I have spent countless hours writing about and discussing Common Core and the international benchmark for measuring national education systems (PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment). Some of those pieces can be found here and here. In sum, I find that most discussions about the competitiveness of America schools that emerge whenever new PISA scores arrive to be simplistic, and often ignore the class and cultural dynamic that leads East Asian and Scandinavian countries to excel on such markers.
But not all Scandinavian countries are equal in the realm of educational competence. Sweden, a country that shares a great deal culturally with the much vaunted Finland, has stumbled significantly since the privatization of their education system. Sally Weale, writing in the Guardian, summarizes Sweden’s current predicament.
“Sweden, once regarded as a byword for high-quality education – free preschool, formal school at seven, no fee-paying private schools, no selection – has seen its scores in Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) assessments plummet in recent years.
Fridolin acknowledges the sense of shame and embarrassment felt in Sweden. “The problem is that this embarrassment is carried by the teachers. But this embarrassment should be carried by us politicians. We were the ones who created the system. It’s a political failure,” he says.
Observers in the UK may well be vexed upon reading about Sweden’s problems, since its friskolor policy – privately run schools funded by public money – was one of the key inspirations behind the introduction of free schools in England under the coalition government.”
Some conservatives have come to the defense of Sweden’s voucher program. Others have detailed that the model pursued in the country doesn’t quite fit free-market ideals in regards to school choice. These arguments remind me of days in far-left political parties, where members would often proclaim that communism would have worked if the states practicing it had only gone further in implementing their aims. It is never the failure of your politics, just a lack of vigor in furthering your ideals.
It is not at all surprising that a corporate driven education system practiced by a quarter of Swedish students failed to produce results. Much like any corporate entity, they cut corners by employing cheaper teachers that were not qualified while spending lavishly on outside consultants. They also employed a competitive scheme where teachers were financially rewarded for garnering better test scores. I can’t imagine a sadder principle to run a school. Katharine Birbalsingh, writing in the conservative British magazine Standpoint, explained how performance pay in our schools undermines their very foundation.
“Private schools would use PRP [Performance Based Pay] if it worked. I have never heard of any that do. If you ask some of these old headmasters why, they won’t tell you it is because teachers are above the grubbiness of money. They’ll say that PRP would destroy the ethos of their school.”
She goes on to clearly explain the obvious: schools cannot run as businesses in the corporate world. Good schools are inherently collaborative. If a teacher is struggling, they work with more experienced practitioners to improve. Collaborating effectively means you share good ideas and discuss how to improve your school’s curriculum as a whole. What happens under PBP is that the best teachers end up invariably with the best students at the school, leaving the weaker teachers to flounder on their own. Why support your compatriot by taking on challenging students if it means you will be less likely to receive merit pay? Why distribute worthy lessons and methods if the individuals you are sharing them with are your direct competitors? The minute each individual’s pay reflects student test scores, you will begin to see nefarious horse-trading of students, with senior or competent staff taking on those more likely to guarantee “merit” pay for said educators.
A few years back, I taught at a struggling rural school in California. The 8th grade class had a large number of difficult boys that were often disruptive. I volunteered to put most of those students in my classes, as I had better classroom management than some of my compatriots. As many of these boys struggled academically, I am sure my overall test scores were lower as a result. If I knew I would not receive merit pay at the end of the year for this decision, I am unsure I would have done so. PBP would generate antagonism between teachers at any one site that would hurt the school overall.
PBP will also have an adverse affect on teacher retention. Strong teachers will be inclined to move to schools that have stronger test scores (and thus more likely to receive higher pay) than stay at a struggling school. Schools that already have the deck stacked against them will be caught in a perpetual spiral, seeing their best and brightest educators quickly move to better performing schools to maintain quality pay.
But I digress. The lesson I took from the Sweden’s privatization failure is its contrast with its neighbor Finland. Finland has long been celebrated for its successful schools, with countries around the world attempting to borrow what works from their system. The Finnish system is centralized yet community centered; only the best university students are recruited into the profession, and are paid well for their services. But more importantly, trust and autonomy is placed in the hands of each school’s administrators and educators. Outside corporate and political figures are not given reign to muck with the workings of the school as they see fit (Joanne Barkan has an excellent piece about how philanthropists in America, while celebrated, are doing harm to our schools). Their schools do not shift direction aimlessly as educational fads come or political figures look to make a point.
Good national school systems serve a purpose that exceeds efficiency concerns. They help unite a people and a nation around a community framework, both implicitly and explicitly. While distinct, the Korean and Finnish education systems demonstrate a united vision for a society that the individuated corporate schools attempted in Sweden cannot achieve.
(Image: Nikolaos Gyzis, “To krifó scholió”, Oil painting, 1885/86.)