In a recent paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, “Moving on up? A framework for evaluating equality of access in education, with illustrations from Finland, Sweden and the United States,” Jennifer von Reis Saari shared the results of a study of the ways in which schools in Finland, Sweden, and the United States, track students in math and science. In this post, von Reis Saari briefly describes some of the current concerns about inequality in Sweden and Finland, as well as some of the differences she has documented in the way these countries, and the US, approach tracking.
The recent riots in Sweden are drawing attention to how the assumption that Nordic countries, as well as their school systems, are equitable is oversimplified. Finland, for example, is often considered untracked. However, visitors to Finland are sometimes surprised that the country has a system of competitive school choice at the upper-secondary level, after age 16. In fact, despite the Finnish Minister of Education, Krista Kiuru’s resistance to the publishing of league tables of individual school performance, savvy students and parents are well aware of school rankings, and lists of upper-secondary school averages on national exams are published at the end of May each year. In addition, there is an increasing appetite for more differentiation and choice. In neighboring Sweden, comparatively liberal school choice policies and the allowance of for-profit, publicly funded schools, have coincided with increasing social disparities in educational outcomes. In a study of student persistence in mathematics and science, I found that students I surveyed and interviewed in both countries experienced ability grouping and tracking in mathematics and science during both compulsory school, and upper-secondary school. To characterize Finnish or Swedish school systems as equal, or un-stratified, obscures the ways these systems react to, and create, inequalities.
A closer look at the experiences of students I interviewed in Finland, Sweden, and the United States, however, highlights how critical aspects of these choice and tracking systems, such as the mechanism for allocation (the how, why, and when students choose, or are selected into, particular schools or tracks), the transparency of the system (how clear the different educational choices and their consequences are), and the permeability (the degree of mobility allowed between tracks and schools), can either promote or obstruct the pathways of students who aspire to careers in mathematics and science related fields. In particular, the Finnish education system can be described as more permeable than either Sweden or the United States; the Finnish secondary school students I studied could more freely choose advanced mathematics and science courses and tracks in contrast to their counterparts in Sweden or the United States. They could make these choices even if they were not in advanced mathematics tracks before they reached the secondary level. This seemed to result in a greater retention of passionate, interested students, particularly young men who may have struggled earlier in their school careers.
Focusing on permeability is important not only from a standpoint of equity, but also in terms of efficiency, for retaining and fostering skilled talent in STEM fields. The lack of permeability of math and science tracks may be a particular concern in the United States, where the high cost of post-secondary education and widening disparities between universities and community colleges, which once served to increase opportunities for mobility, compounds lost opportunities during primary and secondary school. Fostering passion for mathematics and science among students may require structures that respond to increasing commitment and performance by providing clear, built-in pathways for upward mobility.
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