Education and workforce policies have always been intimately linked, yet for decades the federal government has addressed them separately with two different departments. President Donald Trump recently announced a bold plan to remedy that with a new Department of Education and the Workforce that would reduce the federal footprint in education and make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students and workers. It would also help catch us up to how students in other countries pursue their education.
I saw such approaches during my first international trip as the U.S. secretary of education to schools in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Each country takes a holistic approach to education to prepare students for career and life success. But it might be surprising to learn one topic didn’t come up: school choice.
I visited several different schools that are providing new and exciting learning opportunities for students at all levels. But “school choice” doesn’t dominate the conversation in these countries, because freedom in education isn’t controversial—it’s common sense. In the United States, some view offering families the freedom to make educational decisions with contempt. Defenders of the status quo fear that greater choice for parents and flexibility for educators will lead to underfunded schools and ultimately harm student performance.
In the countries I visited, education is oriented around the distinct needs of each student. In the Netherlands, freedom in education is enshrined in the constitution, which requires that the state provide equal funding for both publicly run and private schools. Two-thirds of students in the Netherlands attend schools that are privately run and taxpayer funded.
For the United States, lasting and positive changes to education cannot and should not be mandated by the federal government."
The Dutch approach empowers educators and parents by encouraging local autonomy in the classroom. This autonomy creates a wealth of options from which families can choose. Different approaches to student instruction are crucial for educational freedom to be meaningful.
I think of my visit to Imelda Primary School in Rotterdam. This Catholic school’s faith-based education focuses on respect and service to community. It also infuses the arts into all aspects of instruction, helping students understand abstract concepts and think critically.
In England, greater autonomy at the school level has been encouraged with the creation of “academies,” similar to charter schools in the United States, and “free schools,” both of which are granted significantly more flexibility for educators. Under Prime Minister David Cameron, the number of academies greatly increased, and free schools were created to serve as incubators of innovation and improve student achievement. Today, more than 70 percent of secondary schools in England have adopted the academy or free school model.
One school that stood out was the Grey Coat Hospital School in London, which reorganized as an academy in 2012. A girls’ school run by the Church of England, GCHS reorganized as an academy in 2012, which allows the school greater autonomy to meet the needs and interests of its students. Students develop their own ideas for long-term projects and are encouraged to be independent through open-ended assignments and practical workshops, preparing them for the next stage of their education journey.
Switzerland is known for its robust apprenticeship program, with more than two-thirds of high school students engaged in one of the roughly 300 government-recognized apprenticeships. We saw the efficacy of this approach at Asea Brown Boveri’s plant in Zurich. ABB is one of many companies that partner with the country’s education system to offer students experience in high-earning fields like machinery and electronics. Students are exposed to many rewarding career paths, but they also have the choice to pursue an education at a traditional university. It’s not an “either/or” decision—as the Swiss say, “there are no dead ends in Switzerland’s education system.”
Switzerland, the Netherlands and the U.K. are proud of their education systems, but they don’t rest on their laurels—they continually look to improve. The data demonstrates the effectiveness of their approaches. In science and math, students in Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom outperformed U.S. students on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment. The United States ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science, and 40th in math. If we finished 40th in the Olympics there’d be a national outcry!
Families need more freedom to choose their child’s education and educators must be empowered to innovate, or we will continue to lag behind the rest of the world. In the countries I visited, “private” and “public” schools alike are valued and recognized for educating students in meaningful ways, thus contributing to the public good. Families are afforded the respect to choose which school will best meet their child’s educational needs. Students are exposed to many paths and given the tools to pursue their interests.
Now, simply copying European approaches will not be sufficient—American communities have their own unique challenges and needs. But the Netherlands and the United Kingdom show that high student achievement is possible with robust parental choice and flexibility for educators. Switzerland shows the benefit of giving students a wide variety of career options through apprenticeships. Most importantly, these countries show that a commitment to freedom in education can produce student success.
For the United States, lasting and positive changes to education cannot and should not be mandated by the federal government. We’ve tried that before—such as with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grants—with little to no success. And when the U.S. Department of Education was founded, it was charged to “prohibit federal control of education.” That’s a charge I take seriously.
Instead, forward-thinking states and school districts should take note of the effective approaches found abroad, and they should consider how they can extend educational freedom to their own constituents.
States and school districts should empower families with more options to find the best fit for their children—whether through open enrollment, charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, vouchers, portable student funding, or other mechanisms.
States and school districts can empower educators with greater flexibility to meet the needs of the students they serve. That means reducing the paperwork burden on classroom teachers and letting them do what they do best: teach. It means abandoning a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. And it means compensating great teachers well.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, we must ask ourselves who should have the greater say in education: students and their families, or the nation’s most entrenched status quo? The countries I visited have answered that question on the side of students. Americans should demand the same.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as Betsy DeVos: What We Can Learn About Education From Europe