"Earlier this week, an article in Slate by Columbia Business School professor Ray Fisman provocatively titled “Sweden’s School Choice Disaster” made the rounds on Twitter, with the perfunctory head nodding and tut-tut-ing from the anti-school choice crowd.
From the jump, much of Fisman’s analysis didn’t really make sense. He blames the drop Sweden has seen in international test scores since 2000 on the country’s voucher program, even though that program precedes the drop by almost a decade. He also highlights the fact that only about 25% of secondary school students and only 13% of elementary school students use vouchers to attend private schools, so it would be hard to blame any nation-wide problems on such a small program. He further cites studies that appear to show that voucher and non-voucher students score about the same on fairly-grade exams. This is perhaps a scandal for schools with inflated grades, but it is not evidence that the voucher program is a “failure.”
But that’s about as deep as I want to dig. Luckily, several others went farther down the rabbit hole to get into numerous other problems with the piece.
Over at National Review, Tino Sanandaji offered myriad other possible explanations for Sweden’s poor performance on assessments. A key paragraph:
There is no doubt that the voucher reform was poorly implemented, but this doesn’t change the fact that the reform worked. Surveys suggest that parents and pupils in private schools tend to be more satisfied than average. Many of the worst schools have simply closed as few students choose them. Bullying is a major problem in Swedish schools; with school choice, children are no longer forced to attend the same school as their tormentors. Ambitious immigrant children have the option to escape the ghetto and attend better schools. Some — though admittedly not most — private schools have been innovative and significantly improved education.At Education Next, the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson lowered the boom. He writes:
Nevertheless, Slate claims that competition from private schools may have led to “a race to the bottom” in Sweden. But since Sweden’s private schools score higher on PISA than its public schools, it’s not obvious what this might mean. Could Slate be claiming that the performance of private schools has been declining faster than that of public schools? If so, the reverse is true. Since the PISA test was first administered in 2000, Swedish private schools lost a scant 6 points overall. The nation’s public schools lost 34 points over the same period—nearly six times as much. If one of these sectors is leading a race to the bottom, it’s not the private sector.Finally, Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas offers Fisman’s work as a cautionary tale on his blog:
Fisman would never make such sloppy mistakes in a journal submission or conference presentation. His colleagues would laugh at him. But nothing seems to deter Fisman or other would-be Paul Krugmans from making laughable claims in the popular press. Maybe academics should not be given such a free pass for whatever they write outside of journals. Maybe the credibility of their scholarly work and their status within the academic community should also be called into question if they are willing to be so reckless.All good food for thought and worth checking out in full!"