Why Do Swedes Stink at Math?


It’s not just Americans who are said to stink at math.

In Slate, economist Ray Fisman writes:

Sweden’s School Choice Disaster

Advocates for school choice might be shocked to see how badly the country’s experiment with vouchers failed.

And, indeed, Sweden’s PISA scores haven’t trended well:

Sweden PISA 2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
Reading 516 514 507 497 483
Mathematics 509 502 494 478
Science 503 495 485

Fisman implies the fault lies with the school choice system started in Sweden a couple of decades ago.

In Reihan Salam’s column in National Review, economist Tino Sanandaji replies:

As Fisman himself acknowledges in passing, only 14 percent of Swedish fifteen-year-olds are enrolled in private school. … The remaining 86 percent still attend public schools. If the rise of private education caused the crisis, what explains poor performance in far more numerous public schools? In fact, performance declined slightly more in public school than private school, after controlling for socioeconomic background. …

One-third of Sweden’s municipalities still have no private schools. Social Democratic strongholds in northern Sweden in particular were less enthusiastic about licensing such institutions, and if private schools were causing the Swedish school crisis, we would expect municipalities with no privatization to outperform the rest of the country. Two studies by Böhlmark och Lindahl suggest that school results, if anything, fell more in regions with no private schools.

Tino notes:

Meanwhile, grade inflation has indeed become a major problem. Private schools have an incentive to give their pupils more lenient grades in order to attract more applicants. Competition for students has given public schools similar perverse incentives.

There has also been an element of crony capitalism in Swedish privatizations of schools and other services: Public assets have been sold below their market price. …

It’s long struck me as bizarre that some charter school operators in America simply get handed giant campuses worth $10s or even $100s of millions of dollars with few qualms. The enterprising Turkish Gulen cultists have figured out that there are all sorts of interesting opportunities in charter schools and now operate over 100 charters in the U.S.

As Fisman points out, the design of the Swedish voucher system ignores economics 101. Grading is a perfect example. Swedish universities are not allowed to adjust for grade inflation and have to take grades set by schools as given. This gives schools strong incentive to set grades excessively high. Students find out which schools that are lenient and take their voucher money there. …

The problem was that libertarian supporters of school privatization dogmatically denied the possibility of the private sector’s creating problems such as grade inflation. Real capitalists know that corporations can be opportunistic and will cheat on quality if you let them. When private firms subcontract, they therefore make sure to write tough contracts and closely monitor performance. Businessmen and sophisticated supporters of free enterprise are not as naïve about how capitalism works as libertarian ideologues.

Tino makes an interesting general point:

In practice, what private Swedish schools have control over is management and cost control, and this is where they have directed their efforts. But since the public Swedish schools were pretty well managed to start with, productivity gains from privatization were limited.

So why have Sweden’s PISA scores dropped? Tino argues:

But in my view, the main culprit was the experiment with radically new pedagogical methods. The Swedish school system used to rely on traditional teaching methods. In recent decades, modern “individualist” or “progressive” pedagogic ideas took hold. The idea is that pupils should not be forced to learn using external incentives such as grades, and children should take responsibility for their own learning, driven by internal motivation. Rote memorization and repetition are viewed as old-fashioned relics. Teacher-led lectures have increasingly been replaced by group work and “research projects.”

Grades have been abolished below the sixth grade, and homework heavily reduced. According to TIMMS (a test similar to PISA), the average hours Swedish students spend doing mathematics homework declined from 2.1 hours per week in 1982 to 1.1 hours in the late 2000s. Despite criticism from teachers, the Swedish school board has ruled that pupils are allowed to have mobile phones and wear caps in class.

The Rousseauian experiment in pedagogic method has caused a collapse in discipline and non-cognitive skills in general.

Here are some interesting findings from a PISA report on Sweden:

In all OECD countries, the largest gender differences in performance are found in reading with girls consistently outperforming boys. In Sweden, the gender gap used to be of the same magnitude as the average across OECD countries. But with a larger decline in performance among boys than among girls between 2000 and 2012, the gender gap in Sweden is now larger than the OECD average. Today, Swedish girls have an average score of 509 points in reading, 8 points below the OECD average for girls, while boys have an average score of 458 points, 21 points below the OECD average for boys. In mathematics, boys outperformed girls in Sweden in 2003, whereas today the two genders perform at the same level. In science, boys’ performance has also deteriorated more than girls’. While girls and boys performed at the same level in science in 2006, girls now outperform boys by 7 points.

Sweden is the most pro-feminist country in the world, so it’s not surprising that they get more of what they pay for. I suspect Swedish schools are suffering from an unintended but malign interaction of First World feminism and Third World male supremacy.

In the First World, male supremacy is defined in practice as men achieving more than women, so much effort is made to Close the Gap. The easiest way, of course, is to discourage males from achieving so much. Boys wasting time on video games is less a problem than a solution for the pressing problem of Male Supremacy.

In contrast, in much of the Third World, especially Islamic and African cultures, male supremacy means women doing most of the work. So, when males from these kind of cultures grow up in a First World culture obsessed with keeping men from out-achieving women, and with not criticizing Third World cultures, well, there’s a handy win-win solution: the males just slack off even more.

The PISA people go on:

Sweden has a larger share of immigrant students than most other OECD countries and the largest share among the Nordic countries. The share of immigrant students increased in all Nordic countries over the past decade; in Sweden, it increased from 12% to 15% of 15-year-old students. These figures include both first- and second-generation immigrants.

The increase in the share of immigrant students had only a small impact on the overall results for Sweden and cannot explain the significant decline in Sweden’s overall results.

Don’t overlook interaction effects: as identifiable and under-performing minorities take up ever more space in the brain of the educational establishment, Closing the Gap tends to become an obsession, which can mean that investing in high achievers becomes politically suspect. For example, after Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. focused for a number of years on finding diamonds in the rough and on mobilizing the talents of the talented. But with the black equality becoming the highest value in the land and shocking realization that there weren’t many black diamonds in the rough, standards plunged across the board in the Jeff Spicoli Era of American education in the 1970s

Both immigrant and non-immigrant students in Sweden saw a sharp decline in performance over the past decade and the results did not deteriorate significantly more for one group than for the other. Between 2003 and 2012, the mathematics performance of immigrant students deteriorated by 21 points; among non-immigrant students it deteriorated by 27 points. …

Nevertheless, the performance gap between immigrant and non immigrant students remains a major challenge for the Swedish school system.

Almost one in two immigrant students in Sweden (48%) performs below the baseline level in mathematics, compared with 22% of non-immigrant students. This performance gap is only partly due to differences in the socio-economic status of the students.

The performance gap between immigrant and non-immigrant students varies among countries … The performance gap between immigrant [first and second generation] and non-immigrant students in Sweden is 58 points on the PISA scale.

After adjusting for socio-economic status, the Swedish first and second generation immigrants still average 40 points lower than the not particularly sterling math scores of the ethnic Swedes.

This is not statistically significantly different from the performance gaps observed in Denmark, Iceland and Norway. In Finland the performance gap is 85 score points, significantly higher than in the other Nordic countries; however, the share of immigrant students in Finland is relatively low, at 3%.

Finland has an educational system designed for Finns.