Day 2 in Sweden: Charter Schools

Our group of educators woke up in Sweden to hear that we’d be visiting charter schools while in Stockholm.  Even though many in the group worked with and in charter schools in the U.S., we all share a keen awareness of the challenges charter schools pose to public education.  We wished we could be seeing municipal schools as well as charter (in Sweden, called “free schools, voucher schools, or independent schools).

For me, the charter school visits were an opportunity to ask questions that I have for my own school community, about the relationship between private and public education.

Coming from Francis Parker School, an independent school in the U.S. that is powerfully protected from the vagaries of decisions, politics, and reforms in the public school system, I was interested in seeing how this Swedish independent school community views their relationship to the public school system.  The fact that the funding comes from the state and not from tuition doesn’t change the essential similarity of our school demographics: these are students from well-educated, relatively privileged families, pulled away from the challenges, pressures, and diversity of the public school system.

Much of the literature that analyzes the pros and cons of the voucher system in Sweden focuses on the question of whether the existence of independent schools raises student outcomes in both independent and municipal schools, through the pressure of competition.*  There is also frequent reference to concerns about measures of outcomes, since Sweden has few standardized tests and the main measures of achievement are the grades that teachers record – which everybody knows contain an element of subjectivity, and which many suspect to be inflated at independent schools.

But coming straight from days of visiting Finnish schools and education policy departments, my perspective on Sweden was filtered through the central tenet of Finnish education – equity.  To what extent was equity in education valued here in Sweden, how much was it part of the conversation about schools and within schools?  Did measurements of student outcomes and school outcomes include demonstration of commitment to equity?

In Finland, the principle of equity unites students, teachers, and education leaders – the way they tell it, all stand on and work from that shared ground. In Sweden, the way I heard people invoking equity had less to do with comprehensive collective commitment and more to do with individual identity and group power.

Assistant Principal of the Viktor Ryberg Gymnasium (VRG) High School, Dan Gustafsson, said that Swedish people are anti-hierarchical – students call teachers by their first names, administrators and teachers see one another as equal colleagues.  Nevertheless, he went on to point out the benefits of the school’s high ranking nationally.  He explained that the school’s strong social standing enables it to draw media attention for its programs and accomplishments. (Here’s an example of a story from the school that has drawn worldwide attention – an innovative grade-wide city planning project that includes the video game Minecraft went viral with headlines like “Minecraft gaming compulsory curriculum in Swedish School.”) These stories attract policy makers’ attention as well, giving school leaders a place at the table shaping education policy – presumably in directions that result in the growth of progressive practices for all schools.

The VRG School was founded by Louise Ankarcrona and Louise Westerberg, with education advocacy as part of its fundamental mission.  Louise Ankarcrona spoke to our group about how school leaders lobby for arts education, always on the chopping block when schools get squeezed.  She said, “we write letters, and beg and cry to everyone we know.” In addition, they feature student work in the media; hold gala arts events; and organize public lectures with prominent speakers and invite politicians to attend.  Clearly, these schools know how to mobilize and utilize publicity.

These administrators reminded me of the importance of the stories American schools are increasingly telling about themselves and one another – the more people within schools are telling their own stories, the less the discourse about “bad schools” and “bad teachers” can dominate, distort, and denigrate.  In addition to the stories of people in schools that Schools Journal publishes, the current video series “A Year at Mission Hill” is a great example of this kind of story; IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America) also promotes powerful storytelling about schools.

The VRG schools tell great stories of education that thrives on experimentation, in a system that values and supports experimentation.  Like the independent school I’m part of, these independent schools have the freedom to craft powerful learning experiences because they make sure students, teachers, and the school itself have the space and time they need for engaged learning.   I’m still wondering how independent schools – in Sweden and in the U.S. — will use the strong public voice they have cultivated to ensure that these conditions apply to students in the public system as well.

*School representatives insisted that in Sweden, where the 20 year-old charter school system is well established, there is little debate about the mutual benefits of municipal and independent schools — but the question of for-profit independent schools is a hot-button issue.  For-profit education companies opening schools are rapidly expanding in Sweden, and political coalitions are forming to try to limit or block the use of public funds to profit from education.

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