Reformers, Take Note: Swedish Lessons on School Choice

Following a link posted on Twitter by @pasi_sahlberg (follow him for perspective on Finnish schools), I read an interesting and well-written paper on Swedish Free Schools and its relevance to England. Written by Susanne Wiborg and entitled Swedish Free Schools: Do they work?, the paper does a great job in summarizing, from a bird’s eye view, the unique historical and cultural context of Swedish school policy and the effect that Free Schools have had within that context.

Wariness must always be taken when attempting to translate lessons from one cultural context to another, but there appear to be a few cautionary lessons that can be derived from the Swedish for-profit school choice movement that both the UK and the US should heed.

One effect that school choice has had on Swedish schools is increased segregation. Wiborg states

In conclusion, the evidence from a number of studies is that school choice in the Swedish school system has augmented social and ethnic segregation, particularly in relation to schools in deprived areas. Some researchers suggest that this has been enhanced by the extreme tendency to individualize teaching in schools by transferring the responsibility for learning from teachers to pupils. This so-called strategy of equity of learning based on a child-driven curriculum, free choice, and educational flexibility, is likely to increase the differences in pupils’ academic achievements between different groups instead of reducing them. [Bold added]

That last sentence really stood out on the page for me, because that strategy is precisely what education reformers in the United States have been aggressively pursuing, while our schools appear to be ever increasingly segregated. I have argued elsewhere about the necessity for fundamental agreement on the core content we teach our students, and that “without a systematic approach to the core content we teach, then we are systematically failing our students.” This idea that we can somehow individualize and adapt learning for every child based on their learning style sounds great as an idea, but in actual application, results in ever greater achievement gaps. The fact that this is evident even in Sweden, where the majority of the schools adhere to a national curriculum, speaks to the mess that we have wreaked upon public schools through our inability to provide coherent direction on content.

Another cautionary lesson from Swedish school choice is that the experiment “has proved expensive and has not led to significant learning gains overall.” And at the end of the day, those two concerns – cost and student achievement – are the paramount concern in US education at the moment. So we would do well to pay heed to these lessons from Sweden. Reformers, take note.

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