Friday, March 25, 2011

On the Swedish voucher system

Swedish test-scores are deteriorating, both among native Swedes and immigrants.

The left is blaming this on Sweden's popular system of vouchers. The Swedish private schools ("friskolor") are funded by public vouchers but privately owned and managed, which the left dislikes. In this article for example "" are accused of having caused a decline in the "level of knowledge in schools".

However if we look at PISA-test-scores 2000-2009, it is apparent that 8th-grade test scores are dropping like a rock in public schools, but actually increasing in private schools.

Between 2006-2009 the results fall declined in private schools, but even during this period they fell more in public schools. It is sometimes argued that the higher test-scores of private schools in Sweden is due to grade inflation. However the PISA scores are internationally standardized, so they are a fair metric.

Keep in mind that there may be composition changes going on here, which the averages don't tell us about. It is also theoretically possible that the decline in public schools is caused by private schools. One claim of the left is that if the smart and motivated kids leave, the other children become worse students. The Swedish left also accuses private schools of draining public schools from resources, which go towards detested profits. However it is unlikely for several reasons that pubic school failure is the fault of private schools.

First, the private school sector remains small, with less than 10% of 8th graders tested by PISA in 2009.

Second, in Sweden private schools cost taxpayers 8 percent less per public on average than public schools, so they are not draining financial resources. The average profit margin of all Swedish private schools is only 5% (and much of this is the return of injections of capital into the schools).

Third, studies seem to indicate that there is little sorting in Swedish private schools, that is to say it is not mainly the richest or brightest kids who go to private schools. (e.g Böhlmark and Lindahl, 2007, 2009).

Lastly international research has generally failed to detect a negative effect of school choice on those who stay behind. (having more girls in your class may help, but that's another issue).

Studies of school choice suffer from methodological problems, because children who choice private schools may be different in ways we cannot control for. Therefore probably the best study are those like this one, which uses lotteries. There is no comparable study for Sweden. They generally find that school choice does not lower outcomes, contrary to the claims of the Swedish left. While they also don't detect major increases in test scores, they detect improvement in outcome variables such as arrest rates.

Voucher funded schools have more satisfied teachers and parents and students. They cost less for taxpayers. They don't appear to hurt public schools. In addition, they have been improving their test-scores in a period where public schools scores are declining.

Despite all of this, the Social Democrats blame the crisis of Swedish education on private schools, even though it is the 90% or so of children in public schools who are doing particularly poorly, and even though they present no evidence whatsoever that this long term decline is caused by private schools. If anyone is being blindly "ideological" on this issue, it is the left. This is especially clear with regards to their emotional aversion to and overestimation of profits.

Having written all this, let me criticize the right.

This will pain them to learn, but they are putting too much faith in private schools, and too much weight on test scores in evaluating private schools. The sad truth is that test-scores are mostly determined by I.Q and home environment, not by which school you attend.

Let me show you this depressing graph from a recent paper by James Heckman for white children in the U.S:

You will notice that gaps in child test scores emerge early (age 3) and persist through age 18. Schools contribute little to closing these gaps.

The Swedish right has accepted the quasi-Marxist view of the left and liberals, which is that people are blank slates, that ability is equally distributed and that schools consequently can easily raise cognitive skills.

The left deludes itself into believing society can do this just as soon as we give schools a little more money (meanwhile real spending per pupil has more than doubled in a period where test-scores have declined). The right instead deludes itself into believing in this Utopian vision just as soon as we make schools capitalist (meanwhile decades of private choice in Sweden and Chile have only moderate improvements in outcomes).

It would be one thing if private schools were able to dramatically change the curriculum and drill students like military schools or (horror horror) Swedish schools in 1965. American catholic schools successfully improve the life outcomes of minority students where public schools fail.

While raising everyone's I.Q dramatically through capitalist schools is a fantasy, there is in principle no reason Sweden cannot return to historical test score levels.

But this would require going back to historical curriculum and historical norms. The power vacuum that has emerged in Swedish schools and leads to mini Lord-of-the-flies classrooms has to be filled by adults. Repetition and memorization (both of which do not require the child to have above average I.Q to work) should again become the foundation of learning. The post-modern pedagogic theories taught to teachers in the universities must be discarded into the trashcan of history.

There is a lot of rhetoric from the Swedish right on education reform, but no sign of any of this happening. Making schools private in form without allowing them to depart from the current curriculum is not going to magically fix the problems. This faux-capitalism would not truly utilize the advantages of free-enterprise, and making promises you cannot deliver on will only discredit capitalism among the public.

If the right keeps promising better education outcomes without fixing the core problems voters will sooner or later wise up and punish them. Education minister Jan Björklund should close the rhetoric to reform gap, either by shutting up or by actually doing something about the situation.


  1. Have you seen any research into the effects of separation by learning style or ability on student achievement?

    It always seemed to me, going through school, that you would actually help everyone's tests score if you at least admitted that children have different levels of ability, and separated the quick learners out to learn more while letting the slower learners spend more time on the basics and memorization. It amazes me that we refuse for ideological reasons to allow this in elementary schools, and are producing generations of very bored bright children and very confused below-average children.

  2. There is some research into this, but I don't know any study that uses experiments and would be methodologically sound. On the other hand, I am hardly an expert.

    Leaving research aside (poor research is worse than no research), Germany uses extreme tracking, and is considered by many the best education system in Europe next to Finland.

    Germans without college degrees in particular get excellent vocational training and do remarkably well in industry.

  3. By the way, Sweden does plenty of tracking, both in high-school and before. Students are separated into different programs. When I was in middle-school we were one class, but were divided into 2 separate classes when being taught math, Swedish and English.

    The absurdity is however that they refuse to remove theoretical elements such as calculus from vocational training. The official goal is that every child should go to college.
    Because of this lots of kids never graduate from vocational training in high-school.

    But surely it's better to give children sub-par education and ruin their life than to acknowledge differences in ability that have been known to scientists for 50 years.

  4. I think that the evidence shows that schools cannot make children smarter. This revelation should cause us to change what is taught. E.g. factoring quadratic equations is useful to almost no one, it is taught mainly as a test but teaching it is justified as an academic exercise that will make people smarter or to teach them to reason better but the evidence show that does not work.

    We should ask ourselves what knowledge and skills can we impart in children that will help live better lives.

    If we cannot teach people more perhaps we can teach them more valuable stuff.

  5. Hi Tino,

    If test-scores are mostly determined by I.Q and home environment, how do you explain the very good test results of Finnish pupils across Finland? I would not say that our kids are especially smart or that Finnish parents are better in encouraging kids to do well in school than Swedish parents.

    I would also not say that we do a lot of memorization and repetition in our schools.

    By the way, the Finnish education system is a 100% public system.

    BR, Kimmo

  6. That would be the "mostly" part, and the reason I concluded "While raising everyone's I.Q dramatically through capitalist schools is a fantasy, there is in principle no reason Sweden cannot return to historical test score levels."

    Finland is generally described as having far more class room discipline than Sweden. At any rate since no one understands why Finland is an outlier, it's impossible to replicate it for other countries. You yourself end up noting that 100% of finish schools are public, which supports my argument that we cannot hope that private schools using the current Swedish curriculum will dramatically raise test scores.

    It's important however to distinguish two phenomenon: within a society, the variance in test-scores between individuals is overwhelmingly determined by I.Q and home environment. This is because the school environment doesn't wary much across individuals.

    Between societies there is additional variation.

  7. Kimmo, though it is true that private schools are less common in Finland than in Sweden it is not true that the Finnish system is 100% public. Private schools does exist in Finland.

  8. Which post-modern pedagogic theories are you referring to?

  9. Markus,

    Well the public education system I have my child in currently is teaching my child multiplication through 'skipping' a technique where you simply 'skip though the numbers to arrive at the result ( so 8 X 8 is solved as follows ( 8 ,16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56, 64 ) so the answer is 64 and typically involves the use of fingers to aid in the process. I am so shocked at how SLOW my child is at doing math that I am about to embark on a journey to hopefully undue the damage this 'progressive' teaching technique ( which the teacher who taught him raved about ) has wrought on my child... This may not be the 'post-modern pedagogic theory' that Tino is referring to but none-the-less anecdotal food for thought.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Markus:

    I googled for less than two minute courses in Pedagogic at Swedish universities. From the first-page description of the masters-program in Stockholm University:

    The program aims to "advance your knowledge in ...normality and power-structure"

    I don't know how much you know of this, but these are code-words from post-structural theory, which is in turn a code-word for post-modern Marxism. This is not the 'let's take control of the means of production' Marxism, it is modern academic Marxism from the 1960s developed by the like of Derrida and Foucault.

    Post-modern Marxism teachers people that no objective knowledge exists and that any claims of fact and knowledge are ways of the capitalist system to control people's minds.

    If this sounds too outrages for you to believe, I suggest you read one of their textbooks. I first encountered them in Handelshögskolan, teaching feminism and management theory, and they are just as loony as their theories sound. How can you have a reasonable conversation with someone who denounces the existence of both logic an objective reality?

    Let's continue. This masters program studies:

    "the interaction between different social categorizations of people which may be used to discriminate, e.g. gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or disability. A key aspect is how these categorizations can be related to the different perspective of power."

    Clearly, in a country where math test-scores are crashing the most pertinent job of schools is to teach educators to criticize (imagined) capitalist power-structures and to tell them objective reality is a tool for repression. And don't forget ethnic studies and feminism! Much more important to teach immigrants that the "norm" of the Swedish language is a tool of repression than to actually teach them Swedish so they can get a job.

    And this is what they teach their graduate students:

    "hermeneutik [another post-modern code word], fenomenologi, etnografi, narrativ tradition, analytisk tradition, poststrukturalism, feministisk teori/metod, kvantitativa perspektiv på utbildningsforskning och psykologiskt/kognitionsteoretiskt perspektiv."

    So it's not 100% bullshit, just 70-80% bullshit.

    Meanwhile teachers are taught that traditional education based on classroom teaching, discipline, repetition and memorization (the kinds Sweden has until the 1968 revolution and which worked amazingly well) is reactionary and evil.

    The way post-modernism truly rots the brain is that they are taught that the most important question to ask in a debate is not about the logistical or factual basis of an argument, but *why* you are making the argument, *who* you are and what your *interests* is.

    This gives the left a license to believe any nonsense they like, since facts and logic no longer anchor them.

    Many students in Sweden share my experience, which is that the old-school teachers that were left when I went there were far superior to the new ones.

    This is not to say that they ruin all the new teachers, many of them are great people who want to teach knowledge. But since the post-modernist and the believers of modern pedagogic theory (mostly nonsense) are dominant, they prevent real reform.

  12. One way that free school choice also helps children of inactive or uninterested parents is that if a sufficient amount of active parents take their kids out of a bad school, the school will have to eventually close due to lack of students. Free school choice in this case makes failing schools visible and forces change or a shut down that benefits not only the active choosers.

  13. According to the Swedish report on the latest PISA-results, the difference between private and public schools disappear once basic socioeconomic characteristics are controlled for. I haven't looked at the raw data myself, but it would be interesting to look at this over time.

    Regardless, I agree that the amount of blame that is being put on the free schools for the general failure of the Swedish school system is quite absurd.

  14. I know I'm late on this post, but I would just like to say that Finland only has 3.8% of its population foreign born. In contrast, Sweden has 13.4% of its population foreign born (OECD, 2007).

    One of the politically incorrect truths is that immigrants from poor countries tend to have lower test scores because they have lower average IQs (from both genetic and environmental reasons). Given the comparitive demograhics of Sweden and Finland, it would only be logical that Finland would score better.

    As for Finland having 100% Public Schools, I would again say that Finland has about half the population of Sweden, and that population is much more homogeneous. Obviously, government is much more effective in smaller and more homogeneous populations than it is in larger and more diverse populations. This is why government programs are more successful in Scandinavian Countries than they are elsewhere in the world (particularly the United States).

  15. Hi Tino
    Interesting post. I realise I'm very late on commenting, but I only came across your blog when trying to figure out how a school choice system could be made to work for my country (India). One of the biggest challenges in India(imo) would be independent verification of learning outcomes i.e testing to prevent market failure through fraud in a large and, unfortunately, largely illiterate country. I've been trying to see how Sweden and other systems deal with this, but they largely seem to consider it a non-issue. What's your experience on the matter?

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