While Swedish education is not in the news nearly as often as it’s higher-performing neighbor, Finland, it only took a mention of school choice to launch a series of articles and blog posts on Sweden in the past few weeks. The original source was an article in Slate by Ray Fisman, provocatively titled “Sweden’s School Choice Disaster.” While few disputed the characterization of the Swedish education system as “in crisis” (with the decline in international test scores as the primary basis), critics, including Andrew Coulson (from the Cato Institute), Tino Sanandaji (from National Review Online), and Coulson again (responding to Sanandaji) were quick to point out flaws in the analysis linking that decline to Sweden’s approach to privatization of public schools and school choice. Those critiques, in particular, point out the problems with connecting in any direct way the effects of a particular policy amidst so many other educational and contextual factors.
Perhaps co-incidentally, the OECD recently released its own report on the Swedish education system – “Shifting responsibilities: 20 years of education devolution in Sweden” – that discusses the larger decentralization agenda that Sweden put in place the 1990’s. Rather than singling out the effects of school choice, that report discusses a number of factors – including the speed with which reforms were pursued, the lack of a systemic vision, and inadequate capacity for local authorities to carry out their new responsibilities – that may have played a role in Sweden’s educational performance.
To get another perspective on the Swedish education system, we talked with Sam Abrams, a research associate at the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College. Abrams, who has written about the different path taken by Finland as well as the intensive use of technology by one for-profit Swedish school operator offering an alternative to conventional instruction, suggested that the problems highlighted in the OECD report derive from an impatience in Sweden for change. Providing a historical perspective, Abrams explained that the Swedes had been ruled by the Social Democratic Party from 1932 to 1976 and again from 1982 to 1991, leading to centralized authority and high taxation along with growing resistance from conservatives desiring laissez-faire policies. “Building on the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Abrams said, “the conservatives in Sweden swept to power in 1991 and implemented a host of market-based reforms, including a full-fledged voucher system for schools. Yet the passion for school privatization and choice outpaced practical concerns about maintaining academic standards, developing teachers, and preventing segregation.” Abrams, who is completing a book for Harvard University Press on international education reform, predicted the Swedes would soon rein in privatization and refocus their efforts at school improvement. As he put it, the Swedes have learned that teachers as well as students want choice, but that choice is no panacea.
All in all, while it’s clear that Sweden has pursued school choice and the educational system as a whole has not improved, understanding school choice and its effects in Sweden needs to take into account the historical, political, geographic, economic and cultural factors that influence the development of the education system and its outcomes. Even for countries like Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, which to outsiders may seem so similar, taken together these factors can generate remarkably different stories of educational development.