Reading & Reacting: Some Lessons From Sweden’s Education Reform Failure

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By Charles P. Pierce @ Esquire‘s The Politics Blog

While this blogpost by Pierce is commenting on a Reuters article, by Niklas Pollard, it provides a cautionary tale of the education landscape that America is about to realize.

Sweden is finally coming to grips with the disaster they wrought on their education system and England is just beginning to recognize similar problems with the consequences of market-based edreforms.

From Pollard’s report on Sweden, the signs are more than ominous.

In a country with the fastest growing economic inequality of any OECD nation, basic aspects of the deregulated school market are now being re-considered, raising questions over private sector involvement in other areas like health.

Two-decades into its free-market experiment, about a quarter of once staunchly Socialist Sweden’s secondary school students now attend publically-funded but privately run schools, almost twice the global average.

Nearly half of those study at schools fully or partly owned by private equity firms.

The privately run, for-profit enterprises are only just beginning to ramp up for an education land grab in America. Cloaked in technology with promises of personalization and disruptive innovation, choice and charters are already trying to pry open public coffers.

Corporate models do not fit the reality of education. There are more cases of corruption and malpractice than can be counted in our own states. Still, Sweden is showing broader consequences on full display.

The private schools brought in many practices once found exclusively in the corporate world, such as performance-based bonuses for staff and advertising in Stockholm’s subway system, while competition has put teachers under pressure to award higher grades and market their schools.

The idea that private equity firms and large corporations would run hundreds of schools was a far cry from the individual, locally-run schools envisaged at the start.

This last bit sounds a lot like the over-promising and under-delivering of most charter schools to me. What’s more, virtual charter schools seem to be the most egregious offenders of malfeasance, one need only look closely at Pennsylvania for the highlights.

A close colleague of mine taught in England for many years before returning home to the States. Although her experience is anecdotal, she has often lamented that we are well on our way down the English path that she maintains essentially destroyed their entire public school system. They gutted the profession of teaching and all the remedies have only worsened the conditions.

Charles Pierce, however, explains with great candor and clarity what every American should be thinking.

There is, of course, a lesson for the United States here, and very likely a lesson to which nobody will pay attention. If you allow a system in which public education is privatized so that some people can make a buck on it, then making a buck is going to become the primary raison d’etre of the system. (See also: health-care.) The more ungainly the scramble for profit, the less your educational system has to do with, you know, actually educating people. This should not be hard.

It shouldn’t be hard. He’s absolutely right. Of course, he is also right that the lesson will be completely ignored in the United States. Tales from abroad already have little if any impact on United States education policy. After all Finland has been a model system, routinely scoring at or near the top on PISA, the metric of choice for edreformers. Yet, we do almost the exact opposite in every way.

Now that Sweden is proving a case study of just how much market-based reforms are doomed, we can ignore that too. American exceptionalism will certainly ensure the belief that we can do it better, regardless of what contrary evidence may continue to pile up from around the world.

The only question is how much is it all going to cost, especially given the price is going to beyond what can be measured and far more than what can be monetized by dollars and cents?

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