Can Education Be Equalized? The Swedish Case in Comparative Perspective

Can Education Be Equalized? The Swedish Case in Comparative Perspective

Can Education Be Equalized? The Swedish Case in Comparative Perspective

Can Education Be Equalized? The Swedish Case in Comparative Perspective

Synopsis

"Previous research suggests that in most industrial nations, including the United States, social class inequality in educational attainment has remained stable over time, despite expanding school systems. Sweden is one of the few exceptions. Contrary to the experience in many comparable societies, class differences in educational opportunities have actually decreased in Sweden during this century. In this volume, prominent sociologists test different explanations of this phenomenon, comparing the Swedish experience with that of several other industrial societies, among them the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, as well as other European nations. Addressing the long-term change in the relationship between social origin, gender, and educational attainment, the contributors analyze the role of education for future labor market positions as well as the transmission of social status across generations. Conclusions from the studies are discussed in a general theoretical framework by the editors, who suggest that the Swedish experience is best understood as the outcome of two different processes. First, it reflects an equalization in living conditions that leveled costs for higher education, and, second, it was aided by comprehensive school reform that postponed the earliest educational decisions. The editors pinpoint the mechanisms by which remaining social class differences come about and identify ones that are common to industrial societies." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

Equalizing educational opportunities has been a long-standing political concern in Sweden. As far back as the late 19th century, radicals demanded that the existing six-year comprehensive school should be a common school for children of all social origins. In the late 1920s an important step was taken towards the realization of this goal, but a truly comprehensive elementary school -- comprising the first nine school years -- was not introduced until the 1960s. During this entire period, a number of other educational and social reforms were undertaken in order to equalize life-chances between social classes. The expansion and alteration of the Swedish school system, as well as the introduction of far-reaching welfare state policies, were made possible by the enormous economic growth during this century.

It was a standard assumption that the general improvement of living conditions, which accelerated during the 1950s and 1960s, and the implementation of school reforms had led to a considerable reduction in the impact of social background on educational attainment. This assumption was questioned, however, at the beginning of the 1970s, and from the 1980s onwards the expectation was rather that social selection in schools was increasing. The political debate in Sweden about inequalities in educational attainment was fairly speculative during this period, characterized by a lack of firm empirical knowledge about what changes actually had occurred.

Given this unclear state of knowledge, the Swedish government commissioned us in the summer of 1991 to undertake a study of how social origin affects transitions to higher education. We were to describe how social inequality of educational opportunity had changed since World War II and give a reliable and detailed account of the present situation. Furthermore, if, as expected, we found differences in educational attainment between social classes, we were as far as was possible to explain why these differences arose. Of special interest was whether the series of reforms of Swedish schools and universities had had the intended effect of reducing social inequality in educational outcomes. The results of our efforts to satisfy these demands were . . .

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