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Sep 20 2011

Euphemisms and mistaken optimism

In this blog, I will often play the part of the choice/competition “skeptic” mainly because I find that skeptics to a weaker job of making their arguments. I will come back to why I believe this, but I wanted to use this space to point out one grossly incorrect conclusion from an article in The Economist that attempts to distill lessons from countries around the world as they implement differing education reforms.

As their measurement for educational progress, The Economist utilizes the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), a test that is implemented every three years and tracks scientific, mathematical and reading literacy. The test is celebrated as one of the best measurements of strong school system we have at our disposal, and policymakers of virtually all political backgrounds take its results seriously.

While such a survey is desperately needed to inform our discussion on educational policy, the article glosses over some key conclusions that are drastically relevant to United States educational policy. No, I am not talking about Finland and how everyone there respects teachers! Instead I want to focus on its western neighbor, Sweden.

Over the past two decades, Sweden has implemented one of the most comprehensive market-based education reforms the world has ever seen. Sweden has essentially allowed for an unlimited number of charter schools across the nation, all of which can make a profit and are relatively free from external intervention. Indeed, we can see in Sweden the rise of dynamic educational industries (and organizations) that the United States policy is leading towards. The Economist concludes that Sweden:

“Admired…for its independent, non-selective, state-funded Free Schools, has had a sticky period in international rankings. Its drive to open new kinds of schools is not yet matched by rigorous inspections to help weaker schools target their failings. Skeptics of America’s fairly new experiment of this kind, privately funded charter schools, think that politicians are “too invested” in them to close them if they fail. Authorisation and renewal processes for innovative schools need to be robust, so that bad experiments are not prolonged and failures are not ignored.”

I would like to emphasize two points.

1.  What the Economist describes as a “Sticky period” in international rankings is actually something quite different: a stark and undeniable decline in both the quality and equity of educational services in Sweden. To fully see the extent of their euphemism, let’s look at the data.

In 2000, while school choice was still in its nascent phases, Sweden excelled on the PISA.  Sweden scored well above the average OECD country with a total score of 513 across reading, mathematic, and scientific literacy (the data is scaled to have a mean of 500). It also was one of six countries that achieved high achievement and high levels of equity (so that socioeconomic status was a relatively weak indicator of achievement).  For more information see the actual report: http://www.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/Pisa/PISA-2000_Overview.pdf

The 2009 PISA serves as a track of Sweden’s progress over the past ten years, when competition and choice developed the Swedish school system to a degree unseen in the United States. Over that period, Sweden’s average score dropped 18 points from 513 to 495. In just ten years, Sweden went from scoring far above average to scoring below average. Sweden also dropped from one of the most equitable school systems to being just average, in spite of having one of the most egalitarian economies in the world.

2. The Economist argues that this sticky period can be explained not by some inherent problem in applying market principles to educational institutions, but rather by a lack of “rigorous inspections to help weaker schools target their failings.” Indeed, even advocates of school choice in Sweden admit that this is a problem and politicians, for understandable reasons, are unwilling to bear the costs of closing schools for thousands of students. One could even argue that the combative climate of the United States towards schools and teachers would facilitate more active intervention on the part of the government.

But remember, unlike in business, where there is one homogenous and quantifiable outcome capable of distinguishing between successful and unsuccessful institutions—profit—no such unit of measurement exists in education. We have seen countless examples of the government closing down “failing” schools based on insufficient and often misleading data. Indeed, if the United States had an effective means of implementing “rigorous inspections to help weaker schools target their failings” than school choice would not be necessary in the first place, since it stems from the concession that the government is incapable of providing that support, and that the movement of parents is a more reliable means of targeting failing schools.

Different Conclusions

When I first looked into Sweden, I expected it to finally vindicate the cause of choice and competition. I thought that the mediocre performance of charter schools was mainly that market forces had not had time to work its magic. After twenty years, I think Sweden’s example tells us that more time will not reap an overall greater impact. This conclusion should be amplified by the fact that, whatever regulatory flaws The Economist invokes to explain this “sticky period” of unequivocal decline, Sweden is a much more competent regulator of markets than the United States. As such, I believe it would be foolish to hope the United States can channel market forces for productive and egalitarian ends better than Sweden.

There are many, fantastic charter schools out there from which we can learn a lot. But the case of Sweden propels me to believe that increased choice would diminish, rather than increase, the percentage of charter schools that are similarly effective.

One Response

  1. In the business world, if Person A can’t afford to buy a product they can’t access it (credit cards aside). Moreover, if a niche market isn’t profitable, you just close up shop. Tough luck.

    Do we want to replicate this in k-12 education? I sure hope not. Even if charters become a smashing success, it makes more biz sense to bottle up your “secret sauce” (‘if we can make poor minority kids excel, think what we could do for your kid!’) and become a for-profit school that competes with the private schools for tuition.

    Unconvinced? See exhibit A: Wal-Mart…

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