How to return to the “gold standard” for education

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Results from our comparative PISA studies have often been disappointing for Sweden; they’ve been disappointing for me too. When I was a university student, I used to look to Sweden as the gold standard for education. It was a country that was providing high-quality and innovative education to children from all social classes, and that was close to making lifelong learning a reality for all.

But sometime in the early 2000s, the Swedish school system somehow lost its soul. Superior learning outcomes weren’t enough anymore: Swedish educators felt that they had to offer their students shiny buildings in shopping centres, or a driving license instead of better teaching.
And even though students were getting better marks each year, PISA observed a steady decline in the quality of learning outcomes. Beyond that, new analyses show that, after Finland and Korea, Sweden has also seen one of the biggest increases in social inequality, a growing share of low performers, and widening disparities between schools that have led to the biggest decline in academic inclusion after that observed in Israel.
But Sweden has every chance to become one of the world’s leaders in education again, and PISA 2015 results show the first encouraging improvements in that direction.
Sweden has one asset that few other countries in the Western world offer: a firm belief in the power of education to transform lives and promote social inclusion. And with that comes the unwavering commitment of Swedish citizens and policy makers to do whatever it takes to provide all children with the knowledge, skills and values to create a bright future.
But some things are in urgent need of change.
At the top of my list is belief in the ability of every child to succeed. Top school systems realise that ordinary students have extraordinary talents; they embrace diversity with differentiated instructional practices. The fact that a majority of Swedish students who sat the PISA test believe that success in mathematics is the result of talent rather than hard work suggests that Sweden must try harder to raise students’ trust in their abilities and their commitment to learning. When students in Singapore 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 disadvantaged youth. The best-performing education systems attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms. One of the most disturbing findings from PISA is that Sweden has become almost as regressive as the United States when it comes to matching teacher talent with student needs.
England tries to mitigate socio-economic disparities through a pupil premium, which provides schools with additional resources in accordance with the challenges they face. Schools have to figure out how to spend that money best and are publicly accountable for that. Many other countries use weighted funding formulas that ensure that schools have everything they need to overcome disadvantage. They make it a privilege, not a punishment, for teachers to teach in those schools. 
These funding mechanisms include earmarked funding, defining criteria for municipalities and schools, and student funding formulae, to ensure equity and, especially, consistency in school funding.
Sweden also needs to raise standards and aspirations for students. The fact that Swedish students think they are doing fine while their learning outcomes hover around the average underlines the need to significantly strengthen rigour, focus and coherence in school standards and teaching methods. There is a similar need to seriously review teaching methods. According to PISA, the majority of mathematics problems to which Swedish students are exposed are tasks with relatively low cognitive demand, which teachers then try hard to recast as real-world problems. In contrast, tasks requiring deep conceptual understanding and complex ways of thinking are relatively rare. Similarly, while Swedish students do OK when it comes to knowing certain science content, often they can’t think like a scientist.
Most countries declare their commitment to education; but the test comes when that commitment is weighed against others. How are teachers paid compared to how others with the same level of education are paid? Would you want your child to be a teacher? How often are schools and schooling the subject of media attention?
Nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. Top school systems are rigorous in selecting and training their staff. They attract the best talent and monitor the performance of teachers who are struggling. They provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers. By adopting a new career structure, Sweden has taken the 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, improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and work together to frame good practice.
And Sweden 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.
Perhaps the toughest challenge is to put in place a coherent national school system and improvement strategy. A good school system is always more than a few thousand independent schools. School evaluation and accountability needs to be strengthened so that schools, parents and teachers are given 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 individual schools to examine their weaknesses and to bring about a shift in culture from administrative compliance towards responsibility for better results.
Perhaps the most sensitive point is how to reconcile public demand for choice and competition among schools with the imperative of inclusiveness and public responsibility that governments have for all their citizens. Excellence and equity are inseparable; but excellence does not automatically follow from equity, nor equity from excellence.  
There is nothing wrong with school choice; but the combination of school choice and deregulation has proven to be a toxic mix. The more flexibility Sweden provides for its school system, the stronger its school system needs to be overall, and government cannot delegate that responsibility to the market or to municipalities.
Many school systems have addressed the issue of school choice through targeted vouchers or controlled-choice schemes that ensure a more diverse distribution of students in schools. National guidelines that encourage a culture of collaboration and peer learning among schools, and that ensure that municipalities integrate independent schools in their planning, improvement and support strategies, could also help; so could better access to information about schools and better support to parents who are making the difficult choices.
In Flanders (Belgium), for example, parents and students get to choose up to four schools from a list of schools in their geographical area. An Inter-Network Enrolment Commission then steers the selection process, allocates students according to their priorities, and according to weighted geographical and educational criteria.
PISA data also show that the difference between the socio-economic profiles of publicly and privately managed schools is twice as large in education systems that use universal vouchers as in systems that use socially targeted vouchers. Regulating private school pricing and admissions criteria seems to help limit the social inequity that is often the by-product of voucher schemes.
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. Without the right skills, people end up on the margins of the society, technological progress doesn’t translate into economic growth, and countries face an uphill struggle to remain competitive, much less ahead, in this hyper-connected world.

Improving Schools in Sweden: An OECD Perspective
Download the presentation: “Improving Equity in Sweden” by Andreas Schleicher, Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

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