Success of private schools in Sweden

In Sweden, all private schools are now fully tax-funded, and parents can easily choose between these so-called “free schools” and the local public schools. Swedish test results have fallen, partially due to a culture of student controlled public schools. Private schools are looking to break that trend by returning to a more traditional model.

AIRED: 4/03/2017
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Ten years after Chile reformed its education system, Sweden followed suit. All private schools are now fully tax-funded, and parents can easily choose between these so-called 'free schools' and the local public schools.

Before the program began in 1992, private schools enrolled barely 1 percent of students.

Today that's up to 16 percent... and still rising.But are Swedish test scores going up as fast as Chile's? Actually... they're falling! Swedish math scores dropped like a rock from 1995 to 2003, and continued to fall, though more slowly, after that.Here's the thing: back in 2003, public schools still enrolled 96 percent of students, so it's the public schools that dragged down the national average.So the only way that Sweden's school choice program could be responsible for the country's academic collapse is if competition from the few new private schools sent public schools into a tailspin. But, according to the latest research, the opposite is true. The more private sector competition Swedish schools face, the better they perform!

Okay... then what has been hurting public school achievement? It's a tough question, but here's one possible cause: the share of college students applying to teaching training programs has plummeted over the past quarter-century, and their academic ability has fallen with it.Back in the 1980s, there were 10 applicants for every open space in Swedish teachers' colleges. By 2012, there were so few applicants that nearly all of them were accepted. College admission in Sweden depends in part on a multiple choice Scholastic Aptitude Test. Guess every answer, and you'll score about 20 out of 100. The average score for students in colleges of education was just 25 out of 100, which means many of them scored worse than if they'd circled answers at random.But why have so many high achievers given up on teaching? It might have something to do with the dramatic change in the culture of Swedish schools. Reforms introduced in the 1980s and -90s deemphasized academics, and shifted control from teachers to students.Today, nearly half of all students in Stockholm report that their studies are regularly interrupted by their peers, who routinely ignore the teacher and chat on cell phones and social media during class.Both the public and private sectors have been affected by this cultural shift, but at least some of the private schools are bucking the trend. A network called I.E.S., or International English Schools, emphasizes academics in a calm, respectful atmosphere.

Students must behave courteously, address teachers as Mr. or Ms., and follow a conventional dress code.All of which is illegal. But the principal seemed disinclined to knuckle under.Our schools believe in discipline in the classroom. Our schools believe in high expectations for the children. I say to our principals, we stand up for who we are. We tell the parents, 'This is what we expect.' We talk to the students also, 'This is what we expect from you.' This is, after all, a workplace. And after all, you have a choice.

If you don't like our rules, there are places where you don't have to abide by rules.Founded in 1993, IES now operates 24 schools, serving nearly 18,000 students with an additional 30,000 still on its waiting list. When you're looking at how many students want to get access to our schools, it tells me that we are doing something right, that we have the right people in place.Given that success, I asked Barbara Bergstrom if she thought the government should require other schools to emulate IES's methods... I don't think so, because I believe it's a choice that people are having that's important. What we do is of great interest to a segment of the population. It's not one size fits all. I think the issue of choice is the most significant one.