Sweden’s School Choice Disaster

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from Americans for Tax Fairness,

Advocates for school choice might be shocked to see how badly the country’s experiment with vouchers failed.

Advocates for choice-based solutions should take a look at what’s happened to schools in Sweden, where parents and educators would be thrilled to trade their country’s steep drop in PISA scores over the past 10 years for America’s middling but consistent results. What’s caused the recent crisis in Swedish education? Researchers and policy analysts are increasingly pointing the finger at many of the choice-oriented reforms that are being championed as the way forward for American schools. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that adding more accountability and discipline to American schools would be a bad thing, it does hint at the many headaches that can come from trying to do so by aggressively introducing marketlike competition to education.

it’s something of a surprise that a higher fraction of Swedish students go to privately run (and mostly for-profit) schools than in the U.S.* The system was put in place in the early 1990s by a center-right (by Swedish standards) government, inspired by the ideas of the godfather of free market economics, Milton Friedman. In a 1955 article titled “The Role of the Government in Education,” Friedman advocated for a system in which governments would issue vouchers to parents that would be redeemable toward tuition payments at a private school of their choice. This voucher system would allow market pressures to work their magic, as schools would be forced to improve their quality in order to compete for students and their voucher dollars. (Even if governments remained in the education business, public schools would face the same market pressures to maintain enrollment as private schools.)

The hope was that schools would have clear financial incentives to provide a better education and could be more responsive to customer (i.e., parental) needs and wants when freed from the burden imposed by a centralized bureaucracy. And the Swedish market for education was open to all, meaning any entrepreneur, whether motivated by religious beliefs, social concern, or the almighty dollar, could launch a school as long as he could maintain its accreditation and attract “paying” customers.

But in the wake of the country’s nose dive in the PISA rankings, there’s widespread recognition that something’s wrong with Swedish schooling. As part of ongoing efforts to determine the root cause, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (the equivalent of the U.S. federal government’s Department of Education) called for a regrading of a subset of standardized tests administered during 2010 and 2011. In total, nearly 50,000 students at all grade levels from more than 700 schools had their tests in English, Swedish, science, and math re-evaluated.

Two Stockholm University economists, Björn Tyrefors Hinnerich and Jonas Vlachos, have been analyzing the data, and their findings to date demonstrate the many ways that things can go wrong under a market-driven education system. As in many countries, Sweden has standardized tests that are administered to all students nationwide. Performance matters for both students and the schools they attend. Students who do well will have brighter admission prospects. Schools that do well attract more (and perhaps better) students; the ones that perform poorly risk losing accreditation. However, unlike, say, the SAT, which is sent off to be graded at the testing service’s headquarters, in Sweden grading is done locally, often by teachers, often at the school where the test-takers are enrolled. (This setup is not uncommon in the U.S. as well: The New York state Regents Exam is administered to all students and graded by each student’s own teacher.) It’s easy to imagine teachers going easy on their own students.

It’s the darker side of competition that Milton Friedman and his free-market disciples tend to downplay: If parents value high test scores, you can compete for voucher dollars by hiring better teachers and providing a better education—or by going easy in grading national tests. Competition was also meant to discipline government schools by forcing them to up their game to maintain their enrollments, but it may have instead led to a race to the bottom as they too started grading generously to keep their students.

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