Did vouchers cause the decline in Swedish schools?

by on July 23, 2014 at 1:33 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

It seems not.  Responding to an earlier piece by Ray Fisman, Tino Sanandaji writes:

Fisman doesn’t cite any plausible mechanism through which private schools could have dragged down the test scores of the 86 percent of Swedish pupils who attend public schools. The explanation cannot be that private schools have drained public schools of resources, as private schools on average get 4 percent less funding than public schools.

One-third of Sweden’s municipalities still have no private schools. Social Democratic strongholds in northern Sweden in particular were less enthusiastic about licensing such institutions, and if private schools were causing the Swedish school crisis, we would expect municipalities with no privatization to outperform the rest of the country. Two studies by Böhlmark och Lindahl suggest that school results, if anything, fell more in regions with no private schools.

He also argues:

…in my view, the main culprit was the experiment with radically new pedagogical methods. The Swedish school system used to rely on traditional teaching methods. In recent decades, modern “individualist” or “progressive” pedagogic ideas took hold. The idea is that pupils should not be forced to learn using external incentives such as grades, and children should take responsibility for their own learning, driven by internal motivation. Rote memorization and repetition are viewed as old-fashioned relics. Teacher-led lectures have increasingly been replaced by group work and “research projects.”

And this:

The private Swedish schools are not really allowed to innovate where it matters, with their pedagogic methods. The curriculum and rules in the classroom are determined by the state, which also trains teachers in the so called “modern” pedagogic theories. “Swedish schools have comparatively low levels of autonomy over curricula and assessments,” PISA notes.

In practice, what private Swedish schools have control over is management and cost control, and this is where they have directed their efforts. But since the public Swedish schools were pretty well managed to start with, productivity gains from privatization were limited.

For the pointer I thank Daniel B. Klein and Niclas Berggren.

1 Ray Lopez sez End the NEw mAth! July 23, 2014 at 1:43 am

Dig dis: The Swedish school system used to rely on traditional teaching methods. In recent decades, modern “individualist” or “progressive” pedagogic ideas took hold. The idea is that pupils should not be forced to learn using external incentives such as grades, and children should take responsibility for their own learning, driven by internal motivation. Rote memorization and repetition are viewed as old-fashioned relics. ”

I say END the New Math, which makes no sense. ENCOURAGE rote memorization. Did you know lots of closed form solutions in math depend on rote memorization? Check out nearly every trick used to solve differential equations. Same for calculus. People took years to come up with these tricks, and they are not intuitive, but based on rote memorization. Sure you can prove the tricks later, depending on what you take for postulates, but that’s not the point. For example that the derivative of an exponent EXP(X) is EXP(X), i.e., EXP'(x) = EXP(X). Also that the integral of 1/x is LN(X). Rote memorization. BTW my fav book in diff eq. is by Braun.

2 Ray Lopez sez End the NEw mAth! July 23, 2014 at 1:45 am

I also think that Berkeley graduates should be graded on a scale of A to F, same with Tokyo graduates, not pass/fail as is the current standard.

3 Arjun July 23, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Berkeley graduates *are* graded on an A to F scale.

Source: Studied engineering at Berkeley.

4 Adrian Ratnapala July 23, 2014 at 2:53 am

Hmm, I agree that part of the value of school is to use “old fashioned” drilling to give kids a base for later use. I am not sure this applies so well to calculus. I learned both of the results above from 1940’s books that started with definition of *cking real-numbers, and proved everything else step by step.

A common thing in physics and maths is that kids (I mostly early university level here) remember only a few basic formulae and then do not-so-hard derivations as needed for the rest. Over time, grown up mathematicians remember the most useful results, and have in effect, learned them by rote, but had they tried to just learn those results by rote in the first place, they would never have been able to prove anything.

5 CBBB July 23, 2014 at 4:50 am

Differential Equations courses (undergraduate level) are basically just a bunch of tedious rote memorization which is why DEs is the most boring of the boring math classes in my opinion.

6 Ray Lopez July 23, 2014 at 5:11 am

Rote works though. Try solving a first order differential equation with constant coefficients such as f'(x) = -Af(x) without knowing that EXP'(x) = Exp(x). You would have to reinvent the wheel. Rote memorization is just another tool in your toolbox, akin to memorizing openings in chess. You could try and reinvent the wheel in chess opening theory, but what’s the point? Later on, once you memorize, you can use your memorized tools to get further insights. The chain rule in calculus is another example, or indeed f(x) = Ax^n, then f'(x) = A*n x^(n-1) You could drive the last formula, using limits as delta goes to zero after expanding a polynomial function having a delta, but it’s easier just to memorize. Understanding will come later, as UCLA math wiz T. Tao has himself said.

7 Adrian Ratnapala July 23, 2014 at 5:48 am

OK, there is no way to learn multiplication except by memorising the table. Good. In some cases (most common in early education) rote learning can build you toolbox for later serious reasoning. In other cases (more common later in life), it is the other way about, you gain a toolbox of remembered facts from previous bouts serious reasoning. I learned calculus the second way. I have taught kids who learned it the first way, you can tell, because they are the ones who can’t differentiate $x^4$.

8 Just Another MR Commentor July 23, 2014 at 6:12 am

I have taught kids who learned it the first way, you can tell, because they are the ones who can’t differentiate $x^4$.

I couldn’t do that either – what’s the rule for differentiating the $?

9 Peter Lund July 23, 2014 at 7:44 am

The $’s indicate a piece of math in TeX/LaTeX. Some websites/blogs run a plugin that makes this work in browsers, too.


10 Just Another MR Commentor July 23, 2014 at 8:04 am

I know, just trolling buddy.

11 bob July 23, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Why even try to solve a differential equation symbolically anyway? In practice, either the equations are trivial, or they are so complex you should be solving it with numerical methods anyway.

If there’s anything that years of industry have taught me, is that we are teaching the wrong kind of math. We have computers now.

12 Bruce Cleaver July 23, 2014 at 7:08 am

” BTW my fav book in diff eq. is by Braun.”

Martin Braun’s book (with orange cover(? Huh. Same one I used! Small world.

13 Justin July 23, 2014 at 10:42 am

Rote memorization is about more than learning tricks. Math is about patterns, but you won’t find the patterns unless you bury yourself in the numbers. My son has ADHD so I’ve been tutoring him on math for extra help. Adding and subtracting is all about number sense.

* Learn to add by counting on your fingers. You have to start somewhere.
* Learn to add by memorizing doubles (1+1, 2+2, …). Then realize that 6 + 7 = 6 + 6 + 1 = 12 + 1 = 13. No need to count.
* Learn to add by memorizing ways to make 10. (1 + ? = 10, 2 + ? = 10, …) Then realize that 9 + 8 = 10 + 7 = 17. No need to count.

There are many patterns and tricks in the numbers. But discovering them and learning them depends on a foundation of memorization. Drill and kill does not exist to give kids practice counting on their fingers. It gives them tons of problems so they start find the faster easier way. Even when there isn’t a faster easier way, the number sense will help them tell if they’ve applied a rote procedure correctly. It’s all about the number sense and that takes repetition.

14 Tim July 23, 2014 at 11:58 am

New Math is how everyone I know who is actually good at calculations does math already. “END the New Math” is the modern day equivalent of “Get Off My Lawn”.

I wouldn’t expect to see privatization do much in a society without a strong racial divide/white flight. The reason privatization works in the US is that it pulls high achieving students out of low-performing schools and allows them to excel. You could probably achieve the same results by radically changing school boundaries every 4 years.

15 Justin July 23, 2014 at 12:05 pm

“New Math is how everyone I know who is actually good at calculations does math already. “END the New Math” is the modern day equivalent of “Get Off My Lawn”.

I just read the Wikipedia article on new math and I don’t think that’s correct.

16 Marie July 23, 2014 at 11:38 pm

I think all the get off my lawn guys were trained with the New Math. My kid was lucky enough to have several years of Everyday Math.


17 Floccina July 24, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Willingham on Education, School, and Neuroscience

Need to know math facts, have memorized the multiplication table and simple addition and subtraction; need to memorize procedures, long division; conceptual knowledge–need to know why these things work. We are doing okay on the first two in America; but terrible on conceptual knowledge. International comparisons–the younger kids are the better they [Americans] do. At that age, factual knowledge and procedures take you pretty far on those tests. The United States starts to get bad relative to international is high school. Conceptual knowledge means why the procedure works. Why when you are dividing fractions the thing to do is to invert and multiply? Remarkable statistic: high percentage of sixth graders don’t really understand what an equals sign is, what it means. Lots of them think it means put the answer here. Don’t understand that it signifies equality. Algebra will be very confusing. If you don’t understand division conceptually, you will have trouble with factoring later. Pitched as too much emphasis on facts. We need to maintain the factual knowledge. Inverting of fractions–akin to driving while talking on cell phone, eating at the same time–something a human can do and not have an accident most of the time. Tradeoff between getting kids to invert and knowing why you invert. Difficult tradeoff. Can’t let it be a tradeoff; have to make target that they have both. Math hierarchical; really true at the conceptual level. Procedural approach is recipe for getting kids to hate math. Flip side: right answer is not really important, it’s understanding the fundamentals. Those arguments not really embraced by very many teachers. Three million teachers in this country, big diversity of opinion; many pick and choose among the theory and don’t go for ideas way out on a limb. Useful to do back-of-the-envelope calculations–how many mortgages in the United States? how big might the ultimate cost of the crisis be and what does that translate per capita? Don’t want to do a precise calculation.

18 Darren Johnson July 23, 2014 at 2:17 am

does Knausgaard use vouchers?

19 chip July 23, 2014 at 2:36 am

I came to Singapore to start a business but the best result may have been my children learning Singapore math.

They are now supremely confident in their math skills and at least two years ahead of their peers in Canada.

Same goes for personal responsibility, work habits and the other variables that go with the learning process.

My two cents on modern learning methods is that they are usually union-driven and geared to reducing the responsibility and workload of teachers in the classroom.

20 J July 23, 2014 at 9:37 am

Could you elaborate on the Singapore math learning?

21 jtf July 23, 2014 at 4:53 pm

Teaching to the A or O level with highly rigorous problems followed by supplementary tuition courses after school. Much of “Singapore math” is the result of seriously teaching algebra and geometry in primary school (as opposed to really low-level arithmetic) and a culture of making homework problems much more difficult than in the United States.

22 Marie July 23, 2014 at 11:34 pm

I don’t know how well this tracks with the actual national program (I’ve heard not necessarily very) but there is a curriculum playing on the success of Singapore.


23 BurplesonAFB July 23, 2014 at 2:40 am

Wiki: “In 2011, with the total population being 9,562,556; roughly 15% of the population was born abroad, 5% of the population was born in Sweden to two parents born abroad, and another 7% was born in Sweden to one parent born abroad. Resulting in 27% of the Swedish population being of at least partly foreign descent.[11]”

Yes, a lot of these people are Danes and Finns, but a lot of them are also iraqis, somalians and other people with significantly sub-Swedish IQ, conscientiousness, patience etc. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that amongst 15 year olds, given migration and birth rates, the proportion of these latter people have climbed drastically in the last 10 years.

Shouldn’t be too tough to test, look at schools in urban centers where the non-european populations increased and see if the PISA scores slipped there more than average, and look in smaller towns where the population has been relatively stable and see if their scores haven’t resisted whatever dreaded pedagogical methods are being blamed. I mean… fuck.

24 Steve Sailer July 23, 2014 at 6:35 am

Here are 2010 PISA scores (averaging across all 3 subjects) for Sweden

National 495
Swedish ethnic children 505
Swedish born children of immigrants 447
Immigrant children 417

This is on an SAT-like scale where 500 is supposed to be the mean of rich OECD countries and the standard deviation is supposed to be 100.

You can see all countries’ scores by immigrant generation here:


25 Steve Sailer July 23, 2014 at 6:40 am

My vague hunch is that ethnic Swedes ought to be able to score a little higher than that. Their government institutions are not generally obviously corrupt or futile. But Danes and Norwegians don’t shoot the lights out either compared to the high-flying Finns.

26 Andrew M July 23, 2014 at 3:08 am

Yes the teachers are trained at state-run colleges, but there’s nothing stopping the private schools from re-training them in their own teaching methods. It needn’t be expensive: a couple of hours of teacher training every week could make a huge difference by the end of one term. The payback should be quick too, if the methods work. (Regular testing would be required to assess this.) Teaching to a curriculum doesn’t preclude teaching with different methods.

27 Adrian Ratnapala July 23, 2014 at 5:52 am

It’s not just the teacher ed. From the original text:

The curriculum and rules in the classroom are determined by the state…

Teacher ed might or might not be important. If all the teachers believe in a particular orthodoxy then that culture can be hard to change.

28 Andrew M July 23, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Yes, but “rules in the classroom” is rather vague. If we assume “rules” means things like “don’t hit the students when they misbehave”, that’s hardly controversial. If on the other hand the rules include things like “don’t mark in red pen, because red upsets the students”, then Sweden has a problem.

29 andrew' July 23, 2014 at 4:05 am

And it may not be bad because how do we know the test is right? If our Pisa scores go down but our robotics, biology, and econ/finance scores go up I’ll be happy.

30 F. Lynx Pardinus July 23, 2014 at 7:15 am

Same here. I’ve usually found that the people who are the most impressed with international tests and want to US to focus on “winning” the international tests are usually those with the least experience in education principles and testing methodology. I’ve noticed my acquaintances in those fields roll their eyes when people mention “we have to win PISA!”

31 Thomas July 23, 2014 at 4:30 pm

To summarize, those in the education world are least interested in testing students. One could draw another conclusion from this…

32 dearieme July 23, 2014 at 5:04 am

Sweden is late to the party: the Forces of Progress ruined the schools in many other countries years ago.

33 Alex M. July 23, 2014 at 6:31 am

It’s like you guys have never heard of Albert Hirschman.

34 Colin July 23, 2014 at 7:02 am

Another criticism of the Slate piece here by the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson: http://educationnext.org/sweden-school-choice/

35 MG July 23, 2014 at 7:27 am


36 Oakchair July 23, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Cato’s not exactly a shinning star of reliable journalism; its closer to the spectrum of the Heritage foundation.

37 Colin July 23, 2014 at 6:06 pm

I’ll wait for the part where you actually refute at least some of what he wrote.

38 Damien July 23, 2014 at 8:19 am

I’m not sure I quite follow this argument. The issue is that Sweden was typically presented as the poster child for school reform. When everything was supposedly going well, we were told that school reform had brought about good results, that test scores had improved in both private and public schools, and that it all was wonderful when schools and teachers had more autonomy. Pedagogical innovation was specifically mentioned as a great feature brought about by school choice. E.g.:
http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/on_innovation/2012/07/free_school_reforms_in_sweden_boost_quality_innovation_and_choice.html : Swedish schools free to adopt innovative pedagogical methods.
http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/03/school-choice-in-sweden-an-interview-with-thomas-idergard-of-timbro : “The lack of choice created a lack of innovation regarding pedagogical concept and ways of learning adapted to different students’ needs”, “almost half of the independent schools differ more or less radically from public schools regarding pedagogical concept and methods to fulfill the curriculum.”, “The educational results data speak for themselves.”
http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=20288 : “The variety of independent schools is large in both ownership and in innovative pedagogy and practice”
http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/education/140383-sweden-a-model-for-american-school-choice-options- : “The variety of independent schools is large in both ownership – from parental cooperatives to corporate chains — and in innovative pedagogy and practice”

But, now that it seems that there are problems in Sweden, it turns out that it was all an illusion and that schools really don’t have that much autonomy. And that new pedagogical ideas are harmful anyway. So you can use the pedagogical innovation in Sweden to sell school choice, but, if it turns out that test scores are not so good, you can *also* blame pedagogical innovation. That’s a bit too convenient. Heads I win, tails you lose.

Or see Cato’s response, which takes issue with the idea that 11% of students going to private schools could have thrown the entire system into disarray. That’s fair, except that no-one was making this point when it was believed that the Swedish experiment was a great success. Then, people were saying that private schools and competition also had a (positive) impact on public schools and that the good results were mostly due to spill-over effects. You can have positive spill-over effects, but if you suggest there may be negative ones too, you’re told that it’s not possible for such a small share of students to have systemic impact? Again, this hardly seems fair.

Furthermore, it seems that the NR article acknowledges that there were real problems in Sweden: “the business lobby acted shortsightedly and used its influence to thwart demands for more control and regulation”. “Control and regulation” is not something that I typically associate with popular school choice advocates. And how many of them were telling us that Sweden had too little regulation before? Or that a good school choice program still involves rather extensive government oversight?

In fact, in spite of the misleading title that was probably chosen by Slate, there is no deep difference between the NR article and the original Slate one. Both seem to agree that school choice still involves a certain degree of regulation. Both acknowledge that there were problems with the Swedish experiment. Both acknowledge that charter school can yield positive results, but that there are always many factors at play. They’re both centrist articles that say “yes, but”, but are framed differently due to ideological differences.

39 JCW July 23, 2014 at 8:28 am


But, of course, that kind of analysis is no fun for internet commenters.

40 Andrew' July 23, 2014 at 8:34 am

“The issue is that Sweden was typically presented as the poster child for school reform.”

I have NEVER heard this. Not that I think I would hear everything, but I’m here every day.

41 yenwoda July 23, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Sweden has definitely been presented as the poster child for school reform. Hell, I can even find the author of today’s piece approvingly citing some rah-rah piece of Sweden’s school reform (“the primary way that competition effects outcomes is by improving the performance of the nearby public schools”):


Of course today we are reminded that “Fisman doesn’t cite any plausible mechanism through which private schools could have dragged down the test scores of the 86 percent of Swedish pupils who attend public schools”. Now where was that skepticism a couple years ago?

42 P July 23, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Not the same author. Look again.

43 yenwoda July 23, 2014 at 5:50 pm

My bad! Noticed Mr. Salam gazing stoically over my right shoulder in both articles and figured he penned the pair of them.

44 Mr. Econotarian July 24, 2014 at 2:11 pm

Sweden was most definitely called out as a model for UK “free schools.” See “Free school: Conservatives eye the Swedish model”:


Much of the effort for this came from Michael Gove, who was the UK Secretary of State for Education until a few days ago.

45 Oakchair July 23, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Heritage? Might as well cite communismworks.com

46 Marie July 23, 2014 at 11:32 pm

I link again regarding Sweden as poster child for school reform:


47 CJN July 23, 2014 at 8:58 am

This reference indicates that private schools performance was the not the cause of the drop: “In Sweden, there is no statistically significant performance difference between students in private and public schools after accounting for students’ socio-economic status. Between 2003 and 2012, results in public schools deteriorated by 33 points, while results in private schools declined a non-significant 25 points.” http://www.regeringen.se/content/1/c6/23/42/93/11ed5f6d.pdf

48 Oakchair July 23, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Maybe the drop isn’t caused by private schools but instead caused by policy makers who focus isn’t on doing things that improve performance but rather on privatizing schools. Governments that implement policies that improve performance such as healthier meals,
teaching about time management and how actions effect oneself, etc etc
results in improvements while governments whose only focus is privatization lose out on these performance enhancing goals. The evidence shows that privatization doesn’t improve performance so focusing on privatization when there are other ways to improve performance will cause performance to lag others

49 Thomas July 23, 2014 at 4:44 pm

“teaching… how actions effect oneself”

“privatization doesn’t improve performance”

The irony is strong with this one.

50 Urso July 23, 2014 at 10:41 am

“In recent decades, modern ‘individualist’ or ‘progressive’ pedagogic ideas took hold. The idea is that pupils should not be forced to learn using external incentives such as grades, and children should take responsibility for their own learning, driven by internal motivation.”

Prof. Cowen, I’d like to hear your response to this vis a via MRU.

51 Boonton July 23, 2014 at 12:21 pm

OK this is all well and good except for the fact that vouchers have failed.

I mean the idea that vouchers could drive a non-trivial improvement in either school outcomes or costs seems to be pretty much sunk here. OK you can come up with after-the-fact explanations for why Sweden’s vouchers were not perfect….private schools weren’t as free to change around styles or subject matter as they should have been, for example. But let’s face it if vouchers were a remarkably better way to run a school system then imperfect vouchers would yield improvement but not as much improvement as could be achieved with an ideal voucher system.

Perhaps you can fall back on other arguments such as vouchers aren’t harmful (the gist of this post), or that in some specialized circumstances they could lead to an improvement but that’s NOT the argument made by voucher advocates and they need to account properly for that failure in this discussion.

52 Urso July 23, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Unless the parents like the private schools for reasons not captured by PISA. Who said the only permissible goal of education was to maximize standardized test scores? Seems pretty narrowminded to me.

53 Boonton July 23, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I don’t have a problem with that. But then that would still be a failure of vouchers as a major school reform IMO. “We did it because parents seem to like it” is fine, but isn’t some type of major reform. If parents like school mascotts who are fuzzy animals ditching pirate suits isn’t school reform even if it increases some level of happiness.

Who said the only permissible goal of education was to maximize standardized test scores

Good point, quite possible that self-directed learning and team based activities are great educational foundations for the real world but not great for standardized test prep. So what? Few, if any, employers hire based on standardized tests. Wheres the evidence that acing standardized tests is a good measure of educational success? I’m fine with that argument too. But if you want to mount a massive ‘school reform’ effort then it is implied, IMO, that you have some sensible way to measure how schools are doing now and that measure will indicate whether or not your reforms were successful.

54 Urso July 23, 2014 at 2:19 pm

“then it is implied, IMO, that you have some sensible way to measure how schools are doing now and that measure will indicate whether or not your reforms were successful.”
The metric is whether the parents and students believe the new schools are meeting their needs better than the old schools. Each family may have a different understanding of what their individual “needs” are, but that’s ok. As to the rest, seems like it’s splitting hairs to argue over whether this counts as a “major reform” or not; I don’t think there’s a rule that only “major” reforms are worth doing.

55 Boonton July 23, 2014 at 4:03 pm

So how is that metric going to work, say, five years later? How is this different from just conducting an opinion poll about what people think of the local school and considering positive feedback to be a success, negative a failure? One doesn’t need a voucher system to do that.

56 Urso July 23, 2014 at 4:33 pm

I don’t understand. What about “conducting an opinion poll about what people think of the local school and considering positive feedback to be a success, negative a failure?” is wrong? It’s like saying that you have to have something to judge a restaurant on besides whether diners enjoy their meal.

The difference is, in a voucher system a parent who gives a negative answer to the poll question can try another school.

57 Marie July 23, 2014 at 11:44 pm

Urso answers here are excellent.

58 albatross July 24, 2014 at 9:34 am

Apply the same thing to doctors and hospitals: If you have a hospital that gets consistently high consumer satisfaction ratings in surveys, but has lousy survival rates for common surgeries and illnesses, that doesn’t sound like particularly good news.

59 Urso July 24, 2014 at 10:05 am

Perhaps, but (a) your hypothet doesn’t seem likely – people whose family members suffered preventable deaths probably won’t have warm feeling about the hospital and doctor; and (b) equating PISA scores with survival rates for surgery seems like a stretch.

60 Boonton July 24, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Urso, your proposed metric was whether parents and students believe the new school (post vouchers I guess) feel better than the pre-voucher school. Well after about 5 years that becomes irrelevant as the parents and students in the new school would not have been in the old school so they couldn’t make any real judgement on whether things were better or worse. For all their faults at least standardized tests are objective in the sense that you don’t have to rely upon memory to see how things are changing.

It’s like saying that you have to have something to judge a restaurant on besides whether diners enjoy their meal

The restaurant owner is looking for profit so he has a very objective metric to use to measure results every night. He may care about whether diners enjoy their meal as a means to that end but ultimately he has better metrics to use.

But if ultimately your measure is just how good parents feel about the local public school you could simply do a poll and give bonuses based on the results. No need for a voucher system. Again the point here is that it’s up to voucher advocates to make the case for vouchers, not for everyone else to prove vouchers are bad.

61 Marie July 24, 2014 at 3:51 pm


But in the age of Google (where it’s not that hard to find out whether you got standard care or not), why would a hospital with sub-par rates on medical results ever rate high in customer satisfaction?

62 Boonton July 25, 2014 at 9:13 am

A person may eat at a lot of different restaurants so she may have a good sense of the diversity in quality out there and then when she gives one place five stars and another place two stars it’s because one is good and other isn’t. But many people only go to the hospital when they need something big. If I need an organ transplant, for example, I’m probably only going to do it once. I’m not going to do it five times at five different hospitals and then compare and contrast what I liked and disliked about each one.

Sort of the same issue with schools. I went to one high school at one 4 year period. It felt like a fine school at the time but I have no idea what it’s like now. I also have no idea how things would have been better or worse if I had done one of the many other high schools in the area instead.

There are people, of course, who connect with many schools. Perhaps they have big extended families spread over a large area and they keep in touch with neices, nephews and so on and keep tabs on their schools. And, of course, there are people who work in the industry. Maybe private tutors, substitute teachers and so on who get to see how many different schools operate. Still it seems much more difficult to simply ‘review’ either schools or hospitals by simply asking customers to fill out surveys IMO. I think such feedback is very useful for trying to run any one particular school or hospital but less so if you’re trying to figure out which one is better than the other.

63 Marie July 25, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Give it time, Boonton!

My healthy nuclear family has been in the hospital five times — three births, a diagnosis, and two after hours ER visits.

If you branch out to extended family and friends, I can add a lot more.

I can tell you which hospital is my preferred, which I’ll accept, and which I’d rather get out the ballpoint pen and the pen knife like I saw on a TV episode once before bringing anyone to. Most of the folks I know also can tell you all these things. I don’t think any of us rely on some comparative official rating system.

64 Marie July 25, 2014 at 7:07 pm

Oh, just one other note:

“Well after about 5 years that becomes irrelevant as the parents and students in the new school would not have been in the old school so they couldn’t make any real judgement on whether things were better or worse. ”

I know it’s more and more rare, but there are still American couples that have more than one kid! 😉

65 Marie July 23, 2014 at 11:41 pm

Good point.

66 Boonton July 23, 2014 at 12:30 pm

in my view, the main culprit was the experiment with radically new pedagogical methods. The Swedish school system used to rely on traditional teaching methods. In recent decades, modern “individualist” or “progressive” pedagogic ideas took hold.

Hmmm, and why would vouchers stop such a change? The failure in this explanation is that nothing about vouchers forces schools to adopt a ‘memorization’ model. In fact the ‘touchy feely’ model of ‘group learning’ and ‘fun projects’ sounds exactly like something a private school might put in their brochures in a voucher-based world to sell to parents….esp. since it sounds exactly like the feel-good corporate talk a lot of upper middle class parents hear at their jobs. In fact unless you make vouchers pay by test score results, there’s no special reason to think that vouchers would produce higher test scores to begin with.

67 Tom July 23, 2014 at 2:25 pm

This is probably the best line: “since the public Swedish schools were pretty well managed to start with, productivity gains from privatization were limited.”

This is a dumb controversy, pumped up by disingenuous American opponents of charter schools who know nothing about what’s going on in Sweden. I don’t really know much about Swedish public schools either, but I’m sure as hell not going to get my information from some wild-eyed American socialist or libertarian report from the ideological trenches.

What I do know is the Swedish system is basically a charter school system where charter school funding depends on enrollment. It’s not a real voucher system – a student merely takes his public funding with him when he transfers from public to charter school. There is no actual monetary-value voucher that can be applied towards private tuition. The old private schools also still exist and get no public money.

68 Boonton July 23, 2014 at 4:06 pm

That’s still a voucher model. Presumably that system would have some mesure of competition producting results even if it wasn’t a full fledged voucher system…at least when contrasted to the older model where you are simply assigned a public school to go to.

So again that begs the question of where are the fantastic results promised us by voucher advocates? This line of defense is starting to sound like defenses of socialism which start off by asserting the USSR was not ‘true socialism’ therefore its poor results had nothing to do with the merits of socialism.

69 Thomas July 23, 2014 at 4:52 pm

Boonton, you are attacking voucher systems, and necessarily the underlying assumptions of the gains from competition, by using the evidence of a model which went from no competition to essentially no competition. Your major claim is that the assertion that free markets increase quality was so strong, that even a completely minor change in that direction should have produced measurable results which would outweigh any outside influences, such as immigration. In short, despite your criticisms, you are doing a poor job of demonstrating the failures of a free market here, which appears to be your goal.

70 Boonton July 24, 2014 at 2:59 pm

I think you’re trying to put forth a far too ideological assertion here. It very well could be the case that vouchers (perfect or imperfect) do little or nothing to improve school quality. If that fact is true it hardly follows that the entire ‘free market’ system is wrong and should be ditched.

‘Essentially no competition to no comeptition’? Come come now, funding follows the students. Clearly even if private schools are excluded a system of public school choice where funding follows the students would produce at least some serious competition effect. If voucher advocates assert competition promises vast improvements in either school quality or cost containment then clearly we should see evidence in the results. If you want to assert that the good results were swamped by other factors like immigration or shifting educational fads then clearly the good results are a bit less than fantastic. I’m not saying this or any study proves vouchers are bad or even that they don’t work. I’m pointing out that if vouchers are as great as many advocates have claimed, then they need to do better to explain the lack of results.

71 Marie July 24, 2014 at 4:16 pm

I think I’m going to disagree with you there, although I see what you are thinking.

Our state is a free school state, meaning that parents can enroll their kids in any school they are willing to transport them to. State funding per student is about $7,000. This deal includes charter schools, which not everyone knows (but obviously you do) are also public schools, just niche ones.

So this is essentially the same system Thomas is saying Sweden went to. Have we seen huge gains?

I haven’t seen stats, but I don’t think we have. Here’s why I think that is. Say you have 5 public elementary schools in driving range. Previously, kids went to the closest school. This has the effect of segregating neighborhoods by class and some schools got better than others because those schools were full of the kids of parents who wanted a good school badly enough to move for it. With the new system, there’s a bit of a shuffle because now we have schools testing well if they are attended by the kids of parents who want a good school badly enough to drive their kids to school every day. You will get a bunch of folks wanting to get into the school that already tests well because of the previous system, and a few folks running to charters because they like the niche (classic, uniforms, tech, whatever). Those schools fill up. Process stops. Not much has changed.

Now with vouchers (which I strongly do not support), if parents can bring their kids to any school and bring a check with then obviously what you will get is not just a reshuffling and maybe an addition after a few years of a new charter school or two. You will get all sorts of private schools sprouting up. The old Sears building down the street will become the new STEM school. Grannies that used to be kindergarten teachers will open a new kindergarten in the strip mall. They’ll show up as quickly as the regulatory process for starting a new school will let them. Many will die off, but meanwhile the public school district won’t have seen a reshuffling of their funding (so they have to transfer teachers, etc.) — it will have seen a disappearance of its funding.

These are two very different situations. Again, vouchers are a bad thing, but if Sweden did what Thomas said this is not vouchers a la U.S. advocates. And it’s old news, because I doubt ours is the only state that lets parents pick whatever school they want their kids to attend and bring funding with them.

72 Boonton July 25, 2014 at 9:02 am


I think transportation is probably the real problem for vouchers. Few parents will spend an hour or more driving their kid to and from school, so at most vouchers/competition can only happen within a reasonable geographic range. If that range happens to be in a very dense area like a city, there’s potential to get lots of school competition. If you’re talking about the suburbs or rural areas there’s probably not enough of a customer base to support more than a handful of schools.

You do point out something interesting, you say that charter schools tend to veer towards ‘niches’. Well for one thing a competitive process would still cause the makeup of schools to change. IF STEM schools are ‘fashionable’, then a ‘free school’ system would provide an invenctive for STEM charters to open and general public schools to close. So even if ‘voucher-lite’ systems like Sweden or your state is implemented that’s still really no excuse not to demonstrate dramatic improvements if the promises made for vouchers are halfway true.

I also think you touch upon another point when you mention niches being created by increasing school choice. Quite simply you get what you pay for. If you pay for one thing, you’ll get it. If you give money to lots of different people you’ll get lots of different things because people are different. The problem with most educational reforms is that they are solutions that fail to figure out what problems they are trying to solve. If your problem is poor test scores, the solution is a lot simplier than vouchers. Offer a 20% bonus based on test scores. Ditto for graduation rates, violence, etc. Of course with metrics like that you have to be on the lookout for gaming the system (helping students cheat on the test, refusing to kick out bad students to boost the graduation rate etc.).

Do that and you’ll get what you want. The more worthy issue to discuss, IMO, is to ask what it is we should want from schools and purported ‘reform’? Do we want a million different types of schools specializing in everything from science to esoteric dead languages? Do we want simply to rank #1 on international standardized tests without any evidence that ranking higher makes us a more competitive country? Not saying these aren’t nice to have things but keep in mind public schools are funded not by parents but by taxpayers (yes those groups overlap to some degree but they are NOT the same). My issue with vouchers is that they are not really about ‘market forces’ and ‘customer empowerment’. In the market you have power as a customer because you are using YOUR money to buy things. If you’re using someone else’s debit card to buy stuff it isn’t the same thing. Voucher systems are premised on diminishing the power of the taxpayer who is funding the school and increasing the power of the parent. If you can show me that results in good things I’m willing to listen but absent a compelling argument for it the default answer IMO should be ‘no’.

73 Marie July 25, 2014 at 6:55 pm


The government gives everyone $1000 a month to buy groceries, but you can only buy from Walmart or Sam’s Club. Sure, there’d be some kind of competition between the two stores but since they are both owned by the same corporation and there’s no new pressures you’re just going to see some marketing tricks and some rearranging of the deck chairs. But if you can buy your groceries anywhere you want, new suppliers will pop up and Walmart and Sams will have to compete with them, which will either improve them or knock them out.

A closed system does not mimic an open one.

On your other points, you bring up important issues. I’d say that you are moving from taking the power of the community’s money out of the hands of one small group (professional educators) and putting it into the hands of another small group (parents), but you are absolutely right that public schooling is supposed to be for the public good, not for the good of the kids in the schools. And if we cannot agree on what is good for the public, we certainly can’t agree on how to get there or on who should drive us there.

I think a good case could be made that the best interests of the community that is paying to educate youth is served by diversity of ability. Some argue that public school once served to make for a competent army, or a trainable factory work force (those guys also point out that our current system largely trains people to do well as prisoners). But today it seems to me that if we teach all our kids to program software or work as ER nurses, we’re going to have quite a problem in 10 years. Ken Robinson makes the point that the world is changing way too quickly now for us to train our kids for any one direction, and that teaching flexibility is the way to go. But I think that if we found a way to extract from individual students the skills they were most inclined to that were also skills in potential demand in future markets, that would be wise. Given that, who is best suited to that level of individualization — school administrators with nationally standardized tests or parents and students with vouchers?

I’m not arguing the parents should have control because schools are “for” their kids — you are right, schools are “for” the community at large. I’m arguing that if the taxpayers are funneling money, the current system of funneling serves the needs of the community very poorly.

Not a fan of vouchers myself, but if Sweden really had just a choice of public schools that’s not a good test of vouchers, and I think a case can be made that vouchers are good for the community’s goals (no matter how poorly the community agrees upon and articulates that).

74 Art Deco July 23, 2014 at 5:21 pm

but I’m sure as hell not going to get my information from some wild-eyed American socialist or libertarian report from the ideological trenches.

By an opinion journalist who doesn’t know much but does have an audience to entertain. (See Lee Fang and “Contango”).

75 Robert July 23, 2014 at 3:50 pm

“Gibberish Speaking Muppets”

76 albatross July 24, 2014 at 9:37 am

My suspicion (I don’t know enough about education in general or Swedish schools in particular to be entitled to an opinion) is that school success may be one of those things like crime rate or rate of drug use or rate of teen pregnancy. We care about the thing we’re measuring, and we have polices to try to affect it, but it’s hard to tell if those policies even have much effect–crime or teen pregnancy or school performance kind-of move around on their own in response to complex social forces and demographics.

77 Floccina July 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Arnold Kling’s null hypothesis seems to hold. Perhaps we should focus on getting the same education cheaper.

IMHO though PISA does not measure anything important about education.

78 greg July 24, 2014 at 8:55 pm

During 5th and 6th grade I attended school on a military base. At the time they were experimenting with this program called Mathland which as far as I recall consisted primarily of playing with blocks. Completely useless. At the time I didn’t mind since it was so easy and we didn’t have any homework, but when we moved midway through the year to a school that taught real math I was really far behind and realized I hadn’t learned a damn thing in two years. The so-called modern methods are crap, but for some reason the educational establishment just can’t get enough of those vague, touchy-feely learning outcomes.

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