Tag: Sweden

Education under the New Swedish Order

Just over a week ago, Swedes threw out the relatively pro-market coalition that had goverened the country for the past 8 years, handing power (though not an outright majority) to a new left-of-center coalition. Swedish students’ falling scores on international tests were a key cause of public dissatisfaction, and they have been widely blamed on a nationwide voucher-like school choice program introduced during the early 1990s. But as I point out in an op-ed in yesterday’s Svenska Dagbladet, the facts simply don’t support that narrative. Here’s the English draft of the op-ed:

Sweden’s collapsing performance on international tests was clearly a factor in the recent election, and redressing that slide will be a priority for the new government. A good first step in charting the way forward is to understand what has gone wrong and what has gone right in the past. Unfortunately, the most popular narrative about Swedish education trends is badly mistaken.

Many have blamed Sweden’s falling international test scores on the proliferation of free schools, merely because the decline is thought to have followed their large-scale expansion. This would be a common logical fallacy even if the timing were correct—but it isn’t.

Between 1995 and 2011, Swedish math scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) fell by a massive 56 points. But the vast majority of that decline—41 points—had already taken place by 2003. In that year, 96 percent of Swedish students were still enrolled in government schools.

Another international test, the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA), began in the year 2000 and has the advantage of breaking out the scores for government and private schools. The last PISA test was administered in 2012, by which time government school scores had fallen by 34 points while free school scores had fallen by only 6 points.

Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl’s long-term nationwide study helps to explain these trends: increased local competition from free schools actually raises the performance of students in both sectors—on both national and international tests. But, since free schools still enroll a small fraction of students nationwide, the benefits of this competition have yet to be felt in many areas.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that there are no bad private schools. There has never been an education system in history capable of producing only good schools. The best that can be hoped for is that unsuccessful schools close while good schools expand. And that is precisely what has been happening in Sweden.                                           

Much has been made of the failure of JB Education, which attracted too few students to remain financially viable, and was forced to shut down. This was regrettable for everyone directly concerned, in the short run. In the long run, it is better than any realistic alternative. In most countries, including the United States, atrocious government-run schools are able to continue operating indefinitely because they face no meaningful competition—the poor parents they most often serve simply cannot afford any alternative. These schools are numerous enough that a term has been coined to describe them: “dropout factories.” Swedish families are lucky that they can far more easily escape such schools.

Not only does the Swedish system pressure failing schools to close, it encourages good ones to expand. International English Schools is one of the highest-performing school networks in the country, even after controlling for the parental level of education and immigrant background of its students. It is also one of the fastest growing, now operating 25 schools serving nearly 18,000 students. IES has plans to continue growing so long as demand for its services remains unmet. But if IES’s emphasis on academics and civil classroom behavior seems too traditional for some families, there are many other options to choose from. Another large and successful network is Kunskapsskolan, which allows students to proceed through the curriculum at their own pace, combining tremendous student autonomy with weekly one-on-one meetings with teachers.

But not all good private schools grow. Specifically, non-profit schools tend not to build large networks, no matter how good they are. As a result, thousands of students who might benefit from their services never get the chance to do so. The only good schools that consistently “scale-up” in response to rising demand are those operated as for-profit enterprises. This is not a coincidence. Building a network is both risky and expensive. The profit-and-loss system provides both the resources and the incentives that allow and encourage successful enterprises to grow.  

Sweden is fortunate to have harnessed that system to spur the growth of its high performing schools. Chile does the same thing, and has become not only the highest-performing nation in Latin America but also one of the fastest-improving countries in the entire world on international tests. If Sweden wishes to become a fast-improving nation educationally, the evidence strongly supports preserving the entrepreneurial freedoms and incentives that promote the growth of successful education networks.

Does Sweden’s Voucher Program Need Stricter Regulation?

Slate recently published a badly misinformed piece about Sweden’s voucher program, which I addressed here. One of the other responses to the Slate piece was written by Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji for NRO. Sanandaji did an excellent job of showing that the voucher program cannot plausibly explain Sweden’s test score decline and usefully explored some of the more likely causes.

Though I agree with much of what Sanandaji wrote, his piece occasionally endorses heavier regulation of the program for reasons that are either not apparent or inconsistent with the evidence. For instance, he rightly observes that the Swedish government requires universities to accept high school grades as a key admissions criterion but does not permit them to take into account differential grading practices across high schools. This, he notes, puts significant external pressure on high schools to inflate grades. But despite acknowledging this, he later refers to “other problems caused by the [voucher/school choice] reform … such as grade inflation,” implying that this “corruption” is “caused by the lack of [state] control.”

And yet the evidence he presents points to the opposite conclusion: that grade inflation is particularly problematic in Sweden because of imprudent government intrusion into university admissions policy. Consider as a contrast the case of the United States, where universities are free to take high schools’ grading practices into account during admissions. We still have differential grade inflation across high schools, but it is less of a concern because universities can adjust for it. As the head of admissions at Brandeis University has observed, “It’s really not that hard [for colleges] to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.” In the absence of government meddling, high schools cannot secure admission to good colleges for their students simply by giving them all A’s.

Still more puzzling is Sanandaji’s criticism that “some private schools broke the rules to cherry-pick students.” This is curious because Sanandaji defends free markets on a number of other occasions, and a hallmark of free markets is that they rely on mutually voluntary exchange. So, naturally, schools in a relatively free marketplace want to enroll students they think they can successfully serve, just as families seek schools they believe can successfully serve them.

This does not mean that all private schools in a relatively free market will seek to serve only high-scoring or well-behaved students. In the United States, where the vast majority of private schools are free to admit students based on any criteria they like, many exist specifically to serve difficult-to-educate students that the typical public school is not well-equipped to teach. A study conducted in the mid-1990s found that public school districts were sending hundreds of thousands of students to the private sector for just that reason. Do some other private schools focus on serving high-performing students? Of course. But the largest share seem to place little or no emphasis on students’ prior academic performance, based on survey data from Arizona that I analyzed several years ago.

Slate Publishes Inaccurate, Fallacious Piece on Sweden and School Choice

Last week Slate published a misinformed piece on Sweden’s school choice program and what we can learn from it. The errors of fact and logic are glaring. Apparently, they don’t have multiple layers of fact checking over there, so I decided to lend a hand and correct the record at Education Next.

Here’s a snippet:

First, [Slate] claims that “more Swedish students go to privately run (and mostly for-profit) schools than in any other developed country on earth.”  In fact, neither of these claims is true. Taking the parenthetical claim first, according to the most recent data of which I am aware (from 2012), the majority of Swedish private schools are non-profit (in Swedish, “Ideella”).

As for overall private sector enrollment among industrialized countries, we can consult the OECD, an association of 34 industrialized nations that administers the PISA test:

“On average across OECD countries… 14% of students attend government-dependent [i.e., gov’t-funded] private schools…. In Sweden, the share of students in private schools increased significantly over the past decade from 4% in 2003 to 14% in 2012…. This brings the share of students in private schools close to the OECD average.”

Slate, in other words, is badly mistaken on this point. How badly? Here are the top five industrialized countries by share of private school enrollment, according to the OECD’s 2012 PISA database:

Belgium 68.4
Netherlands 67.6
Ireland 58.2
Korea 47.5
UK 45.2

 

 

 

 

 

Sweden doesn’t even come close….

Why Slovakia May Not Support Europe’s Bailout Plan

Slovakia is set to vote today on the European bailout plan and may well become a holdout. As my colleague David Boaz noted yesterday, this is due to Slovakia’s libertarian speaker of the house, Richard Sulik, who spoke at a Cato Institute conference in Bratislava last year, and who opposes bailouts of Greece and other EU countries based on sound ethical, political, and economic reasoning. Greece is already bankrupt and a bailout will only add to the country’s debt; an EU “rescue” will continue to create moral hazard, thus encouraging bad policies by reckless governments; relatively poorer and better behaved Slovakia should not be forced to support the irresponsible governments of richer European countries; the EU’s response to the Greek debt crisis has led to blatant violations of EU and European Central Bank rules, thus undermining democratic principles and the EU itself; the scare stories of not approving the bailout should not be believed; the best solution is for Greece is to declare bankruptcy once and for all.

In this document by his Freedom and Solidarity Party, Richard Sulik lays out his party’s opposition to the bailout fund. It is consistent with the views of other leading scholars including that of John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (and a Cato adjunct scholar) as expressed in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed on how to save the Euro.

Sulik has tapped into popular sentiment among Europeans about the “democracy deficit,” or huge gap between the designs of Europe’s ruling elites and the desires of the region’s citizens. The widespread (and accurate) perception of Eurocrats imposing their agenda on Europe to the benefit of their cronies (e.g., big business, labor unions, and politicians in power) and at the expense of the majority is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. The Slovak government, which supports the bailout, may well fall on account of this vote, but the prime minister has already indicated that the vote on the bailout fund will be held repeatedly until it is approved. (No doubt there will be little possibility of a repeat vote repealing the bill.)

On a related note, a new Finnish think tank, Libera, provides more evidence that Europeans are rethinking big government. It published a study today which reassesses the record of the Swedish welfare state and praises the numerous market reforms that country has introduced out of necessity since the 1990s.

Profits Do Oft Disprove Jesters

A new study of Sweden’s nationwide private school choice program reveals that both non-profit and for-profit private schools outperform state-run schools. And, after the most comprehensive set of controls for confounding variables, they do so by an almost identical (and highly statistically significant) margin.

Is there any reason, then, to prefer one form of private organization over the other? Yes. While non-profit private schools have tended to increase the size of their waiting lists in response to growing demand, their for-profit counterparts have done what all commercial enterprises would do in that circumstance: they’ve grown.

For more insights on this crucial distinction, have a look at Peje Emilsson’s presentation from our “Cloning Superman” event, which was broadcast on CSPAN.

If you want more good schools and fewer bad ones, make it easier for entrepreneurs and investors to team up with great educators, and let them earn profits or suffer losses in direct proportion to their ability to serve children.

“… your month, or even your year”

At one time or another over the past two decades, most school choice supporters have felt like the subject of the “Friends” theme song; that it hasn’t been their day, their week, their month, or even their year.

Things are different now. For one thing, choice programs have proliferated and grown over time, more are being introduced this year than perhaps ever before. And for another, well, this IS their week: the first national School Choice Week.

Events are being held all over the country to celebrate the idea that families should be able to easily choose the best schools for their kids, and that schools should have to compete for the privilege of serving them.

Here at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, we’re dipping into the future to see what it holds. How are large scale public/private school choice programs working out in countries that have had them for two or three decades? To find out, we’ve invited the founder of the largest private school chain in Sweden and a Chilean economist researching his own nation’s program to share their experiences and findings on Friday at noon.

Given how alien for-profit k-12 schooling appears to most Americans, imagine the reaction Peje Emilsson got in 1999 when he proposed founding a chain of for-profit schools in Sweden. Already the founder of a multinational communications firm, Peje broached the idea with some of his nation’s top entrepreneurs and economists. If you’d like to find out what they had to say, and how his idea has turned out in practice, you won’t get another chance any time soon. Hope you can join us on Friday – to register for free, click here!

Cloning “Superman”

We all know there are too few good schools and too many lousy ones. The trouble is, we lack a mechanism for reliably scaling up the former and crowding out the latter. Competitive markets perform this service in other fields, from coffee-shops to cell phones. Can the same thing work in education?

To find out, we’ve invited experts from both hemispheres to tell us what their nations have learned from decades of experience with private-school choice. Peje Emilsson founded the largest chain of for-profit private schools in Sweden’s nationwide voucher program. Humberto Santos has studied the academic performance of public schools, independent private schools, and chains of private schools in Chile’s voucher program. Responding to their findings and asking challenging questions will be Education Week journalist Sarah Sparks.

I hope you can join us for this fascinating discussion, and lunch, at noon on January 28th. Click here to register. The sooner we can stop “Waiting for Superman,” the better.