same way. The lack of choice created a lack of innovation regarding pedagogical concept and ways of learning adapted to different students’ needs. Public schools, run by politicians in the local branch of government (cities and municipalities), were all there was for 99 percent of all students.

The school voucher program was designed to create a market—with competition, entrepreneurship, and innovation—based on the Swedish and Scandinavian tradition of social justice and equality: All families should be able to choose between public and private schools regardless of their economic status or wealth. This equal opportunity philosophy, taken into its full potential, created an education market!
Since the calls for American reform are often based on low PISA scores and since a new round of scores have just been announced, it would be reasonable to check what has happened to Sweden's scores:
No other country has fallen so abruptly as Sweden in maths over a ten-year span. Overall, not one of the other 32 countries included in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey has seen its students take such a beating in their studies.

"The bleak picture has become bleaker with the Pisa review that was presented today," Anna Ekström, head of Sweden's National Education Agency (Skolverket), said after she became privy to the results. She had hoped for Sweden to finally buck the trend and stop declining in the ranking.

Sweden's schools now rank below both the United States and the UK according to the Pisa rankings.
I've never been a fan of using international test scores (even less so after this history lesson from Diane Ravitch), but if you are going to use such arguments they need to be what my business analyst friends call "directionally accurate." Recently we've seen a lot of arguments that don't clear that bar.

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