Is Sweden’s education system falling apart? If so, what is to blame: vouchers or progressivism?

Sweden adopted an expansive school voucher system in 1992.

Since then, Sweden’s PISA scores have tumbled.

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 9.58.39 AM.pngSweden’s PISA scores shot up a bit in 2015, which is good to see.

But it’s worth exploring why they dropped in the first place. There are two main theories why the scores dropped: some blame the voucher system and some blame Sweden’s embrace of progressive / constructivist educational methods (less teacher directed lecturing, more student inquiry and discovery, less focus on knowledge building).

Who’s to blame? Vouchers or constructivism?

Was it the Vouchers?

There’s been a decent amount of research on Sweden’s voucher program.

This paper found small positive to neutral effects on academic achievement and no effects on long-term outcomes. This paper found positive to neutral effects.

This paper found positive effects due to increased competition, though it took about ten years for these effects to kick-in. They also tackled the PISA issue head on:

Our positive estimates might appear surprising given Sweden’s relative decline in scores on international tests such as PISA since the mid 1990s… we do not find any support for the belief that an increase in the share of independent school students provides an explanation for Sweden’s relative decline.

It seems that vouchers aren’t the main culprit. They’ve only scaled to educating 20% of students, and most research finds neutral to positive effects.

Was it Constructivism?

Another set of researchers say that Sweden has embraced an extreme form of progressive / constructivism, “which holds that an objective reality does not exist and that the objects and phenomena themselves—and not just our perceptions and interpretations of these phenomena—are socially constructed.”

The authors note that this philosophy really began to take hold in the early 1990s, when large groups of older teachers retired and were replaced by younger teachers who had been trained in progressive-constructivist ideas.

This was accompanied by unwinding the existing detailed national curriculum, and, in 1994, replacing it with high level standards that were more constructivist in nature. These standards also had a deeper focus on student’s directing their own learning instead of teacher directed lessons.

Or was it both? 

These same authors said that move to constructivism was accelerated by the voucher program: because of fluffy curricular standards and a lack of accountability from the national government, the new private schools inflated grades, which drew students in, which then caused the public schools to respond by inflating their own grades.

Without national accountability, the researchers claim that it was race to the bottom.

Looking at Finland

Sweden is not the only country to drop on PISA of late. So has Finland, which previously was at the top of the PISA charts (and even after dropping still does very well).

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 1.33.24 PM.png

I’ve seen no rigorous research on why Finland dropped on PISA; some point to declining economic conditions, others to a reduced focus on core subjects like math. Others note that many of Sweden’s more constructivist / progressive reforms took place right when Sweden was at its peak, and now that they’ve been fully implemented scores have dropped.

No Excuses vs. Constructivist Charter Schools

In the United States, “No Excuses” charters schools, which tend to be more standards and teacher driven, generally outperform more constructivist / progressive school models when it comes to state tests.

I’d add this as another data point in favor of the idea that constructivist / progressive schools tend not to do as well on standardized tests.

My Hypothesis

I’m not an expert in any European education systems, so consider this a guess: I think that constructivist / progressive education models are the leading contender for why test scores are falling in Sweden and Finland.

This hypothesis fits within both anecdotal and research on progressive approaches not resulting in high test scores; see table below from meta analysis on effect teaching, which identified approaches that tend to raise / lower test scores:

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 7.39.23 AM.png

What Do Swedes Want? 

Given that Swedes embraced progressivism in both their traditional and voucher schools, perhaps they care less about PISA scores than they do other aspects of education.

It’s also interesting that Sweden’s PISA scores shot up a bit in 2015. So maybe the system is correcting toward balancing practices that produce good test scores and allow for student directed learning. Or perhaps the constructivist strategies do work and they just took some time to kick in. Either way, things don’t seem to be falling apart.

As vouches expand in Sweden, it will be interesting to watch what families desire as they have more information about which types of practices lead to which types of results.

Grasping in the Dark 

Unfortunately, both in Sweden and the United States, we have very little idea what types of education models lead to great long-term outcomes, so Swedish families (and the rest of us) will still be grasping in the dark for the foreseeable future.

6 thoughts on “Is Sweden’s education system falling apart? If so, what is to blame: vouchers or progressivism?

  1. Howard Dean

    Sounds like the drive toward sight reading in this country which similarly had no research basis and was replaced by phonics again after research showed that the brightest 25% of kids learned to read no matter what you did, and the rest all learned better with phonics. Progressive ideas are great but they have to be subjected to the same rigor everything else we do should be.


  2. Mike G

    I asked my friend Gunnar H, an engineer in Sweden. He writes:

    “I think our Pisa degradation has more to do with “constructivity” than voucher system.

    The voucher system, however, has the drawback that school with bad reputation degrade fast and create segregation. It does however provide a chance for “low income students” to qualify to good schools by good grades.

    I think the voucher system (which I fought for when I was young) needs reform to work better and keep away fraud schools (i.e., schools that lure students to enroll in false promises).”

    So there you go, Neerav, a double-win for you: you get the cause right, AND a pro-school-choice Swede who nonetheless wants some sort of regulation.

    1. nkingsl

      Thanks for the inside intel :) Interesting take on vouchers. I think it’s a fair to worry when you unleash the full powers of capitalism on things that are 100% government funded; can just become a marketing / beat the regulators game.

  3. Pingback: Is Sweden’s education system falling apart? If so, what is to blame: vouchers or progressivism? — relinquishment – Nonpartisan Education Group

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