For-profit schools corrupt educational systems — lessons from Sweden

1 Jun, 2018 at 16:59 | Posted in Education & School | 1 Comment

Neoliberals and libertarians have always provided a lot of ideologically founded ideas and ‘theories’ to underpin their Panglossian view on markets. But when they are tested against the ​reality they usually turn out to be wrong. The promised results are simply not to be found. And that goes for for-profit schools too.

13985314751_448115c2f8_o-1024x954The Swedish school system has somewhat oddly combined market principles such as decentralization, choice, competition, and corporate providers with an evaluation system that is highly trust-based and where teacher-set school grades are high-stakes for the students. This means that both students and schools have incentives to game a system that is easy to game and the findings suggest that the integrity of the evaluation system has been compromised. The results show that all groupings of free schools set higher grades than municipal schools when controlling for student achievement on national tests. As the national tests are locally graded, they are not fully reliable and the differences between public and private providers are more pronounced when more reliable tests are used to control for achievement.

To some extent, the differences in grading standards between municipal and free schools can be accounted for by differences in location and student demographics. Even after holding such factors constant, however, grading standards among private providers appear lenient, in particular among schools that belong to two of the large corporate groups (IES and Kunskapsskolan). Grading is less lenient among other free schools, including those that belong to the large corporate group Academedia, but still significantly more generous than among municipal schools. These differences between corporate providers that face similar incentives seem worthy of deeper investigation.

Students at all free schools groupings have higher teacher-set subject grades than students at municipal schools, an advantage that remains after taking location and student composition into account. Among all free school groupings except the IES, however, the results indicate that this performance advantage over public schools can fully be accounted for by more lenient grading standards. For free schools that belong to the IES, close to two-thirds of the grading advantage over public schools can be attributed to more generous grading …

Back in the 1970’s, Campbell (1979, p. 85) wrote that ‘the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the processes it is intended to monitor’. Campbell’s argument was not only that certain incentives would corrupt the measurement of – for example – educational outcomes, but also that education itself might be harmed. In this chapter, I have presented evidence suggesting that opening up education to providers with strong incentives can compromise educational measurement. Whether it also corrupts the educational process itself is an even more important question, but a question I leave for others to consider. An important takeaway from the analysis presented here is that different providers do not necessarily respond in the same way, even when faced with similar market conditions and acting under the same regulatory regime.

Jonas Vlachos

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