Vouchers Improved Sweden’s Schools

Vouchers Improved Sweden’s Schools
July 31, 2014

Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)

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.

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.


School Choice Roundup

Common Core Watch

Education Today

  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)