What Americans can learn from Sweden’s school choice disaster

28 Dec, 2014 at 09:59 | Posted in Education & School | 2 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

Ray Fisman is not the only critical international reviewer of the Swedish voucher experiment. This is what Henry M. Levin — distinguished economist and director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University — wrote when he recently reviewed the evidence about the effects of vouchers:

VouchersIn 1992 Sweden adopted a voucher-type plan in which municipalities would provide the same funding per pupil to either public schools or independent (private) schools. There were few restrictions for independent schools, and religious or for-profit schools were eligible to participate. In 1994, choice was also extended to that of public schools where parents could choose either a public or private school. In the early years, only about 2 percent of students chose independent schools. However, since the opening of this century, independent school enrollments have expanded considerably. By 2011-12 almost a quarter of elementary and secondary students were in independent schools. Half of all students in the upper secondary schools in Stockholm were attending private schools at public expense.

On December 3, 2012, Forbes Magazine recommended for the U.S. that: “…we can learn something about when choice works by looking at Sweden’s move to vouchers.” On March 11 and 12, 2013, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences did just that by convening a two day conference to learn what vouchers had accomplished in the last two decades … The following was my verdict:

  • On the criterion of Freedom of Choice, the approach has been highly successful. Parents and students have many more choices among both public schools and independent schools than they had prior to the voucher system.
  • On the criterion of productive efficiency, the research studies show virtually no difference in achievement between public and independent schools for comparable students. Measures of the extent of competition in local areas also show a trivial relation to achievement. The best study measures the potential choices, public and private, within a particular geographical area. For a 10 percent increase in choices, the achievement difference is about one-half of a percentile. Even this result must be understood within the constraint that the achievement measure is not based upon standardized tests, but upon teacher grades. The so-called national examination result that is also used in some studies is actually administered and graded by the teacher with examination copies available to the school principal and teachers well in advance of the “testing”. Another study found no difference in these achievement measures between public and private schools, but an overall achievement effect for the system of a few percentiles. Even this author agreed that the result was trivial.

In evaluating these results, we must also keep in mind that the overall performance of the system on externally administered and evaluated tests used for international comparisons showed substantial declines over the last fifteen years for Sweden. For those who are interested in the patterns of achievement decline across subjects and grades, I have provided the enclosed powerpoint presentation …

  • With respect to equity, a comprehensive, national study sponsored by the government found that socio-economic stratification had increased as well as ethnic and immigrant segregation. This also affected the distribution of personnel where the better qualified educators were drawn to schools with students of higher socio-economic status and native students. The international testing also showed rising variance or inequality in test scores among schools. No evidence existed to challenge the rising inequality. Accordingly, I rated the Swedish voucher system as negative on equity.

Among the industrialized countries, only three have a universal voucher or choice system Chile, Holland, and Sweden. Some would also argue that Belgium qualifies in this category. The former three countries have very different designs with the Dutch system being the most highly regulated and devoting the most attention to equity. Even so, the tracking that takes place at age 12 in the Netherlands between vocational and academic secondary schools has important equity consequences in terms of socio-economic stratification. Although based upon choice, the available choices available to a student are heavily dependent on her achievement test results. The Chilean system has witnessed an increasingly notable stratification of the population, both within and between public and private sectors. Students from more educated and wealthier families are found in the private schools which receive public funding, but can choose which students to accept from among applicants. The Chilean system allows schools to charge additional fees beyond the voucher, also favoring more advantage families.

A recent Swedish study on the effects of school-choice concluded:

The results from the analyses made in this paper confirm that school choice, rather than residential segregation, is a more important factor determining variation in grades than is residential segregation.

voucherThe empirical analysis in this paper confirms the PISA-based finding that between-school variance in student performance in the Swedish school system has increased rapidly since 2000. We have also been able to show that this trend towards increasing performance gaps cannot be explained by shifting patterns of residential segregation. A more likely explanation is that increasing possibilities for school choice have triggered a process towards a more unequal school system. A rapid growth in the number of students attending voucher-financed, independent schools has been an important element of this process …

The idea of voucher-based independent school choice is commonly ascribed to Milton Friedman. Friedman’s argument was that vouchers would decrease the role of government and expand the opportunities for free enterprise. He also believed that the introduction of competition would lead to improved school results. As we have seen in the Swedish case, this has not happened. As school choice has increased, differences between schools have increased but overall results have gone down. As has proved to be the case with other neo-liberal ideas, school choice—when tested—has not been able to deliver the results promised by theoretical speculation.

John Östh, Eva Andersson, Bo Malmberg

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


  1. […] Se också ”Vad amerikaner kan lära av Sveriges skolkatastrof.” […]

  2. It does not make any sense to say “private school at public expense.” The main issue is who is paying for the education: if the state is paying for it that is a different motivational basis for the individual than if the family heads of household are paying a tuition. There is a huge difference in responsibility.

    The schools are not private just because they accept a voucher instead of a check for tuition, the school is then a public school. There is no basis for its ‘privateness.’ A voucher system rules out any school as private because no one is paying tuition out of pocket as contrasted with getting your education “free” via tax revenues.

    Statistics of educational achievement are quantitative but then any qualitative differences are hidden. If you adjust the system to include more choice, as contrasted with neighborhood assignment, the only measure of excellence is test scores, all of the other social factors are jettisoned from analysis but these are most important.

    In the US, there are many private and expensive private schools; nursery schools were of course private before the latest initiative to provide public nursery schooling! There is little comparison between the private schools and the public schools in terms of results: the private schools eviscerate the public schools on test scores. But, who ever wonders what happens to the private school students who do poorly on those tests?

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