What Americans can learn from Sweden’s school choice disaster

25 Jul, 2014 at 11:02 | Posted in Education & School | 4 Comments

School_ChoiceAdvocates 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.
There are differences between the libertarian ideal espoused by Friedman and the actual voucher program the Swedes put in place in the early ’90s … But Swedish school reforms did incorporate the essential features of the voucher system advocated by Friedman. 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 …

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 … Competition was meant to discipline government schools, but it may have instead led to a race to the bottom …

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 …

Maybe the overall message is … “there are no panaceas” in public education. We tend to look for the silver bullet—whether it’s the glories of the market or the techno-utopian aspirations of education technology—when in fact improving educational outcomes is a hard, messy, complicated process. It’s a lesson that Swedish parents and students have learned all too well: Simply opening the floodgates to more education entrepreneurs doesn’t disrupt education. It’s just plain disruptive.

Ray Fisman

[h/t Jan Milch]

For my own take on this issue — only in Swedish, sorry — see here, here, here and here.


  1. I posted a similar story, maybe its the same, on Diane Ravitch’s website. She is a one woman wrecking crew against the school choice movement in the US.

    • Ravitch’s website looks very interesting. Thanx 🙂

  2. I disagree with Ravitch’s understanding. Many charter schools here in NYS are Public Charter Schools which means, primarily, that the teachers are not members of the Union. The Union (UFT) has a strange relationship to teachers and administrators in terms of its effect on educational quality or student achievement. As you know, teachers are rarely fired or given a poor evaluation by adminstrators but that does not mean that administrators are not feared or that there is no contest between Union activist teachers and administrators in terms of teaching quality and results. The Union’s strongest argument is their ability to improve teacher salary!

    Consider a school where the teachers have very high fail rates of students on their report cards. Clearly, this indicates a tension between teachers and students over student work quality, student attitudes and behavior and whether students pay attention or study. But, this also reflects a tension with administration who are not permitted to address teacher’s grading policy beyond a very general notion. So, teachers can typically fail more than one-half of their students without accountability and this ‘prerogative’ cannot be sanctioned by administration. Students in NYC are often unable to master math and reading skills and this is attributed to parental or family life circumstances.

    Teachers are also empowered by their Union to resist any administrator intervention into their classroom over teaching style and administrators are restricted in the quantity of observations they can or should make. The result is a competitive atmosphere between administrators and teachers and then between groups of teachers who are pro-union and those who are not; the pro-union teachers see their role as resisting and opposing administration on principle and policing teachers over their attitudes towards administrators and students. The pro-union teachers do not address how to run the schools more efficiently or how to teach so that students actually learn and demonstrate their proficiency – instead they undermine at every turn other teachers and administrator interventions including State and National curriculum changes The result is a punitive stance by small cliques of teachers against admin, other teachers and students empowered by the Union. Cliques which are, like ‘gangs,’ not explicitly addressed except as individual attitudes and behaviors; there is no ‘group dynamics’ or ‘organizational psychology’ in education! Administrator responses are to attempt to form admin-friendly coalitions and to reduce faculty advantages through budgetary and time reductions.

    The Charter School Movement is meant to change this nonsense. Higher pay and greater responsibilities along with greater expectations for success are thought to cause improvements even though the keys are student attitudes towards their own education and teacher effectiveness.

  3. The teacher union cabal might be true but Massachusetts does the best – by far better than Texas – and its unionized up the yahoo (he, he)!!!

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