Friday, June 6, 2008

Finding the secret to educational success

Hat tip to our friend Pete the Finance Guy for finding this great article. The following piece appeared in the Economist.

Our friends in the north - Finding the secret to educational success

THE best schools in the world, it is generally agreed, are in Finland. In the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) studies, which compare 15-year-olds' reading, mathematics and science abilities in more than 50 countries, it routinely comes top. So politicians, academics, think-tankers and teachers from all over the world visit Finnish schools in the hope of discovering the magic ingredient. Journalists come too, and now it’s my turn.

And since I'm coming this far north, I want to take in Sweden too. That social-democratic paradise has carried out school reforms that make free-market ideologues the world over weak at the knees. In the 1990s it opened its state-education system to private competition, allowing new schools to receive the same amount for each pupil as the state would have spent on that child.

Sweden is my first stop. My week starts with post-breakfast coffee with Widar Andersson, an ex-chairman of Sweden’s Independent Schools Association. When the independent schools reforms were first mooted in 1991, he was a member of parliament for the Social Democrats, in one of their rare spells in opposition. “I think I was the only Social Democrat in favour of the reforms,” he tells me.

In 1994, when they came into force, he and two state-school teachers opened one of the very first independent schools. It was not the first time he took on the state: years earlier he and a few other social workers had set up a private company trying innovative ways to treat drug addicts. “I learned there must be other ways to do things than those the state has decided are right, especially in a country like Sweden where the state is so large,” he says.

Then I head to the education ministry. The minister is in budget negotiations, but his officials brief me on the new government's plans (a centre-right coalition is once more in power). Copying Finland seems to be the name of the game: more teacher training, and lots of special-needs teaching. It must be galling to live next door to the world’s best schools, especially when to the rest of the world, the two countries look essentially identical.

Back in London, a Russian acquaintance who lived in Sweden for many years had offered me his explanation for the gap in school achievement between Finland and Sweden: Finland never did the 70s, he says, while the Swedes did it wholesale and are still stuck there. Swedish teachers can’t even take a child’s mobile phone away if he is using it during class, he fumes. Bertil Östberg, State Secretary to Jan Björklund, the education minister, laughs and agrees; apparently the great mobile-phone-in-class scandal was an issue in a previous election campaign. “We will give teachers the right to confiscate mobile phones,” he assures me.

I hear that the 1970s orthodoxy—that competition and grades destroyed a child's motivation—means that Swedish children who are failing to learn can proceed right through compulsory school without anyone intervening or even noticing. If parents ask for a report, they can be given one—but it mustn’t include anything that looks like a grade. I offer the sort of fatuity I imagine such documents include: “Helen has contributed nicely to classroom discussion”. It is acknowledged as a classic of the genre. The new government, I am told, will make grades and reports not only legal, but compulsory.

Next, a visit to Sodra Latin (South Latin), a popular and prestigious gymnasium (upper high school, for 16-19-year-olds). Education at this age is not compulsory, and although Sodra Latin is a state school, entry is highly competitive. It is particularly strong in music, with chamber and symphony orchestras, a jazz band and an excellent choir. The youngsters are clever and motivated. But, says the head teacher, it is the first time most have experienced competition, and many study late—the school is open till 10pm—and come in at weekends too.

I dine with Carl-Gustaf Stawström, the managing director of the Association of Independent Schools. He gives me a nice example of the way the market is providing choice and variety, as well as pressure for higher standards. His own daughter attends an independent gymnasium which crams most schooling into half-days. “If you want only to find problems, you see people who are trying to do things cheaply,” he says, “but she is a keen athlete and trains in the afternoons, so it suits her very well.”

The above is just day one of a five day series. Please go to the Economist to read the whole series.

Quote of the Day - "If I was the parent of a child who went to an inner city school that was failing ... I might be for vouchers, too."

-- Vice President Al Gore, New York Post, August 10, 2000

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