Scott Sumner argues in favor of the Swedish model over the Finnish one:

I’ve often argued that the only reliable test of schools is the market test—which schools are more popular at a given price point. Tyler Cowen linked to a study that obliquely relates to this issue. It shows that South Korean students are the least happy students in the world. Finland’s students are near the bottom, and are the least happy of any Western European country. In contrast, South Korea usually scores at the top of “education rankings” based on test scores, and Finland is often in second place.

It’s interesting to compare Finland with its neighbor Sweden. Based on test scores Sweden has the worst schools in Western Europe, even worse than America’s K-12. Horrible schools. But their students are above average in happiness, far above Finland. What explains that difference?

We often think of Scandinavia as an “it” but there are actually some interesting contrasts within the region. Education is a good example. Though Sweden is often used as a liberal bat for liberal policies, there are some pokes for conservatives to hang their hat on, as well. Such as low-regulation and… education, which is highly voucherized. Finland, on the other hand, is exactly where liberals point to as the ideal setup: teachers are very well-paid (and respected), there is no school choice, and lots of money is spent.

But that’s kind of wear the political alignment ends. Then it starts to get weird. Because to follow what Sumner is saying, the virtues of the liberal system are demonstrated by the standardized tests that liberals loathe. The conservative system does very poorly on these tests, but produces happier students, which most conservatives would argue (in a vaccuum) is beside the point of the education system.

As always, I think it’s a mistake to look at Scandinavia and think “Our system should be more like theirs” (or less like theirs) based on the results there. Both can provide some insights, but not a template, really, unless you’re looking at a state like, well, Minnesota.

I am still a vouchers/charters guy. I square the circle in large part because, once choice has been entered into the equation, testing scores matter less. My support of standardized tests rests in good part on the premise that kids are stuck in the school systems they live in. If people would prefer to send their kids to some hippie-dippie schoolfield instead of a metrical killjoy academy, I am supportive of that. If a school wants to let teachers teach their own lesson plans in their own way regardless of what some bureaucrat in Washington or the state capital thinks, I think that’s cool. As long as parents can say “No way!” and send their kids somewhere else.

Category: School

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