Blog: The Educated Reporter

An International Viewpoint on Vouchers

Some of these Swedish soccer fans likely went to a school that's part of Sweden's voucher system. (Source: Wikimedia)

Do choice and competition improve education systems? Plenty of advocates and well-heeled foundations think so, underwriting research and efforts to bring more charter schools and voucher programs to fruition. But in Sweden, the market dynamics of school choice seem to have produced troubling results for the Scandinavian nation.

An article in Slate details new reports that suggest that much of the success attributed to Sweden’s voucher school system can be chalked up to wide-scale grade inflation on national standardized exams. In Sweden, teachers grade the national assessments, similar to the grading process used to evaluate students taking the New York Regents Exams. Several years ago, the country’s top education administrator ordered a re-grading of the assessments, inviting outside evaluators to reassess the student answers. Two Swedish professors conducted the review and found evidence of large-scale grade inflation. The findings are even more significant because voucher programs have been operating in Sweden for two decades, enrolling a quarter of the nation’s high school students and 13 percent of elementary school students.

The timing of the results doesn’t bode well for choice advocates in Sweden. Some experts have claimed Sweden’s dip in international education rankings is a consequence of the school choice policies the country enacted in the early 1990s. The discovery of possible grade inflation would give those critics ammunition.

The entire article is worth a read, as it dives into the theoretical underpinnings for market-based education systems and the trade-offs such systems must make. 

At EWA’s 2013 National Seminar, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten debated choice advocate Kevin Chavous of the American Federation for Children on topics including voucher models abroad. Guest blogger Jessica Williams of The Lens had the highlights.

EWA’s Emily Richmond recently interviewed Lori Higgins and David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press about their year-long investigative series on Michigan’s charter school system. Learn about the wasteful spending, cozy contracts, and missed opportunities to shut down long-struggling campuses.

So how should reporters wade into the bog of data on school choice given how fractious the debate has become? The 2013 National Seminar also included tips on reading research reports on charter schools. Erica Green of the Baltimore Sun has the panel’s summary. Here are some of the guidelines the speakers doled out:

In the same vein, Raymond warned that reporters should also be careful when they look to localize a national issue, or look for trends. For instance, when a national charter school story breaks (Read: Oakland’s American Indian Charter financial scandal), “we have to resist the temptation to extrapolate,” she said.

[…]

For researchers, the bar has been raised—a study that used to take her shop six to eight months now takes two to three years. Raymond said reporters should thus take more time examining the research. But, she added, they usually don’t have the time and attention spans to delve into report, and that by the time she’s fully prepared to talk to reporters, they’re on to the next thing.

Unfortunately, that means news stories on research may be overly influenced by advocates or others with a policy agenda. And politicians sometimes want to form policy based on what could be an incomplete picture.

Follow this important and often volatile topic using EWA’s resources, where you’ll find a primer, recent stories on choice, standout reporting on charters and vouchers, EWA’s analysis and reporting, and Key studies.

Bonus item: A look at PISA, the international assessment education analysts around the globe use to gauge the strength their education systems (even if the assessment really only talks about certain types of student performance).



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