An Interview with Nihad Bunar: Speaking about School Choice

Jan 10, 2012 by

Nihad Bunar is Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies Stockholm University.

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

Nihad Bunar is Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies Stockholm University. In this interview, he responds to questions about school choice, education in Sweden and his involvement in an upcoming conference in the USA.

1) Professor Bunar, could you first please tell us about what you do- your education and experiences and background?

I am a professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Stockholm University and a director for our Ph.D. program. Currently, I am leading two research projects, one about school choice and one about organizational and pedagogical aspects of newly arrived students’ schooling. I am also the supervisor for three Ph.D. students and a number of master theses. I am also a senior lecturer at National Police Academy in Sweden where I teach courses on community policing and youth cultures.

A few words about my education and experiences: I defended my PhD thesis in Sociology in year 2001, was promoted to associate professor in 2006 and into full-time professorship in 2011. I am 41 years old. I also worked as a guest professor at Northeastern University in Boston, USA during the spring semester of 2008. My primary field of research is at the intersection between urban studies, sociology of education and migration and ethnic studies. I have published widely in Swedish and English about urban schools, school choice, newly arrived students, the social investment programs in deprived neighborhoods, hate crime etc. During the last 10 years, I have been able to attract research funding worth around 3 million US dollars. I am also very active in public debate with more than 100 media appearances, more than 300 public lectures in Sweden and more than 20 key-not speaker appearances at international conferences.

2) I understand you will be speaking at a major conference on School Choice in the United States – what is your exact topic?

My topic is the structure, operation and outcomes of local school markets in two middle-size municipalities in Sweden. I intend to, first, identify some key organizing principles of the emerging local school markets in these two municipalities and, second, to describe, analyze and discuss how parents and teachers position themselves in relation to increased competition and the changing tides of student flows.

3) I know a little bit about Sweden, and have visited Gamla Stan, and some other parts of your country. Could you briefly tell us about school choice in Sweden?

School choice reform in Sweden was enacted almost 20 years ago, transforming its educational system into one of the most decentralized in the world and has by now gained a wide international recognition and considerable attention. Two major parts of the reform was, firstly, a permission to other actors than state and municipalities to run schools. This allowed a number of private, semi-private, for-profit and corporative organizations to open schools. These schools are labeled as independent or free to indicate their independence from local government, but they are obliged to follow national curriculum and time-schedules for each subject in the same way as public schools do. Further, they are subject to inspections by National School Inspection with the authority to even closed down an independent school if it does not live up to curriculum standards or if some severe misconduct has been discovered. On the contrary, School Inspection does not have the authority to close down a public school. The second crucial part of the school choice reform was the adoption of universal voucher – administrated by local municipalities – for all children, irrespective of whether they choose to attend a public or an independent school. Thus, the competition between public and independent schools, as well as among them, was put in place with high expectations attached to the policy performance. Higher achievement, lower costs and decreased social and ethnic segregation, present as a consequence of housing segregation and attendance zone principle, were and are still among the most expected outcomes. Simultaneously these are also among most frequently debated and contested topics on school choice reform.

4) I also know that you are near Finland, which under the leadership of Pasi Sahlberg is doing quite well. Does your country and Finland collaborate at all?

Just like the rest of the world Sweden is also currently looking up to Finland and its educational system, in order to find inspiration and good ideas. Sweden and Finland have traditionally and historically had many ties and collaboration on different levels, not least since the majority of Finnish people are bilingual (having Swedish as their second language). Nevertheless, education is not only a product of good pedagogical ideas and organizational models, but also of national culture, political ideology and social circumstances. The causes of the Finnish “educational miracle” should be primarily sought here and as such they cannot be simply replicated somewhere else. (I’m not sure what do you mean by “the leadership of Pasi Sahlberg”? He is not a politician or anything like that!)

5) What are the challenges that Sweden faces in terms of education?

The biggest challenge is that the number of students eligible to national program at upper-secondary education (gymnasium, age 16-19) is decreasing year after year (currently around 13 percent are ineligible) and that the Swedish students are performing less and less as measured by PISA and TIMSS. The second challenge is the increasing segregation based on students’ social and to some extent even ethnic background (we do not use the term “race” in public and academic vocabulary, in case you wonder), especially in our three big cities Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö.

This segregation has been exacerbated by school choice since the best performing and socially strongest students have left schools with majority of immigrant kids. The third challenge is how to integrate newly arrived students into schools’ daily operations, what organizational model to use (transitional classes or integration into ordinary classes from day one), how to integrate teaching in students’ native language with school curriculum etc. There is also a growing concern over discipline problem, widening achievement gap between boys and girls, collaboration with parents, the quality and accuracy of grading (do teacher give higher grades in order to maintain the school’s position and reputation on the educational market?) etc.

6) What about school choice in terms of students with special needs?

We know very little about the position of students with special needs on the educational market. However, I have understood during my field studies (although it is very hard to prove), that many schools are reluctant to accept these students since they require special care, which of course cost money. But schools cannot decline someone’s application by referring to his or her mental or physical abilities. That would be discrimination. Instead schools are referring to the lack of space or the lack of staff with skills to take care of students with special needs. In that case they are referred to the public school they according to catchment area principle belong and where they always are granted a place.

7) What are you currently researching in Sweden about the effects of school choice?

Reviewing literature on the effects of school choice in Sweden, I realized that the conclusions are pretty often contradictory. Some researchers assert and present empirical (statistical) evidences that school choice has increased equity and diminished the gap between social classes, while others claim that exactly the opposite has occurred. School choice leads to more inequality and segregation. My point is that we need to go to local level, where the policy and its ideological foundations, while being transformed into practices, are meeting social, traditional and ethnical realities of the municipality.

In my current project on local school markets in two middle-size municipalities I claim that the markets are configured around two axioms. Firstly, schools are positioned in relation to each other horizontally, based on managerial, size and pedagogical differences. Secondly, they are positioned vertically based on which social group the majority of a school’s students are recruited from; where in the city it is located; how many students of immigrant origin attend the school and what kind of immigrant groups are most represented and; the amount of symbolic capital possessed (reputation, status). At first glance it appears that practical outcomes of horizontal relationships do not have any decisive impact on a school’s market position. In other words, whether a school is public or independent, have ice hockey or dance profile, 1500 or 300 students does not seem to substantially affect school’s competitiveness and attractiveness to students and their parents.

It is first when combined with characteristics imbued in vertical relationships (“immigrant” or “Swedish” school; “good” or “bad”; positive climate or “nobody cares”) underpinned with advertising and informal communication to primary target groups, that it becomes important who is running a school or what pedagogical profile it contains. Some public schools have barely changed anything in their approach to pedagogy and relations, but their position and status is anyway untarnished. Some other have been a part of countless projects and attempts to improve, but has failed. Not so much because of the quality of academic product being offered on the market, but rather because of how the service producer (school) and the majority of its users (parents and students) are perceived, through “hot knowledge”, in the community.

Nevertheless, the opportunity, being generated at the intersection between horizontal (i.e. a particular school culture) and vertical (i.e. middle-class students) axioms, to promote their position on the market are best recognized and used by independent schools. They can, from the outset, by the virtue of shaping particular culture, pedagogy and dissemination of signals, choose which groups and their presumptive ideas about education to address. Simultaneously the disseminated message, through formal and informal channels, is deterring other groups from even thinking about applying. This is where the real, but invisible, selection process is occurring and that is why independent schools in fact are selecting their students. Not after the application has been submitted, since the principle of non-discrimination is one of the pillars of the educational market in Sweden, but at the stage before.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

There are many things to be discussed and reflected upon when it comes to education in Sweden. However, I have noticed one interesting and a bit surprising thing during my lectures and conference presentations abroad. People are appalled when I present our current challenges. Many still believe that Sweden is a small, extremely wealthy, trouble free and homogenous kingdom somewhere in North Europe. Underpaid teachers, segregated schools, one of the most decentralized educational systems in the world, private entrepreneurs digging for gold in the welfare sector does not fit with that image. Sad but true, to paraphrase Metallica!

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