Vouchers Improved Sweden’s Schools
School Choice Weekly #47
Last week, a well-regarded education economist from Columbia University wrote an opinion article in Slate saying a universal school choice program has caused Sweden’s student achievement decline. A pile of other researchers examined his data and arguments and concluded he’s wrong. Let me count the ways:
- For one thing, only 14 percent of Swedish schools are private. It’s bad economics to allege this minority deserves most of the blame for average student achievement, especially when private schools perform better, academically, than Swedish public schools.
- In a high-quality study, Swedish researchers found private voucher schools actually improve public school performance. If anything, writes Swedish researcher Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, voucher schools slowed the national achievement decline.
- Research also shows Swedish private schools are less likely to inflate grades than public schools. A central charge in the Slate article was that private schools are inflating grades because parents want that, and school choice allows them to choose schools based on their preferences.
- As every researcher and person who has taken a science class knows, correlation is not causation. And many, many high-performing countries have voucher programs.
- Sweden’s voucher program started about a decade before its test score decline began. That makes it almost silly to suggest vouchers caused the decline.
These faults are largely due to poor interpretations of research. Research also indicates two central causes for the faults in Sweden’s school system, neither of which are the voucher program. Instead, research suggests the real causes for the nation’s academic achievement slide are government regulation and progressive teaching ideology. For one, the Swedish government requires universities to accept all high school grades at face value--in other words, they cannot do as universities do here, which is assign stronger weights to an A in calculus than an A in gym class, or give more weight to schools they know have tougher grading standards than others. This regulation is a core reason for grade inflation, says Cato’s Andrew Coulson. The government likewise requires high schools to accept all elementary school grades equally.
Research points to another central cause of Sweden’s academic decline: a national curriculum installed in 1994, which demanded progressive teaching methods such as student-led classrooms, more “collaborative” group work, and far less memorization and repeated practice with core skills. “Grades have been abolished below the sixth grade, and homework heavily reduced,” writes researcher Tino Sanandaji in National Review Online. When similar methods were installed in Quebec in the early 2000s, student achievement also quickly declined.
“The problem is that we’re not discussing a true market system, but a public-private hybrid,” Sanandaji says. “The private Swedish schools are not really allowed to innovate where it matters, with their pedagogic methods. The curriculum and rules in the classroom are determined by the state, which also trains teachers in the so called ‘modern’ pedagogic theories.”
There are many lessons in this story for both school choice and curriculum control in America. It shouldn’t take a slide in student achievement here to reverse course.
IN THIS ISSUE:
- MASSACHUSETTS: State senators rejected a bill that would have helped the 45,000 Bay State kids on charter school wait lists actually get into the school they want. Because poor families can’t afford to buy their way into better school districts with a bigger mortgage or rent check, tax-credit scholarships also would help lift Massachusetts’ neediest kids into better schools, says a new study.
- FLORIDA: About a third of private school enrollments in the state are students who receive tax-credit scholarships or special-needs vouchers, say new state figures. That’s far more than the 8.6 percent choice students a decade ago.
- TENNESSEE: At a recent public event in Nashville, school choice supporters and critics sparred over whether such policies put children first or degrade the existing U.S. education system.
- LOUISIANA: It’s hard to keep track, but it appears three Common Core lawsuits are now active in the state, and more may be filed. In one, a few Louisianans who support Common Core have sued Gov. Bobby Jindal for deciding to disband Common Core testing contracts. Seventeen lawmakers have sued to stop Common Core, and Jindal’s administration has sued Louisiana’s board of education for granting control over curriculum and tests to outside entities not accountable to Louisiana voters or officials. And it appears the state education board is also preparing to sue Jindal in an attempt to keep Common Core.
- NORTH CAROLINA: Pat McCrory is now the first Democratic governor to sign a bill that would replace Common Core in his state. A new commission will review the curriculum mandates and make revisions it feels necessary.
- OHIO: Legislative leaders who previously refused to support bills to repeal and replace Common Core have changed their tune, introducing such a bill Monday and their intentions to fast-track it. Gov. John Kasich, who has staunchly and publicly backed Common Core so far, has indicated he may listen to grassroots concerns about a loss of local control. It’s not an election year, or anything.
- GLENN BECK: The right-wing superstar held a live #StopCommonCore event in 700 theaters July 22, with a rebroadcast July 29. Read a summary and reaction from a grassroots activist and mother and another from the mainline education press.
- GEORGIA: On August 4, Concerned Women for America-Georgia is hosting a nationwide conference call to discuss the changes to Advanced Placement U.S. History classes and tests. It will feature the prominent critics of the course redesign, who say it teaches the nation’s brightest students a negative, biased view of U.S. history.
- REWARDS: Many teachers aren’t using a powerful tool that can help motivate students to learn more, write Joseph Bast and Herbert Walberg. The tool is rewards, and education psychology can help teachers use it skillfully.
- FLORIDA: Public schools brace for an influx of illegal migrant children from this summer’s wave. Public schools are required to educate non-citizens, and such pupils are more expensive to serve because they have more health and psychological needs and typically can’t speak English well. As an immigration destination, Florida schools are used to handling such situations.
- CALIFORNIA: Union-backed teacher tenure has a good chance to survive beyond court decisions such as a recent one that found tenure sends the worst teachers to the neediest students, writes Larry Sand. He discusses other court cases working their way through the state that essentially continue to shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic.
- CALIFORNIA: In Oakland, two foundations are teaming up to let poor families know small children need to hear lots of words. By age three, children from middle-income homes will have heard 30 million more words than those from poorer homes, on average. This word deficit leads directly into academic achievement gaps that typically never dissipate.
- GENES: About half of a person’s learning ability depends on his genes, says a new study. The study of 15,000 twins also found reading and math ability are linked--people who are good at one are also typically good at the other. Previous studies have reached the same conclusions.
- UNIONS: The nation’s largest teachers union has lost more than a quarter-million members in the past five years and now has fewer than 3 million members. The National Education Association expects still further membership declines.
- PENNSYLVANIA: Philadelphia school leaders have been saying class sizes could balloon to 40 kids if taxpayers don’t cough up even more money for the chronically broke and atrociously performing district. But they must have been educated in their own schools, because their math doesn’t add up.
- MATH EDUCATION: John Saxon was an Air Force Academy instructor, college professor, and curriculum developer who forever changed math education. Read about his battle with the education establishment to bring children a solid math education based on hard work, research and experience, and clear instruction.
Thank you for reading! If you need a quicker fix of news about school choice, you can find daily updates online under the Ed News Roundup at http://news.heartland.org/education.