It was one of many tense moments at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing this year. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., repeatedly asked DeVos if she believed that all schools that receive public money, including private schools, should meet the same accountability standards. DeVos would not answer yes or no; she eventually began repeating, “I support accountability.”
Many people were alarmed by her answers. They fear what will happen to American education if school choice is expanded without mechanisms in place to ensure students are learning and schools are of high quality. Some point to Sweden, and its plummeting international test scores, as a warning of what more school choice in the U.S. could bring without an accompanying rise in accountability.
Sweden adopted a nationwide universal voucher program in 1992 as part of a series of reforms designed to give more control over education to towns and schools. Families can choose any school, public or private: Taxpayer money follows the student. This voucher system has led to a burgeoning industry of mostly for-profit, private schools, also called “free schools.” Two of the companies that run schools in Sweden are listed on the country’s stock exchange.
In contrast to American private schools, Sweden’s free schools don’t charge tuition — they draw on government funds to operate — and are required to follow Sweden’s national curriculum. They’re more comparable to American charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. About 18 percent of Swedish students are enrolled in free schools; in comparison, charter schools enroll 6 percent of American students.
In 2000, Swedish students performed well-above average on an international test called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). By 2012, they were below average in math, reading and science. Sweden had the steepest decline of any of any participating country over that time period. (There were 65 participating countries that year.) In 2015, the scores rose to meet international averages, but Sweden’s performance remains far below what it once was. The drop has prompted a flurry of debate in the country about what led to the decline and whether the growth of free schools is to blame.
Critics of Sweden’s private schools point to the fact that public school students outperformed students at private schools (after controlling for socioeconomic status) as proof that free schools contribute disproportionately to the lagging results. Others say that the declines can’t be blamed on free schools – it’s impossible to parse out the impact of choice compared to other reforms made at the same time, such as decentralizing the education system. Some studies have found that outcomes for all students are better in areas with a greater number of free schools, while other research suggests that the presence of free schools has no positive long-term effects for students.
Johan Ernestam, a senior officer at Lärarförbundet, the Swedish teachers union, said whether or not free schools are the root cause of Sweden’s sinking education scores, one thing is clear: “It’s proof that school choice is not a way to make schools better in itself,” he said. He added that it’s impossible to place blame for the decline solely on free schools because there are no “good measures of whether a school is good or bad.”
And without knowing that, it’s hard to know what changes to make to fix the problem. A 2015 OECD report on Sweden warned the country’s school system was in “need of urgent change” and that its accountability measures were “weak and unclear.”
In theory, the market was supposed to act as its own accountability measure; competition would mean that low-quality schools would close, said Jonas Vlachos, an economics professor at the University of Stockholm who has studied free schools.
“The tension that you see is that if you’re very … laissez-faire about who can run a school, you will end up in a situation that you need more regulation,” Vlachos said, adding that Sweden largely trusts its schools to hold themselves accountable. “It’s glaringly obvious that you can’t really do it like this.”
Critics of school choice say that lesson, so obvious to Vlachos, should have already been learned on this side of the Atlantic. Michigan, DeVos’ home state, has become notorious for its weak oversight of charter schools. The state scores poorly on national exams. On state tests, the worst scores, on average, are those of the state’s charter school students. Consequences for poor performance are non-existent.
“What went wrong in Sweden went wrong here,” said Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University who calls Michigan “a disaster.” (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit located at Teachers College.)
Related: What can Betsy DeVos really do?
So far, the Trump administration has not made much headway on expanding school choice. A budget proposal to give states money for charters and private school vouchers died in the Senate this fall. But Abrams expects DeVos will continue to advocate for more choice without additional oversight.
“What Betsy DeVos believes … is that parents are the best judges of quality, so you don’t need rigid accountability from the top,” he said. The problem, he added, is that it’s difficult for parents to accurately gauge the quality of a school without accurate information from the state.
In the U.S., the results of standardized tests are the main measure of school success, but critics say the tests don’t capture more nuanced aspects of school quality. A new federal law has addressed that concern and will allow states more flexibility in rating schools. Consequences for poor performance have been largely left to states and localities, however. In some states, like Michigan, schools are rarely punished or closed for consistently posting low marks on tests or other measures.
That’s also an issue in Sweden. The country does assess its schools, but its methods are deeply flawed and don’t guarantee low-performing schools are even identified, Vlachos and other education experts there say. It’s hard for parents to make informed choices and hard for the government to know which schools need help, and which should be closed.
The primary information officials and parents have about schools comes from the national exams students take in third, sixth and ninth grade and before they graduate high school. The tests are graded internally by schools, often by the very teachers who taught the test-taking students.
Vlachos said the exams are a weak way to measure school success because it is easy for schools to inflate the scores. As scores on international assessment have dropped, grades on national exams have risen.
In contrast to standardized exams given in the United States, Sweden’s standardized tests are not primarily multiple choice. They’re full of open-ended questions and may even require group work or involve oral components, making them very subjective to grade.
There’s little oversight to make sure teachers are giving students the grades they deserve. Scores can become an important piece of marketing, and marketing is key for drawing more students — and the funding that comes with them — in a highly competitive choice system like Sweden’s.
AB Videdals Privatskolor in Malmö, at the southern tip of Sweden, boasts some of the highest grades in the country on the ninth-grade exam. CEO Stefan Klåvus said that’s one reason why the school received more than 2,500 applications last year for 16 slots.
Klåvus is an ardent school choice supporter who would like to see all schools in Sweden become free schools. He said that the accusations of grade inflation are made by people who are interested in protecting the public schools from competition; he’d be happy to have the exams graded externally to remove any doubt. “Our teachers are even harder in their examination,” he said. “They know they have other eyes on them.”
The assistant principal at the school, Sussi Andersson, said that teachers always discuss whether they’re being too generous with their grades and that respect for their profession prevents them from doing anything unethical. Almost every year the school asks graduates to come back and discuss how prepared they were for high school. This serves as another check to make sure teachers aren’t going easy on their students.
Administrators at other schools said they take measures to try to ensure validity in their grades. For instance, they ask teachers to swap tests so they’re not grading exams taken by their own students, or will arrange to switch tests with another school. Students’ names are not listed on the exams. Administrators said this prevents teachers from grading on any sort of individual curve.
Vlachos is not convinced measures voluntarily taken by some schools are enough to mitigate the larger problem. He recently coauthored a paper that found teachers at free schools gave more generous grades to their students than their peers at public schools, based on a comparison of external scoring of the same exams.
The data Vlachos used comes from the Swedish Inspectorate, a separate government entity in charge of monitoring school compliance with the law. For several years, the Inspectorate has regraded exams at randomly selected schools to ensure teachers have not been too easy on students. “We find it quite often,” said Helena Olivestam Torold, an inspector in the southern part of the country. She said she’s had discussions with teachers from both public and free schools who are upset that school leaders pressured them to give tests high scores.
Olivestam Torold is part of a team of 250 inspectors in charge of making sure schools are following the law. They conduct a review of each municipality’s public school system once every three years and will visit schools flagged for possible violations. Inspectors visit all free schools once every three years, whether flagged for violations or not. But experts and some educators say the process is an imperfect check on the country’s flawed testing system.
When a municipality or free school is up for review, all parents, students and teachers fill out a survey about their experiences. Negative responses, such as those of students who say they don’t feel safe or of teachers who say they aren’t satisfied with a headmaster’s leadership, may flag a school for an in-person visit. Schools that were randomly selected for a test regrade and found to have inflated grades might also earn additional inspection.
During these visits, inspectors question the headmaster and spend anywhere from half a day to a week at a school observing classes, talking to teachers and students and going through paperwork. They produce a report that outlines whether the school is following legal requirements, some of which relate to school quality. For instance, the law mandates that educators follow the national curriculum and provide students who have fallen behind with extra support.
But the law doesn’t necessarily specify what those supports should look like – whether they should be based on best practices, for instance – or gauge how effective they are. Inspectors only check to see if something is in place, not how well it is working. That means it’s possible for a school that isn’t serving its students well to get a good report. “They can follow the law and do it poorly,” Olivestam Torold said.
Last fall, inspectors spent a day at Vibyskolan, a nonprofit free school that serves kindergarten through ninth grade. The school, started by parents in the late 90s, is located in Sollentuna, a wealthy area just north of Stockholm in which free schools are
particularly popular. After wandering the school and popping in classrooms, interviewing student council members and teachers, and talking to the school’s board, inspectors produced a report citing two ways the school could better follow Sweden’s detailed education laws.
First, inspectors found that the 340-student school needed to do a better job linking its after-school activities to its curriculum, and should set goals for both. Second, the school needed to do a better job incorporating discussions about career paths into the curriculum from first grade on. Neither finding was surprising, said principal Jenny Wahlström.
This year, school officials and teachers are talking about establishing goals for after-school programs, such as sports, cooking and “spa day,” and how they can measure their achievement. Wahlström said they’re looking at ways to better communicate to parents what happens at after school programs and what children are learning from these activities.
In the early grades, administrators are making sure teachers engage students in discussions about the jobs they see performed around them. As part of this effort, second grade parents are coming in to talk about their jobs. A thorough plan, detailing the changes, hangs clipped to a wall of the main office for anyone to read. A copy was also sent to the inspectorate.
Wahlström and other school leaders said they found the inspection process helpful, but this view was not held by all educators. Patrik Welt, principal of AB Videdals Privatskolor in Malmö, said he thought the inspectorate could, and should, go further. The inspections “should be more often, [harder] and more precise,” he said, adding that he thinks they should look more at the quality of a school, than at its adherence to the letter of the law.
The Inspectorate does conduct quality audits focused on specific areas, such as instruction in a particular subject or school management. Those reports provide both positive and negative feedback and information about ways to improve.
Quality inspections are still relatively rare. In a country with 7,500 schools, the inspectorate does about 1,000 school visits a year to make sure schools are following the law, but performs only 200 quality audits. That may soon be changing, though, said Olivestam Torold, in a way that will address critics’ concerns.
In the United States, many staunch school choice supporters are alarmed by the Trump administration’s goal of expanding school choice without any accompanying plans for tougher accountability.
Yet many outspoken charter school advocates say it’s vital charter schools answer for their performance. In Sweden, many free school educators feel the same way. They want more accountability.
Ulla Hamilton, president of Sweden’s Free School Association, thinks increased quality inspections would both prove that most free schools are doing well and help parents make more informed choices. She also believes that there need to be more consequences for failing to perform.
“If you don’t have quality, you should shut down, whoever the owner,” she said. “That’s really important. That also sets an example for everyone else.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program. Sign up for our newsletter.