Tag Archives: equity

Andy Hargreaves on “Moving: A Memoir of Education and Social Mobility”

This week IEN features an email interview with Andy Hargreaves about his new book, Moving: A Memoir of Education and Social Mobility. Hargreaves is a Research Professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and holds Visiting or Honorary Professorships at the University of Ottawa, Hong Kong University, Swansea University, and the University of Stavanger in Norway.

IEN: Why this book, why now?

Andy Hargreaves: Like one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters who went bankrupt, this book came upon me bit by bit, then all of a sudden. As you’ll understand if you read it, for decades, I intuitively felt that my life and lives like mine weren’t necessarily worth writing about. The children of famous families or who hold down big jobs often make a point of keeping a journal of their experiences, because they feel they are or will be notable and become someone whom people will want to read about in the future.

Like one of Ernest Hemingway’s
characters who went bankrupt,
this book came upon me bit by bit,
then all of a sudden.

My life never had that kind of plan. In a working class mill town, keeping a journal was not a luxury we could afford or an affectation we could even countenance. But slowly and surely, while I have always cared about social justice, I began to sense that I was also a part of what I was writing about. So bit, by bit, here and there, I would insert short passages into my writing to explain how my research was in some ways connected to my own life. We would now call this positionality.

If there was a key moment, though, it was probably sitting with my Mum during her dying days, at the age of 93. My Mum had lived a working class life. She left school at 14, worked in factories, got married during World War II, lived in rented housing then public housing, raised her children through austerity, and then became widowed at the age of 43. Trying to raise three boys she was what we would now call an “essential worker”. She had three jobs cleaning people’s homes, working in local stores and looking after other people’s children. When I was in my early teens, she eventually collapsed with a nervous breakdown, and we moved onto welfare.

In the memoir, I describe this moment when I found her life to be an inspiration, like this:

After she lapsed into apparent unconsciousness, I sat with her for the best part of nine days until her final breath. I thought the time would pass slowly, but the hands raced around the clock at the end of her bed. Over many hours and days, I wrote a short piece about her life—the stories she told, the experiences she had, the things she did—at first, just for its own sake, and because, as a writer, I knew it was one of the few things I could usefully do.

The narrative took on a shape, and I sent it off to the Lancashire Telegraph that my mum used to have delivered every day—a widely read daily paper across one of the most populated counties in England. I submitted it not as an obituary but as a tribute to my mum and also to a way of life shared by women and families like her throughout the region.The editor wrote back, asked for some photographs (which we had luckily already collected for Mum’s ninetieth birthday, her last big bash), and announced they would publish it as a major feature. Just a couple of days before Mum died, when all the fluid had practically gone from her body, I leaned right over her with family members gathered around. I had no idea whether she could still hear.

“Mum,” I said, “I’ve something to tell you. I’ve written a piece about you for the Lancashire Telegraph. They say they are going to publish it as a double-page spread complete with pictures. It’s all about you and your life, Mum. A double-page spread. Here’s how it starts.” I turned to my text. “Here’s the headline”—the one the editors had assigned to it—“How a Loving Accrington Mum Scrimped and Worked for Her Family.” And then I began, “Doris was born in a commode at the back of a sweet shop in Accrington, two years after the end of the Great War . . .” Barely two sentences in, something happened that we thought was no longer physically possible. From the corner of my mum’s eye, out of a tiny frame that had received no fluid in over a week, a single tear fell slowly down her cheek. Then I stopped. She understood. She knew. And so did I. This life, these lives—lives like ours—are absolutely worth writing about, as many people appreciated when they wrote back to me about the piece in the weeks that followed.

https://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/bygones/10870126.loving-accrington-mum-scrimped-worked-family/

This was really the impetus, the moment when I felt there was something worth saying not just about myself and my Mum, but about ordinary people like us everywhere, of all races and identities within the working classes, who struggle and sacrifice, and give things up so their children can have a better chance in life.

The challenge was now to find the time to write and perfect it, to develop it not as just a nostalgic memoir, but as a literary narrative about something in particular – the experience of working class upbringing and social mobility. This was an experience, I felt, with which many educators and other readers all across the world could identify. Some of this time I created myself, when I was in the midst of a very stressful and quite draining senior leadership responsibility. Taking an hour or two a day away from the escalating crisis I was trying to resolve, helped me create something that felt positive and renewed my energy in my daily work. Then, a perverse twist of fate came about when I broke my ankle hiking the Appalachian Trail, and could not travel for three months. This gave me the time and intense focus I needed to craft the memoir over countless drafts to the standard it really required.

IEN: What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?

AH: I learned a lot about social mobility. I discovered who invented the concept (the Russian-American immigrant Pitrim Sorokin, in 1927), and what baggage it brought with it. For Sorokin, social mobility – aka the American Dream – isn’t just about helping individuals move on and up through the various levels of social stratification. It’s also about greater equity – about moving those levels closer to each other. I consolidated my existing knowledge that the UK and US (unlike Canada), have two of the worst rates of social mobility in the world, and that these rates have been deteriorating from the golden age of social mobility during the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up, right through to the present. I learned that there are many different subjective experiences of being socially mobile. There are:

  • Individually heroic and triumphant ones like in Tara Westover’s Educated; · scornful ones about the culture one has escaped from like JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy;
  • Ambivalent and angst-ridden ones about living being between two cultures and belonging to neither, like most British narratives of mobility;
  • In-your-face defiant ones, like Canadian rap-star Drake, who “started from the bottom”, now his whole “team’s f****ing here”;
  • Ironic and satirical ones like US talk-show host Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime;
  • Brilliantly irrepressible ones like the sheer achievement of working class figure-skater, Tonya Harding’s triple axel, which overcame the prejudices against her held by elite judges (as depicted in I, Tonya).

I also learned a lot about myself and about how to come to terms with who I once was and how this had profoundly influenced the way I go about my work today. For the first time, I addressed what it was about a selective education system that eventually sent me across the country to university, while my two brothers went to work in factories at the bottom of the street. For the first time, I thought, wrote, and spoke about the fact that I had been a child with ADHD (known as “highly strung”) at the time. I credited the one teacher who intuitively understood this about me for helping to shape the path of my entire life. And I learned that mental health issues I have faced as an adult from time to time – depression, feeling utterly overwhelmed, completely disorganized, taking too much on, and getting distraught about letting other people down, have their roots in these childhood years.

For the first time, I addressed what it was
about a selective education system that eventually sent me across the country to university while my two brothers went to
work in factories at the bottom of the street.

I have confronted issues that were difficult for me as an adolescent. I had to hide the fact that for many months after my Dad died, I had to raise my family instead of my family raising me. I felt ashamed about the trouble I had with the local gang when I was the only one left in the neighbourhood who was still going to high school on the other side of town. I had to endure homophobic insults (that I didn’t really understand at the time), and physical violence (I’m talking boots, studs and belts) that I had not only to survive, but find a way to surmount so I would be left alone. I have learned to look back on all this with acceptance, irony and even humor – not just to come to terms with who I was and who I am now, but also to find a way to connect these experiences to countless numbers of people like me. And that’s one more area of learning. For my quest as a writer has not been to compete with the upwardly mobile narratives of unbelievable survival by the likes of Westover and Vance. It has been to use and develop my skills in language and storytelling, to help others with their ordinary but very real struggles to see something of themselves and the children that they teach in the experiences I describe. As I write in the memoir:

this book could never have been written without the existence of the lives that it describes—the everyday and often invisible lives of ordinary citizens who drive our buses and taxis, make our clothes, fix our appliances, clean our homes, keep us safe, serve us in the local store, and look after our children. The book is meant to speak especially to all those who have made sacrifices, given things up, left behind homelands, or taken on extra jobs so that they or their children could have the best-possible chance in life.

IEN: What do you hope those working on education around the world will get out of this book?

AH: I hope readers will feel that this book will resonate with realizing that social mobility doesn’t just happen by developing grit and resilience in individuals to help them navigate unchanged systems. There also need to be systems of culturally responsive pedagogy, inclusive curriculum, wraparound schooling that supports the whole child, and an end to discriminatory high-stakes testing, so we can support children who grow up in challenging circumstances. I hope educators will come to see that their task is not just to help kids beat the odds in a rigged system, but also to change the odds so that the system’s no longer rigged.

I wrote much of this memoir in the years of Brexit and Trump, and during the rapid growth of racism, populism and xenophobia around the world. The people I come from are some of the hardest working, deeply loyal and most welcoming you could possibly meet. They are also suspicious of outsiders, and resentful towards condescending elites. We cannot and must not write off the white working class by renaming it euphemistically as middle class, by associating it only with pitiable poverty, by removing all its claims for sympathy or advocacy because it also possesses undeniable racial privilege, or by looking down on it as a “basket of deplorables” and tasteless white trash. (For more on this see my piece on Leadership Ethics, Inequality & Identity)

If it is regarded as invisible or deplorable, the white working class will and does react by stigmatizing others – being prejudiced toward immigrants and racial outsiders and displaying inverse snobbery towards liberal elites. My narrative, and the narrative I think we need now in America and across the world, is not to rank the various struggles of marginalized and oppressed groups and pit them against each other, but to develop empathy among the many among us who struggle. My purpose is to help us all to draw on and face our own suffering so we can understand the even greater suffering of others, so that we can all strive together for shared equity and common dignity. For as Adam Smith once wrote, “sympathy is the basic emotion of democracy”.

IEN: What’s happened with you since you wrote the book?

AH: The pandemic happened. We had to cancel multiple book tours and writers festivals for groups up to 5000. We delayed publication for two months so we could figure out how to bring the work to people’s attention in the new environment. I am now discussing this memoir in book clubs of up to 1000 in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and elsewhere. Although I miss face to face teaching dreadfully, I am enjoying these more intense interactions around the book that are bringing other people’s lives and struggles to the fore, as well as my own. Even in a pandemic, we have to think about the opportunities as well as the problems before us. My mother, Doris, was named after the nurse who saved my grandfather’s life by caring for him in hospital during the 1918 flu pandemic. And now, all of a sudden, this book seems to speak to the lives of all the essential workers and their families on whom we have been relying so much. In the book, I wrote a passage that could well have been a tribute to all the essential workers and their lives today:

As you move up, on, and out, you hope you’ll continue to stand up for and stand with others against injustice and exclusion. Despite all your travels across different countries and cultures, you hope that when you open your mouth, people will still know where you come from. You hope you’ll retain some of your interests and TV-viewing habits, however unsophisticated and unfashionable they may be amongst the intellectual elite. You hope you’ll remember to treat all people with respect and dignity and acknowledge their humanity by thanking and conversing with them—the driver who lets you off the bus, the waiting staff at a conference dinner who never get noticed or receive any tips, and the people cleaning the toilets in the train station or the airport—because you remember how your mum used to clean people’s houses and how, when your own children were small and you were struggling financially, your wife was a waitress in the local pub and sold Avon cosmetics door-to-door in the evening. You also hope you do all this simply because it’s the decent thing to do.

It’s not enough just to clap for our essential workers now. It’s essential we rethink how as educators, we connect with and include their lives and cultures in the curriculum, and even in how they can have a space on their CVs to talk proudly about their family lives and responsibilities compared to the travel, hobbies and internships enjoyed by their more privileged peers.

IEN: What’s next — what are you all working on now?

AH: In terms of my research and writing, Dennis Shirley and I have just completed a book on Student Engagement: Beyond Relevance, Technology and Fun. It draws on our research work in the US Pacific Northwest, Canada, and the UK, to help educators rethink student engagement as being not just a psychological or individual challenge, but also as a social issue that requires changes in cultures, institutions, and policies too. This is especially true, we argue, during and after the pandemic. Organizationally, I am co-founder and president of ARC, a group of 6 nations (7 systems) and their Ministers and teacher union leaders who support and promote core values of broad excellence, equity, inclusion, wellbeing, democracy and human rights in professionally run systems. We have an annual summit and have found that peer interaction among the systems has provided invaluable learning and solidarity during the pandemic. We have produced several papers and op-eds coming from this work including one in the Washington Post and one for the Albert Shanker Institute (that originally appeared in The Conversation).

Finally

I hope readers enjoy the book and see something of themselves and the people they teach in it. Some of it is meant to be poignant and moving in places. But there are more joyous and funny parts as well. It only goes up to age 22, so perhaps one day there will be one or two sequels, if demand warrants it. If you read it, please write back and let me know what you think.

hargrean@bc.edu Twitter: @hargreavesbc

Leading Futures: Alternative Perspectives on Education Reform and Policy

Series Editors Alma Harris and Michelle Jones

The global discourse about educational policy and change has narrowed considerably because of a preoccupation with the high performing systems, as defined by large-scale international assessments, and the factors that contribute to their success. Building on Alma Harris and Michelle Jones’ book, Leading Futures: Global Perspectives on Educational Leadership, the Leading Futures series is premised on the contention that more contextual and culturally sensitive accounts of educational change are needed in order to consider broader attributions and explanations of educational performance.

The Leading Futures series provides a platform for sharing different views on the process and practice of changing education systems for the better. Its intention is to open up the contemporary debate on school and system performance through critical policy analysis, empirical enquiry and contextualized accounts of system performance.

This post by Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Jan Heijmans and Job Christians is the first in the Leading Futures series.

The Dutch Way: Is the Netherlands a best kept educational secret?

Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Jan Heijmans and Job Christians.

Unlike many other education systems, the Netherlands appears to be delivering both educational quality and equity. So why does the Dutch system do so well? To attribute its success to a handful of structural features or to certain strategies is one way to go. However, accurately identifying causal attributions for better system performance is far from straightforward or fool proof. In complex education systems there are often multiple reasons for better outcomes that interact and intersect.

In this post, we argue that the Dutch system provides an example of “principled educational performance,” combining a focus on democratic values with an approach to policymaking that relies on both collaboration and autonomy.

The Dutch system in context: Educational quality and equity

The global interest in the high performing education systems shows no signs of slowing down. The interest in borrowing from the best has placed the international spotlight on a select group of education systems and not others. Earlier this year, the OECD published “Supporting Teacher Professionalism,” drawing upon the 2013 TALIS survey in order to explore teachers’ and principals’ perceived professionalism. Thirty-four countries were scored on three measures: teachers’ professional knowledge, work autonomy, and access to peer networks. Of all the education systems that scored highest on the index of professionalism, seven were in Europe and the Netherlands placed fourth in this group.

The Dutch education system is not necessarily on the radar of policy makers in search of better performance but a quick look at the Dutch system makes interesting reading. The evidence shows that Dutch students perform very well in international student assessments and as a country, the Netherlands has remained just outside the PISA top ten, for successive rounds. At the primary level, results from both the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS assessments indicate an exceptionally good performance for Dutch students aged nine to ten. Among all participating countries, in these international assessments, the Netherlands was only outperformed by seven countries in mathematics and science, and by nine countries in reading.

Turning next to the all important PISA scores. In 2012, 15-year-olds in the Netherlands achieved results significantly above the OECD average in the 3 areas tested (mathematics, reading and science). Only two other OECD countries achieved significantly higher performance levels in mathematics. In 2011, the Netherlands had the lowest rate of 15-29 year-olds not in employment, education or training across all OECD countries: 7% compared to an OECD average of 16%. While there are some who argue that above average is not good enough, from different vantage points and using different indicators it would appear that Dutch education system is performing well.

Yet, the Dutch seem to be remarkably quiet about their educational successes and accomplishments. Possibly this is because unlike some of their near European neighbours, they are not among the big hitters in PISA. Yet, they have a track record in educational equity that should be the envy of many countries in Europe and beyond. Take for example the fact that the Netherlands has fewer low performers and more high performers than the OECD average. Significantly fewer Dutch 15-years-olds scored below the PISA performance level 2, which is believed to mark the basic competency which enables active participation in a society. The impact of student socioeconomic background on performance in mathematics was less pronounced in the Netherlands than at the OECD average. The Netherlands also has an above average proportion of resilient students i.e. students who manage to overcome difficult socio-economic circumstances and exceed expectations, when compared to students in other countries.

It is no accident that the Netherlands is one of the OECD’s most devolved education systems, with schools enjoying a high degree of autonomy. This particular brand of autonomy however is not to be confused with increased privatization of schooling or the erosion of local control of schooling. Rather, this particular brand of localalized empowerment is based upon the principle of freedom of education where public and private schools are on an equal footing and all schools receive public funding, provided that they meet the requirements for schools in their sector. In the Netherlands, all teachers receive high quality teacher training at bachelors and masters level plus there is a great emphasis on teacher autonomy and professionalism. The Education Cooperative, which involves over 200,000 teachers, is run by teachers for teachers with the chief aim of safeguarding the quality of the profession.

Before concluding that the Netherlands is some educational utopia where schools and teachers are blissfully free from any interference, think again. The central government sets learning objectives and quality standards that apply to both public and private schools. The Inspectorate of Education monitors school quality and compliance with central rules and regulations. Unlike many other education systems however the Dutch system balances support and pressure in a positive way. While there is a framework of standards, with broadly formulated goals, there are also additional resources and teaching support in schools that need it the most. If schools improve, they are rewarded with more autonomy and freedom to innovate, if they are considered high performing they can apply for Excellent School status.

Of particular note is the fact that the Dutch education system is not overly encumbered with regulation, prescription and standardisation. There is no national curriculum in the Netherlands, however certain learning objectives are stipulated by the Ministry and are expected to be met at the end of primary and lower secondary education. There is testing in the Netherlands and notably, the system stands out internationally for its high-quality standardised assessments. While the issue of testing remains for some Dutch educators somewhat controversial, on balance, the pressure to compete and perform is not as acute as in many other countries. The norms of the Dutch society are collaborative and this threads its way through the very fabric of schooling. Competition hardly plays a role in Dutch educational culture; students are seldom graded against each other or expected to compete against one another.

In terms of equity, the Netherlands is a particularly strong system example. It is the only country participating in PIRLS where all students achieved, at least, the low international benchmark of performance in reading. In addition, 99% of the Dutch students achieved at least the low international benchmark in mathematics and science in TIMSS. Young people in the Netherlands, up to age of 18, must attend school until they attain a basic qualification and there is a strong policy on truancy and absenteeism. The Ministry has signed performance agreements on student dropout with municipalities and schools in 39 regions, which ensures that the most vulnerable young people are supported. In 2006, the government introduced a successful program (Aanval op de uitval) with a regional approach to promote school success and to avoid early school drop outs. A recent OECD report shows that in terms of low-performing students, the Netherlands is far below the OECD average. In the Netherlands, students from low socio-economic backgrounds are 1.72 times more likely to be low performers than their peers with high socio-economic status which is below the OECD average (2.37 times). A higher proportion of Dutch disadvantaged students attend schools with students from better-off backgrounds than the OECD average.

In summary, the Netherlands demonstates a strong comitment to collective and equitable development. As Professor Wilma Vollebergh, University of Utrecht and Netherlands Institute for Social Research reports, it has a social culture and Dutch educational policy-making reflects power-sharing and consenses in decision-making. Such strong cultural norms and values are at the heart of educational practice and largely explain the performance of its education system. The national belief in fairness, equity and justice not only drives the education system but also, at a practical level, translates into a collective effort to ensure success for every child in every setting. A recent study of 200,000 students from 42 countries concluded that Dutch students are happy and have high levels of well-being.

What can we take away from the Dutch approach? 

So what can we take away from the Dutch education system? Essentially, there are three things. First, that the Netherlands does not rely on school competition or market forces to secure better educational performance. Conversely, it relies on strong collaboration between teachers and schools to raise achievement and attainment. Second, it does not exclude students from its education system who are disadvantaged, marginalised or are refugees from another country. Instead, it makes every effort to ensure that young people, from all backgrounds, do not leave school early and that they enter the workforce qualified to participate.Third, the Dutch system shows that it is perfectly possible to combine educational equity and quality. While some may argue that there is more work to be done, compared to many other countries the Dutch education system is undoubtedly moving in the right direction.

For those interested in navigating the slopes of quick-fix, high performance, the Netherlands is categorically off-piste. The Dutch way is epitomized by a long history and a proud tradition of building civic society around democratic values that continue to define both an education system and a country. In years to come, when the high-octane remedies for better educational performance have been over-sold to the point where they have lost their lustre and attraction to policy makers, Dutch educators will still be striving, in their quiet but determined way, for educational excellence through equity. With hindsight, it might indeed be the case, that one of our most principled educational performers was there all along.

Notes on Authors

Dr. Alma Harris is Professor of Educational Leadership and Director of the Institute of Educational Leadership at the University of Malaya.

Dr Michelle Jones is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Educational Leadership at the University of Malaya

Dr. J. Heijmans is Chair of the Executive Board KPZ (teacher training Center Zwolle) in the Netherlands.

Job Christians is a former teacher and founder/director of Onderwijs Maak Je Samen (organization for professional development) in the Netherlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scanning the globe

Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach

Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach

Several reports over the past month highlight the variety of causes that are blamed for failures to improve educational performance around the world. This short scan of reports focusing on issues like school quality and test-score performance, reveals typical concerns about teacher training and teacher quality, questions about the language of instruction and equality of education, as well as questions about the choices policymakers have made and the “policy churn” that can undermine implementation.
 

School Quality

Earlier this year in Sweden, 11,000 students were left without a school to attend when the private education firm that operated it went bankrupt. According to an article published online by Reuters, additional concerns raised about the quality of education in these schools led the opposition Green Party, a long-term proponent of school choice, to issue a public apology in a Swedish newspaper, with the headline: “Forgive us, our policy led our schools astray.”

In Vietnam, concerns have been expressed over the quality of care and education children receive in privately operated preschools. Referring to the government policy to privatize education as a failure, thanhniennews.com writes that limits placed on the growth of public preschool facilities has allowed private preschools “of dubious quality to mushroom.” Another article, posted on Vietnam.net, points out the additional problem of inadequate teacher training in provincial and privately operated preschools.

Test-Score Performance

In Malaysia, we see a debate over the cause of the decline of TIMSS scores. The World Bank released a report that found the decline to be caused by the switch in the language of instruction from Bahasa Malaysia to English. However, an article in The Malay Mail online cites the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE), for pointing out that in 2007 (the year scores declined sharply), the students had yet to receive their instruction in English. Instead, PAGE attributed the decline to the poor quality of teachers and insufficient teaching hours. The Education Ministry announced plans to form a panel to investigate Malaysian students’ decline in performance.

Finnbay.com reports that Krista Kiuru, Finland‘s Minister of Education and Science, has allocated €22.5 million in state aid to promote equality in education for the period 2014-2015 to regain Finland’s top seat in PISA. “Success of Finnish education in international comparisons must be regained by having educational equality and non-discrimination,” said Kiuru.

Educational Improvement and “Policy Churn”

Despite declines in New Zealand students’ test scores, The Otago Daily Times reports that Education Minister Hekia Parata will not do anything differently. Parata attributes the slide to 10 years of a changing education system and not its controversial National Standards assessments, or a lack of school funding. According to Parata, Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General, has assured her that the country is already doing “what they recommend should be done when you want a whole of system change.”

The Nation has reported that the recent political upheaval in Thailand could mean that the sweeping curriculum-based overhaul of the education system might not come to fruition. The country had planned radical changes, such as decreasing the number of school hours for primary students from 800 to 600 per year, and requiring that students learn outside of the classroom for up to 400 hours per year. In addition, the Pheu Thai party’s controversial, yet “much-touted election policy” called the One Tablet PC Per Child Project, might not be implemented. Other policies at risk of being shelved include changes to the university admission system, promotion of vocational education, and the ongoing effort to improve Thailand’s international educational ranking.

Equality of access in math and science in Finland, Sweden, and the United State

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.

Jennifer von Reis Saari

Jennifer von Reis Saari

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.

For more information:

“Equity trends in the Swedish school system: A quantitative analysis of variation in student performance and equity from a time perspective”

“School choice and its effects in Sweden”

“Middle class children’s choices to avoid local schools”

“Tracking Effects Depend on Tracking Type: An International Comparison of Students’ Mathematics Self-Concept”