The OECD’s “Perspective” on Swedish Education

The OECD has just released a report offering “its perspective” on Sweden’s academic decline. Its perspective is too narrow. In launching the new report, OECD education head Andres Schleicher declared that “It was in the early 2000s that the Swedish school system somehow seems to have lost its soul.” The OECD administers the international PISA test, which began in the year 2000.

Certainly Sweden’s academic performance has fallen since the early 2000s, but its decline was substantially faster in the preceding decade. PISA cannot shed light on this, but TIMSS—an alternative international test—can, having been introduced several years earlier. On the 8th grade mathematics portion of TIMSS, Sweden’s rate of decline between 1995 and 2003 was over five points per year. Between 2003 and 2011 it was less than two points per year. Still regrettable, but less grievously so.

Why is this timing important? Because Sweden introduced a nationwide public/private school choice program in 1992 and many critics blame that program for Sweden’s decline. This charge is hopelessly anachronistic. In 2003, at the end of the worst phase of the nation’s academic decline, public schools still enrolled 96% of students. Hence it must have been declining public school performance that brought down the national average. A 4% private sector could have had little effect.

What then can explain the country’s disappointing results?  Gabriel Sahlgren has some intriguing suggestions in a recent piece analyzing trends in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. For instance:

Something extreme clearly happened in Sweden in the mid-to-late 1990s, most probably due to the 1994 national curriculum that emphasised pupil-led methods, which decreased teacher-led instruction. [emphasis added]