Sunday, November 27, 2011

Are Pupils Customers?

(I am now following the custom of much of the English-speaking world, though not the United States, and referring to pre-tertiary people attending schools as pupils, reserving students for those who study in higher education. But you never know, I may switch back.)

One of my favorite recent school experiments is the free school movement of Sweden, which is now being copied in the United Kingdom (though America's charter school movement is also an inspiration for these new educational institutions supported by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition ruling in London). These schools of choice have been steadily flourishing in Sweden for nearly 20 years, and this is surprising since Sweden is well known to be a bastion of socialism rather than of free market liberalism.

That freedom reigns in Swedish free schools is well attested by the fact that these publicly funded institutions can be for-profit as well as non-profit, and their students don't have to be poor in order to be supported by government funding. This sounds like a dream-come-true for one who has spent countless hours in recent years trying to start a school that could receive public funding (in my case, a charter school).

But recent information contradicts the notion that the free schools are the summum bonum that will solve most of the problems in public education:
  • Sweden's scores on PISA have been dropping rather than rising, which points to lost competitiveness;
  • Social stratification is increasing as a result of the free schools, with schools in wealthier neighborhoods becoming obviously more desirable than those in poorer neighborhoods (this does not raise eyebrows in America -- we've grown used to such class inequalities -- but they are a new phenomenon in Sweden, and a troubling one);
  • Other effects of the increasing competition for pupils and the money that arrives with them include spending on competing offers of free computer tablets versus laptops, rampant grade inflation, and an explosion of new course offerings in dance, art, and other electives, with correspondingly less emphasis on stalwart subjects such as mathematics and the sciences.
It does not appear that the customer is always right when it comes to education, and those of us who have believed deeply in empowering pupils and their families just as customers are empowered may need to rethink our positions. I am reminded of Rev Dominic Milroy, who, in Head to Head (a compilation of advice from HMC, an association of leading independent schools in the United Kingdom and abroad), wrote, with reference to schools' philosophies, "The language of the market-place may suggest that parents be viewed increasingly as customers or as clients, but no good school will go down this road." Some schools have done so, and by doing so are likely losing their goodness.

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