Tag Archives: Sweden

Government funding and refugee migration in Nordic region

syria_children_refugee_camp

Photo: DFID

Our review of education news this week focuses on Nordic countries, where issues of government funding and the migration of refugees figure prominently. This brief scan shows that for countries such as Finland, Norway, and Sweden, the influx of refugees has implications for the classroom. For example, Norway is launching an innovation competition to teach Syrian refugee children to read. As The Nordic Page reports:

Norway is fronting an initiative to develop a smartphone application that can help Syrian children to learn how to read, and improve their psychosocial wellbeing. This will take the form of an international innovation competition in cooperation with Norwegian and international partners.

Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway, also recently announced that Norway will double its support for education between 2013 and 2017. In a statement published on MSNBC.com, Solberg stated:

The gap in education funding is vast. Reaching the new goals will require concerted efforts and major investments. National governments must lead the way. Innovative partnerships, including partnerships with the private sector, will play an important part. A crucial outcome of the Oslo summit on education in July was the launch of the International Commission on the Financing of Global Education Opportunities, which was welcomed by the UN Secretary-General. 

Similarly, Sweden has recently announced the addition of $3 billion to its national budget, intended to address education and housing issues, and to restore a welfare system that many feel has been depleted in recent years; however, at the same time the country has seen an unprecedented number of 6,901 people seeking asylum in just one week’s time—3,467 of them from Syria. As Reuters reports,

Local authorities will get more than 1 billion crowns extra for integrating refugees this year, with government also increasing spending to support refugee children in school. Total spending on refugees will rise to 19.4 billion crowns in 2016 out of a total budget of around 920 billion and up from an estimated 17.4 billion this year.

In contrast, Finland is grappling with a strong opposition to the influx in refugees, as well as controversial cuts to the education budget. According to The Helsinki Times, these cuts will have implications across all levels of education, but for primary education it will call particular attention to:

…the appropriations for the reduction of class sizes in primary schools. Terhi Päivärinta, a director at the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, believes it is consequently possible that class sizes will grow in some municipalities.

In each of these countries, plans for increases or decreases to educational funding were in the works long before this refugee crisis began. As they are now being implemented under somewhat different circumstances, it will be interesting to see how they unfold in the next weeks and months.

Deirdre Faughey

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Consequences of privatization

Dr. Henry Levin

Dr. Henry Levin

In response to our recent post on Sweden, Henry Levin shared “Evaluating Consequences of Educational Privatization: Ideas and consequences of market principles in education,” a power point presentation from a lecture that he gave at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden, in March of 2013.

The presentation puts the Swedish experiences with privatization in a larger context by highlighting the many different approaches to privatization and discussing the different kinds of outcomes that may be worth taking into account. Thus, Levin points out that educational privatization can mean that schools have private funding; or that schools are operated privately by educational management organizations; or that private schools are afforded government funding, through vouchers or other means.  Even those approaches that use vouchers (such as Sweden since 1992; the Netherlands since 1917; Chile since 1980; and in US cities like Milwaukee since 1990 and Cleveland since 1995) can differ significantly in terms of how they are financed, their regulations/requirements, and the support services that are (and are not) provided.

Despite the fact that many privatization and voucher approaches have been around for some time, Levin argues that the evaluations are particularly difficult both because privatization has become a highly ideological and emotional issue and because there are a range of educational goals that should be taken into account (not just test scores). Levin suggests four criteria that should be taken into account for evaluating educational systems: 1. freedom to choose, 2. productive efficiency, 3. equity, 4. social cohesion. Levin also points out that there are trade-offs and conflicts amongst these different possible outcomes, as well as questions about which criteria deserve emphasis. Broadly, Levin suggests that the research indicates that while privatization increases school choice, it also increases social stratification, but there is little evidence yet on social cohesion. He concludes “we have made progress in understanding the consequences of educational privatization. But as we have expanded the circle of light, the perimeter of darkness has also grown.”

 

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The broader context of school choice in Sweden

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.

Teacher Quality in India, England, Finland, and Sweden

A quick scan of the recent news on teacher quality illustrates the continuing debates over the best strategies to develop the most effective teaching force.  In India, a recent panel discussion suggested there is a divide between those who call for greater focus on attracting the most promising candidates by elevating the status of the profession, raising salaries, and establishing guidelines for professional responsibilities, and those who call for updating teacher training programs so that candidates will be better prepared for the challenges of the profession.

In England, the strategy of using financial incentives and higher standards for professional entry to increase the quality of the labor pool has been in the news again as the Mail Online reports that the number of job applicants for teaching training positions in math and physics in particular has “collapsed.”  Two years ago the UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove, sought to improve teacher quality by withdrawing funding for teacher training to students who achieved only the third class honors degree. The measure put the country in line with other high performing countries, such as Finland and South Korea, but the story reports that the cut-off score contributed to over 700 teacher training vacancies in math and almost 400 in physics. Related reforms include an increase in the number of candidates training in schools rather than teacher training colleges which Geoff Whitty discussed in a recent IEN post. ICTScoop also describes a project designed to recruit new teachers help improve literacy and numeracy in underserved areas as “getting off to a slow start.”

At EDUCA 2013, Thailand’s annual conference for teacher professional development, Pasi Sahlberg explained Finland’s approach to teacher quality. The government has accomplished this by funding teacher education, recruiting the best candidates as teachers, and giving teachers more time to prepare for classes. While what Sahlberg calls this “Less Is More” approach often emphasizes teacher preparation and recruitment, Sweden is experimenting with further investments  in professional development. For example, with funding provided by the European Union, a new project will provide coaching and observation support for teachers in select schools.

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”