New Conversation: Sweden and the United States, More Similar Than One Would Think and Not in the Ways Many Believe


In August 2023, JPHE Senior Editor Z.W. Taylor spoke with Dr. Reed Curtis, a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) of Educational Work at the University of Borås in Sweden. Dr. Curtis originally hails from South Carolina, USA, and in this conversation, Dr. Curtis mused about international differences between the USA and Sweden and how common misconceptions about both countries can be understood.

Zach Taylor:

Dr. Curtis, tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What's your education background and what do you do professionally?

Dr. Reed Curtis:

I am Reed Curtis, and in terms of my education, I hail from South Carolina in the United States. I obtained my initial degree from a Community College in South Carolina, specifically an associate's degree. Following this, I transferred to the University of South Carolina where I earned my bachelor's degree in history. Initially, my intention was to pursue a career in secondary education, teaching social studies at the high school level. However, I eventually decided against this path and instead remained at the University of South Carolina to pursue a Master's degree in higher education and student Affairs. Subsequently, I worked for approximately five years at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, situated on the coast. During my time there, I served as an academic advisor, primarily assisting non-traditional students, including transfer students, military-affiliated students, and first-generation students. I provided both teaching and academic advising services in this capacity.

Subsequent to this role, I became aware of a PhD program at Stockholm University in Sweden. Following a successful application, I undertook this opportunity, leading me to relocate across the globe. At Stockholm University, I completed my PhD in education. Throughout my academic journey, my focus has consistently been on higher education within the broader field of education. This focus is reflected in my research, as well as in my dissertation, or doctoral thesis as it is referred to in Europe. Thus, I attained my PhD from Stockholm University, concentrating on the domain of education.

Zach Taylor:

Many individuals perceive potential similarities between the United States and Sweden, perhaps in terms of demographics, socioeconomic factors, and more. I've encountered individuals who have visited Sweden and commented that there's a certain resemblance, particularly in terms of geography and weather, to the US. But when you arrived in Sweden, tell me what your initial reaction was. How does it compare to the US? And then as you kind of became more experienced in the Swedish education system, what differences did you see that were interesting or notable?

Dr. Reed Curtis:

The perceived similarities between the United States and Sweden can indeed vary based on the specific region within the US. For instance, if one resides in Seattle, there might be a slight resemblance to Sweden in terms of weather. However, the extent of resemblance between the two countries is a nuanced matter. While there are certain parallels, there are also distinct differences to consider.

As a traveler, experiencing Sweden firsthand is truly remarkable, particularly during the beautiful summer season, albeit a relatively short duration of four to five weeks. The country appears well-organized, aligning with my initial impressions. This initial allure was partly rooted in the notions of social democracy and a community-oriented ethos. What's intriguing, and a focus of my research, is that while Sweden was heavily shaped by folk-movements/community organization, it doesn't necessarily translate into presently active community-building efforts. There's a subtle communal presence, yet it's marked by a quiet, almost unspoken aspect, especially in social interactions.

This societal structure carries over into decision-making processes, where consensus-based choices have been integral to forming the fabric of Swedish society. However, this very strength can paradoxically make it less receptive to challenging such decisions. While there are parallels with certain aspects of American society, these parallels are context-dependent. For instance, my background is from South Carolina, where people engage openly and warmly in conversation with strangers. This stands in contrast to the more reserved, insular nature often found in Scandinavian cultures, where interpersonal interactions can be less demonstrative.

Regarding personalities, I often suggest that introverted Americans express themselves in ways similar to extroverted Swedish individuals. This divergence in social tendencies can be quite pronounced. Interestingly, my preconceptions of Sweden prior to my arrival were colored by a widely held perception of the 1960s and 1970s Social Democratic era, reminiscent of ABBA and the Social Democratic perspective. Figures like Bernie Sanders often evoke this era, advocating for a social safety net akin to the "folkhem" or "people's home" concept in Swedish, which aims to create a society of comfort, security, and community.

In my later research, which is an extension of my lived experiences in Sweden, I argue that while remnants of the Social Democratic education system persist, the prevailing landscape has evolved. Market-based neoliberal perspectives have gained prominence, particularly evident in the education system. Accordingly, I suggest that a more accurate description of present day Sweden would be to describe it as a folk-market where privatization of services within markets and individual choice and responsibility policies replace perspectives of government provided security and community. Strikingly, Sweden's shift in this direction outpaces even some of the most conservative states in the US. This revelation was challenging to accept, even for someone like myself, a fledgling PhD student delving into the intricacies of the Swedish system.

Zach Taylor:

So in terms of learning from each other, let's start with the United States. In your view what could the United States learn from Sweden that you think is maybe especially effective for teaching and learning or helping minoritized populations? What do you think the US could learn from Sweden?

Dr. Reed Curtis:

Certainly, there are numerous notable differences that span both ways between the education systems of the United States and Sweden. For instance, if we consider the period before higher education, there's a significant emphasis on students as well as the intricate relationship between parents and teachers in Sweden. While there is a semblance of this focus in the US, I'd assert that Sweden exhibits a stronger commitment in this regard. This emphasis likely stems from a historical foundation rooted in community-oriented movements and folk organizations unique to Sweden, a facet that isn't as pronounced in the US system.

Another striking divergence I encountered upon moving to Sweden was in explaining the American education system. I remember sharing the fact that not all students receive a free lunch in the US, which often evoked emotional reactions from Swedes. The concept of some children not being provided a free meal was indeed shocking to them. In the US, although free lunches do exist for the poorest students, there remains a considerable portion who have to purchase their meals. This variance stands in stark contrast to Sweden, where the idea of not providing children with meals at school would be unthinkable. This uncompromising commitment to ensuring children are nourished and cared for within the school environment is commendable and exemplary.

Additionally, while not directly integrated into the education system, the ramifications of robust parental leave policies in Sweden extend their influence into the educational sphere. In Sweden, parents are granted substantial time to spend with their newborns, with this privilege extended to both parents. This emphasis on allowing families to support their children during their early years significantly influences the school experience. Children who have benefited from comprehensive parental care tend to enter the school system with a stronger foundation. In this context, parental leave can be seen as an integral factor in shaping a child's educational journey.

I've often emphasized that one of the most commendable practices to borrow from Sweden is their approach to parental leave. It was disheartening to witness instances in the US where individuals were expected to return to work merely a week or two after having a baby. This early separation from newborns may shape the trajectory of an individual's life, and by extension, the education system's starting point. Thus, if asked what aspect of Sweden to emulate, I consistently highlight the importance of parental leave. This practice shapes the foundation of early childhood experiences, subsequently influencing the trajectory of education and life at large.

In summary, there are several facets that distinguish the education systems of the United States and Sweden. These include a stronger emphasis on the relationship between parents and teachers, the provision of free meals in schools, and the impact of comprehensive parental leave policies. Each of these factors contributes to a distinctive educational landscape in Sweden, one that underscores the significance of community, care, and support for children's overall development.

Zach Taylor:

What could Sweden learn from the US?

Dr. Reed Curtis:

Certainly, the cultural and historical context within Sweden plays a role in how decisions are perceived and approached. The legacy of being a Kingdom still echoes in various aspects of Swedish society, including education. This historical underpinning often translates into a cultural respect for decisions that have been made. This sentiment can sometimes inhibit a proactive challenge to the status quo, not only in education but in other spheres as well.

One intriguing observation I've made is that within the Swedish education arena, individuals might be more hesitant to question or challenge decisions due to this sense of ingrained respect for decisions made within the system. This contrasts with my experience in the US, particularly at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where active criticism of policies was more openly embraced. This tendency to critique and question existing policies could be an area where the Swedish system could potentially benefit from learning.

Another dimension I've noticed pertains to the perceived power dynamics within the teaching profession. In the US, teachers often express concerns about their perceived lack of power. However, in the Swedish context, this sentiment might be even more pronounced. This perception could be linked to societal norms and expectations, where pushing boundaries or firmly asserting authority can sometimes be viewed with hesitation.

In terms of student motivation and engagement, there are facets of the Swedish education system that might warrant examination. While there are many advantages to a state-funded education model, there could be instances where the leniency provided to students might inadvertently reduce the incentive for serious engagement. For instance, the policy allowing students to repeat assignments up to five times within each class taken in higher education could potentially affect the level of commitment and rigor expected from students.

Drawing parallels to my experience in the US, there was a struggle to introduce even basic measures such as grade replacement for failing courses. In contrast, the Swedish system's allowance for assignment repetition raises questions about maintaining a balance between providing ample chances for improvement and ensuring that students maintain a certain level of commitment and effort.

In summary, while the Swedish education system has numerous strengths, there are aspects that might benefit from reevaluation and potential adjustment. This includes finding ways to balance the respect for decisions with a healthy culture of critique, empowering teachers while maintaining discipline, and examining policies that might inadvertently reduce students' motivation and sense of responsibility. By continuously refining these aspects, the Swedish education system can strive for an even more balanced and effective approach to education.

Zach Taylor:

You bring up two really interesting topics. One is academic freedom and my conception of academic freedom is from the AAUP and principles of academic freedom in US contexts, which applies basically college faculty. How does that compare in Swedish contexts? Is there the idea of academic freedom in Sweden, and if so, how does that operate day-to-day and how do you navigate that?

Dr. Reed Curtis:

Certainly, the question you've raised is an important one, and it's a topic I'm actually preparing to teach to my new doctoral students in a few weeks. When examining academic freedom and ethics in teaching, a comparative analysis between the US and Sweden reveals several interesting parallels and distinctions. Both countries uphold the value of academic freedom, albeit with certain nuances.

In the US, there has been a growing concern about academic freedom, particularly in contexts like Florida, where debates center around what subjects are being taught and how they are taught. These challenges highlight the vulnerability of academic freedom to political and ideological pressures. In Sweden, you can observe a similar trend, albeit with a different focus. Discussions within the Swedish government about preserving Swedish culture through the curriculum have raised questions about potential curriculum regulations. This demonstrates that both countries experience attacks on academic freedom, albeit in different dimensions.

Despite these challenges, both the US and Sweden encompass elements of academic freedom within their educational systems. An interesting difference lies in the nature of employment. In Sweden, my experience of immediately entering a permanent position after obtaining a PhD is relatively rare as it would be also in than in the US. The reality in both contexts is that often after your PhD, you may take temporary contracts or work adjunct for a while before landing a tenure track or permanent position. The difference in Sweden though is that once you obtain a permanent position you are granted many of the rights that you obtain in the US only after being hired in a tenure track position and having obtained tenure. The tenure system in the US provides a level of job security, which indirectly safeguards academic freedom by ensuring that faculty members cannot be dismissed arbitrarily due to their views.

In Sweden, while academic freedom is legally protected, there might be a cultural dynamic that influences how individuals approach dissent or challenging the status quo. The unwritten cultural encouragement to align with consensus might lead to a certain reluctance to openly critique the system. This phenomenon, which I explore in my dissertation, can shape academic discourse and decision-making, potentially impacting the extent to which academic freedom is practically exercised.

In the US, on the other hand, you often encounter a more vocal expression of dissent within academic circles. Professors may openly critique the education system or other aspects of society without the same cultural reluctance. This, coupled with the protection provided by tenure, contributes to an environment where academic freedom is more overtly exercised, even though challenges and pressures still exist.

In conclusion, the comparison between academic freedom in the US and Sweden reveals both commonalities and distinctions. While both countries value academic freedom and experience challenges, the nature of employment, cultural dynamics, and the societal context contribute to differences in how academic freedom is practically exercised and protected. Understanding these nuances is crucial for researchers and educators aiming to navigate the complexities of academic discourse in these respective contexts.

Zach Taylor:

Discussing academic freedom in higher education contexts is truly intriguing. I have substantial experience teaching high school for many years, during which we aligned our curriculum with the Common Core state standards. This approach entailed highly structured teaching, to the extent that reading lists and standardized assignments were provided. Moreover, there was a directive to standardize assignments, including formative assessments like weekly quizzes. This extended even further, as we were required to offer uniform common formative weekly and summative assessments. This uniformity was aimed at evaluating teacher effectiveness. In contrast, the degree of academic freedom in K-12 education, at least within the US context, and higher education is significantly disparate.

In higher education, particularly within colleges, there exists a considerable amount of freedom. For example, when teaching British literature, an instructor can choose to delve into various authors like Shelley or Byron, even concentrating solely on Shakespeare if they so wish. This freedom to tailor the curriculum exists within the US, with the only requirement being alignment with a prescribed reading list and curriculum.

It's worth noting that there's a certain notion of transferability that institutions and school districts, particularly at the K-12 level, desire and anticipate from educators. This desire for consistency has been prevalent for the past 15 to 20 years. However, this push for uniformity has also had unintended consequences, including the potential to contribute to teacher turnover and attrition.

Dr. Reed Curtis:

The constraints of the K-12 arena pushed me to reconsider my path. Originally majoring in history and secondary education, I was compelled to pivot due to the lack of creative freedom within this framework. During my practicums, which preceded student teaching, I vividly recall observing a teacher who, rather mechanically, utilized pre-made PowerPoints from a CD or DVD. Witnessing this stifling approach, I became disenchanted with the regimented nature of K-12 education.

Subsequently, I transitioned to higher education for reasons that closely mirror your insights. In Sweden, my field of pedagogy or education functions somewhat differently, especially when examining teacher training. State regulation heavily governs teacher training programs, leading to concerns among colleagues. This regulatory stance sometimes clashes with academic freedom, particularly in professional programs shaped by governmental directives.

While your query primarily pertains to higher education versus secondary education, it's crucial to acknowledge that this contrast isn't solely confined to those contexts. In the US, crafting a course typically involves adhering to a prescribed structure while retaining room for personalization. For instance, if tasked with teaching British literature post-1800, a syllabus may provide guidelines and topics, but instructors wield considerable autonomy in selecting readings and making syllabus modifications without these changes having to be approved by a committee.

Contrarily, Sweden's framework tightly binds academic content to a right, specifically, the right of citizens to a standardized and transparent educational experience. This ensures uniformity and ease of reference for students, yet it can limit an educator's adaptability. While academic freedom is upheld in principle, practical teaching faces challenges. When teaching here, readings and assignments are predefined by the course program, leaving less room for spontaneity.

Transitions like modifying course materials necessitate navigating a bureaucratic process involving multiple committees. The root of this lies in Sweden's focus on safeguarding citizens' rights and the weight placed on the role of student unions, which essentially function as formal unions and negotiate with universities on behalf of students due to the public service nature of education.

In summary, while academic freedom remains a cornerstone, the interplay between citizen rights, governmental oversight, and student union influence intricately shapes the teaching landscape in Sweden. This multifaceted dynamic can, at times, create a paradoxical scenario wherein students' rights take precedence over educators' freedom, offering a distinct contrast to the American educational context.

Zach Taylor:

Certainly, a fascinating point to discuss. On a related note, the second topic you briefly touched upon is financing. In Sweden, the commitment to provide children with meals undoubtedly incurs substantial auxiliary expenses. My experience in principalship training unveiled the intricate process behind crafting school food budgets, the inherent political nature of introducing vending machines to cafeterias, and the financial complexities involved. Establishing such services necessitates meticulous planning, considering factors like insurance, licensing, space allocation, and the decision between hiring staff or outsourcing via a bidding process. This complexity underscores the challenge schools face in funding auxiliary services.

This leads us to the problem of financing, where schools differ in their capacity to offer auxiliary services, influenced by the socioeconomics of the area. In the US, disparities are pronounced, with one public school boasting varsity sports, school lunches, breakfast programs, and after-school activities, while another, often in a less affluent district, may lack such resources. These gaps are exacerbated by the concept of school choice, prevalent in several states. Wealthier parents can opt for better schools, which receive state vouchers, perpetuating inequality between affluent and disadvantaged areas.

In Sweden, due to the more centralized system in place, the extent of these socioeconomic disparities varies. The question arises: Is this divide present in Sweden?

Dr. Reed Curtis:

I appreciate your question because it addresses a significant matter that resonates in Sweden as well. This aspect is a central focus of my dissertation, which I hope you'll find relevant. Within it, I conducted interviews with students to explore their transition into higher education. Interestingly, they raised concerns about their experiences during the upper secondary school selection process in Sweden. The country employs a comprehensive school choice system across municipalities, funded by state resources. This model emerged in the early 1990s, offering open access to education for all citizens. Unlike many other contexts where vouchers or privatization are implemented, Sweden stands out by allowing schools to generate profit in addition to receiving state funding. This characteristic contributes to the proliferation of private institutions, even encompassing religious schools.

In the Swedish system, students as young as 15 are entrusted with the responsibility of making mature decisions about their education. This process exerts significant pressure on them, as the choice holds considerable weight. My research dives into this matter extensively, revealing that the students I interviewed faced considerable challenges. They grappled with the stress of making the correct decision, often attributing any missteps to themselves rather than critiquing the school choice framework. This tendency aligns with neoliberal thinking, where personal accountability is emphasized.

In the context of disparities, Sweden showcases a unique dynamic. While every student is assured access to meals, the pursuit of profit among private schools introduces disparities. Such schools may cut corners by reducing expenses, increasing class sizes, or permitting students to use state funds at fast-food outlets, all of which raise concerns about the quality of education and equity.

The original intent of the school choice reform was to promote equity by departing from the geographical-based allocation prevalent in countries like the US. However, emerging research, including my own, suggests that this approach may actually  increase disparities in some areas. The notion of a "folkhem," Sweden's welfare state ideal, has evolved into what I term the "folk market," with citizens distanced from the government and pushed into a market-based system. This transformation is not widely recognized, and my aim is to shed light on this nuanced shift. The current Sweden embodies a blend of community values and individualism, illustrating the intricate interplay between these factors.

Ultimately, the school choice model in Sweden has generated outcomes that may not align with common perceptions. The country's unique blend of marketization and community ideals highlights the complexities of its educational landscape, offering a rich area of study and exploration.


Read Dr. Curtis’ dissertation here: