In the last 15–20 years, Sweden has suffered a downturn in several important aspects of the elementary and secondary education system. To begin to illustrate the state of Sweden’s schools, we can make a comparison with the heavily criticized American education system. It is a common and understandable belief, in the U.S. and elsewhere, that Swedish schools compare favorably with American schools in terms of educational outcomes. But the weakest American students in 8th grade performed significantly better than the weakest Swedish 8th graders in the TIMSS Mathematics assessment in 2011, one of the international comparative tests that have existed since the 1990s. In the latest cycle of the TIMSS Mathematics assessment, conducted in 2015, the weakest U.S. and Swedish students performed identically, but American students outperformed Swedish students in all other percentiles.
In contrast, Swedish students outperformed their U.S. peers across the entire distribution in 1995. A similar negative development can be observed in Swedish students’ performance in the PISA. Swedish 9th graders performed above the international average in the first cycle of PISA in 2000, but then Sweden’s results steadily deteriorated in each of the three PISA core areas—reading, mathematics, and science—until a low point was reached in 2012. Another PISA assessment conducted in 2012 revealed shortcomings in creativity, critical thinking, curiosity, and perseverance, and ranked Sweden 20th out of 28 countries. The findings in the TIMSS and PISA assessments suggest that there has been a significant decline in knowledge among Swedish students in recent years.
Yet the average merit rating (based on grades) in the final year of Sweden’s elementary schools has markedly improved since the late 1990s, which is highly suspicious. Indeed, the disconnect between international assessments of Swedish students’ performance and their grades is compelling evidence of rampant grade inflation in Swedish elementary schools, and the same problem is showing in secondary education as well.
Furthermore, Sweden has one of the highest levels of absenteeism and late arrivals in the OECD. Depression and anxiety among children aged 10–17 also increased by more than 100 percent from 2006 to 2016. According to Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare, the reasons for this dramatic increase are most likely linked to schooling and the transition from school to adult life. Similarly, physicians have suggested that the soaring prescriptions for ADHD drugs in Sweden, where as many as nine percent of boys are medicated for ADHD in some counties, are related to factors within the school system.
Finally, there is a kind of malaise in the teaching profession. There is an acute shortage of teachers, mainly caused by a high dropout rate among students in education degree programs. A further crisis component is the selection of applicants. Today, only five percent of teachers deem their profession prestigious, and barely half of them would choose the same occupation again. This fall in teaching’s status is reflected in the sizable share of applicants with low grades from secondary school and who grew up in homes with less cultural capital. Moreover, teachers are one of the least satisfied groups in the Swedish labor market, even though teachers’ relative wages have increased sharply in recent years. A recent study showed that four out of ten active teachers are considering leaving the profession.
What on earth is going on
(Excerpted from “Post-Truth” Schooling and Marketized Education: Explaining the Decline in Sweden’s School Quality)