I took great interest in the leading article by Ingrid Carlqvist, “Rule of the Fawners Destroying Swedish Schools”. Ingrid is entirely right, the Swedish school is decaying. International PISA studies have shown that Swedish schools not only rank lower than schools in the US, they also lag behind Norway and Estonia. Finland, Singapore, Korea and Canada have solid ratings. Sweden is falling while the United States is climbing in world ranking. Having grown up in the Swedish school system, and being a teacher in the United States, I can see several reasons for this trend.
First, the teaching profession is highly respected in the US. There is great professional pride among American teachers, and the general public has a deep respect for the vocation and for teachers themselves. American studies show the teaching profession to have a top ranking status, along with doctors, engineers and architects. The general public have great respect and admiration for American teachers. Pupils, parents and the public look up to teachers and express their respect through the use of titles and last names, such as Mr. Smith and Mrs. Johnson.
American schools are decentralized. The citizens of each municipality decide how to run the schools through representatives in a management team which is selected by public vote. Public meetings between citizens and representatives for the schools take place on a regular basis, where the citizens have the opportunity to pose questions and take part in discussions about the schools. The management later makes decisions on behalf of the municipality, also about school budgets. The democratic process in American schools is complete, and the commitment among citizens and parents significant.
Swedish teachers have very limited authority, a situation certainly not improved upon by the Swedish culture of offense, where pupils are encouraged to be offended by just about anything, and in particular by the teachers. In the US, the teacher has the authority he needs to do his job. When an American teacher confiscates a cell phone, requests a pupil to be quiet during lessons, asks him to spit out his chewing gum or measures out an after school detention, he does not offend the pupil; he is merely upholding school rules – with full support from the principal, the municipality and the parents. Thus, American teachers have the authority to maintain orderliness in order to teach. The rules support the teachers.
Another matter differentiating American and Swedish schools is that the former have well-established fundamental value that children as well as adults identify with and are expected to live up to. There are national fundamental values, and school-based ones. The school day starts with the famous American patriotism, a patriotism that in Sweden has been bizarrely conflated with racism and xenophobia. The day begins by reciting the ”Pledge of Allegiance” in the classroom, where the American flag is also present. The day starts by underlining national pride and values, which unite and anchor adults as children in school. Regardless of culture, ethnicity or religion, we are all in an American school, and thus expected to proudly uphold American values and principles.
The schools also train the pupils’ characters. At my school, pupils engage in this for a little under 10 minutes each morning. Our character traits are: Confidence, Respect, Personal Responsibility, Caring and Citizenship. All pupils and adults are expected to behave in ways that represent these character traits. When conflicts occur, we apply these traits to discuss the situation. That provides us with a basis, a platform for constructive discussions regardless of religion, ethnicity or culture. Everyone speaks the same language, providing a red thread holding together the school, uniting and anchoring.
Finally, it is important to understand that American schools are anchored in science and managed as professional corporations. They are certainly not based on some feminist agenda with blathering as the result. Precisely for that reason I could never imagine working in a typical Swedish school. Swedish politicians and school representatives have much to learn from my American school, and may even consider this debate article an open and direct invitation for a study visit, where they can see for themselves what a well-functioning school looks like.
By Åke Hammarström