An education system more American than America’s

Dallas News (TX), January 15, 2009

ÅSTAD, Sweden – While Texas is struggling to lift sagging standards in its public education system, Sweden’s schools are rockin’ and rollin’.

But Sweden’s approach to education is culturally all-American. The Swedish model encourages competition and empowers individuals to take responsibility for their own education.

Ironically, in contrast to our sky-is-the-limit mentality, Swedish culture stresses lagom, which roughly translates as “just enough” or “moderation.” The Swedes focus on the collective good and equality. Americans are ruggedly individualistic and savor competition.

However our one-size-fits-all public education system leaves students in Dallas with less choice and opportunity than their counterparts in Stockholm. That needs to change.

The Swedish model is built on two pillars of choice: a voucher system at both the primary and secondary levels and varied high school tracks.

Let’s start with the voucher program. If a public school isn’t meeting a student’s needs, he or she can leave. Students have the option to switch to another public school or they can leave the public system altogether and opt for a private school, explained Fredric Skälstad, political adviser to the Swedish minister of education.

The government attaches money to each student, which then follows him wherever he goes. Students with special needs – such as those from non-Swedish-speaking backgrounds – receive extra money.

If a public school isn’t up to snuff, students leave. And they take their money with them.

In an interview released by the Pacific Research Institute, Stockholm County governor and former education minister Per Unckel explained: “Choice is for everyone, whatever income you have. The right of the kid is to get a good education. If the public sector cannot offer it, he or she should have the right to go somewhere else.”

Skälstad told me that when Sweden introduced the voucher system in the early ’90s, it was controversial. But it’s now widely popular, and the results have shown rising standards across the board.

The program has also helped desegregate schools in cities with large immigrant populations, such as Stockholm.

“It’s a way for the high achievers to get out of the environment that is holding them back,” Skälstad said.

“You can change your situation. You do not just go to a certain school because a bureaucrat drew a line on a map. This is a way for everyone to be able to make something out of themselves.”

The second pillar of choice piggy-backs off the voucher system to allow high schoolers to choose from a smorgasbord of high school programs centered on three paths: college preparatory, vocational and a more remedial track.

So, Swedish students go to schools they like and are able to follow their interests and passions. A prime example of this is the Apelryd high school here in this small town on Sweden’s southeastern coast. It’s a private school specializing in music, fashion and design, sports and culinary arts. The facilities are top-notch and rival the best private schools in Dallas.

But the voucher system means that students here can attend such state-of-the-art private schools without having to pay tuition.

Cecilia Weidrup – the school’s guidance counselor – raved about Apelryd, calling it a “very special place.” She told me the teachers and students love it, a statement supported by the smiles on the faces of pupils and instructors alike.

Last fall, I visited a high school near the Arctic Circle that trains students to be pilots, and I was struck by how motivated students were. That’s probably because they all chose to be there. In Sweden, it’s like every high school is a magnet school, offering specialized programs to recruit students, since schools compete with each other.

The U.S. has the best higher education system in the world in great part because universities compete for survival. But when it comes to primary and secondary education, we have public schools run by slow-moving bureaucracies that face little competition. Our schools frequently fail to meet student needs, whether they want to go to college or become a mechanic.

Passionately egalitarian Sweden uses vouchers to ensure that all students have an opportunity to achieve. But in the U.S., we deny students control over their education and often lock them into under-performing schools where they are unable to follow their dreams.

That seems pretty un-American to me.

Some may question whether the Swedish model could work in the U.S. But Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute, argued that such doubts are misguided. “There isn’t anything that discounts the Swedish model as something the U.S. can’t look at,” he said.

After all, isn’t it strange that Sweden has a more American education system than we do?

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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