How Sweden’s school system can regain its old strength

by Andreas Schleicher

Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

During my days as a university student, I used to look to Sweden as the gold standard for education. A country which was providing high quality and innovative education to children across social ranks, and close to making lifelong learning a reality for all. My professor and mentor, Torsten Husén, was the architect of empirical educational science.

But not long after the turn of the 21st  century, the Swedish school system seems to have lost its soul. Schools began to compete no longer just with superior learning outcomes, but by offering their students shiny buildings in shopping centres, or a driving license instead of better teaching. And while teachers were giving their students better marks each year, international comparisons portrayed a steady decline in student performance. Indeed, no other country taking part in PISA has seen a steeper fall. School discipline has worsened too, with students more likely to arrive late for school than elsewhere.

And yet, Sweden has every chance to become one of the world’s educational leaders again. Among others, it has one asset that few other countries in the Western world offer: The firm belief of Swedes in the power of education to transform lives, generate prosperity and promote social inclusion. And with that comes the unwavering commitment of Swedish citizens and policy-makers from across the political spectrum to do whatever it takes to provide all children with the knowledge, skills and values which they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world.

But some things are in urgent need of change. At the top of the list is the need to raise standards and aspirations for students. The fact that Swedish students think they are doing fine, while their learning outcomes are average at best, underlines the need to significantly strengthen rigor, focus and coherence in school standards. There is a similar need to seriously review teaching methods: According to PISA the majority of math problems which students get exposed to are tasks with relatively low cognitive demand which teacher then try hard to make appear as real-world problems. In contrast, tasks requiring deep conceptual understanding and complex ways of thinking are relatively rare.

Equally important is the belief in the success of every child. Top school systems realise that ordinary students have extraordinary talents and they embrace diversity with differentiated instructional practices. The fact that a majority of Swedish students in PISA believe that success in mathematics is owed to talent rather than hard work, suggests that Sweden must try harder to lower tolerance for failure and raise students’ sense of responsibility for learning. When students in Singapore or Shanghai were asked the same question, virtually all of them said that if they work hard, they trust their teachers to support them and that they will succeed. And they do.

Sweden also needs to revert to one of the traditional strengths of its school system: support for disadvantage. This should include greater focus on enhancing language skills for migrant students and their parents; high quality reception classes; assistants in the classroom; and improved access for disadvantaged families to information about schools. And yet, the performance challenge is not just an issue of poor kids in poor neighborhoods, but for many kids in many neighborhoods. PISA shows that the 10% most disadvantaged students in Shanghai easily outperform the 10% of kids from the wealthiest Swedish families.

Nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. Despite high job satisfaction, only five in one hundred Swedish teachers considered teaching a valued profession in OECD’s 2013 Survey on Teaching and Learning. Top school systems pay attention to how they select and train their staff. They attract the right talent and they watch how they improve the performance of teachers who are struggling. They also provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers. With a new career structure, Sweden has made first steps in that direction, but a lot more needs to be done to advance from industrial to professional forms of work organisation in Swedish schools that encourage teachers to use innovative pedagogies, to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and to work together to frame good practice.

Sweden also needs to do more to grow and distribute leadership throughout the school system. School leaders and their employers need to prioritise pedagogical leadership and encourage greater co-operation among teachers and invest more in professional development. A publicly-funded National Institute of Teacher and School Leader Quality would help improve recruitment and the quality of teaching and leadership in the education system.

Sweden has significantly increased spending in education over recent decades, but money alone will only raise education systems up to a point. Among OECD countries there is no longer any relationship between spending per student and the quality of learning outcomes. In other words, two countries with similarly high spending levels can produce very different results. So for countries like Sweden it is not primarily about how much they spend on education, but about how they spend their resources. Whenever Sweden needs to make a choice between a smaller class and a better teacher, it should go for the latter. Sweden should also review how school education is funded. The current funding mechanisms are not meeting the objectives of improving quality while maintaining equity. There are different options Sweden can use, including earmarked funding, defining criteria for municipalities and schools, and student funding formulae, to ensure equity and especially consistency in school funding across Sweden.

Perhaps the toughest challenge is to put in place a coherent national school improvement strategy. A school system must be more than a few thousand autonomous schools. School evaluation and accountability needs to be strengthened so that schools, parents and teachers obtain clear and consistent guidance as to where they stand and how they can improve. That also means that the Swedish Schools Inspectorate should provide much more assistance to schools to follow up on their weaknesses and to bring about a shift in culture from administrative compliance towards responsibility for better results.

Of course, effective policies are far easier designed than implemented. But the world provides plenty of examples of improvements in education, and there is no time to lose. The task for the Swedish government is to help citizens rise to this challenge. The OECD is there to help and our report Improving Schools in Sweden – An OECD Perspective highlights some important lessons from the world for Sweden.

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