(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who started the Friday school strikes, has graduated from secondary education with 14 As and three Bs.
She got these excellent grades despite being absent from class far more than most of her followers: As the leader of a movement, an international celebrity, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she traveled extensively during her last school year.
The contrast between Thunberg’s academic achievement and her attendance record raises important questions. What kind of example does she set for the millions of kids who skipped school to participate in the climate protests? Should attendance be compulsory and, if so, why should it be required for someone like Thunberg?
In Sweden, nine years of full-time education are mandatory and home-schooling is practically illegal. In this, it is hardly unique among European countries. Governments are reluctant to make exceptions to compulsory schooling policies even when, as in Germany, a constitutional conflict exists between a parent’s right to care for their children and the state’s mandate to educate.
The government has powerful reasons for that. Evidence exists that extending the number of years in education usually improves employment, social and even health outcomes. But there is also a flaw in this reasoning. In a 2017 article summarizing the many useful effects of mandatory schooling, Colm Harmon from the University of Sydney pointed out that the benefits mainly accrue to “those who are most marginal in their schooling choices” – those most likely to drop out.
Thunberg isn’t one of them. She says she would have made straight As had she not been so busy with her campaign. “But it was worth it,” she told the newspaper Dagens Nyheter. (Her Bs were in Swedish, sports and home economics – perhaps not the most useful subjects for an international climate activist.)
One might say that by encouraging kids everywhere to skip school for an important cause, she is getting them to do something that might be fine for her but not necessarily for all of them. On the other hand, she may know something about school that most adults have forgotten. For both curious students and lazy ones alike, the endless hours of waiting for class to end are as mind-numbing as they are useless. Large classes and a reluctance to differentiate by academic ability mean that, on average, not much actually gets learned.
Watching my two very different daughters (one an introverted, serious artist at 16; the other athletic, linguistically gifted and socially competitive at nine) struggle with the drudgery of schooling makes me wonder who wouldn’t.
What if Thunberg is offering policy makers two messages for the price of one? The first is, of course, about climate. But the second is that the world wouldn’t come to an end if the school week were shortened by a day. Going to a rally and reading up about the issues involved might do more good than polishing a chair in class.
Homeschooling isn’t the answer. There is far from enough robust research to prove that it leads to competitive educational outcomes. Though attempts have been made to show it doesn’t affect children’s socialization, our family’s experience, especially since moving to Germany, has convinced us otherwise.
But there are, however, some workable compromises. A curious kid, with or without committed parents, can find multiple opportunities for learning outside the classroom. An incurious one may need to be chained to the desk for as long as possible. But there’s no compelling reason to set down the same rules for both, as happens in Germany, where the number of missed hours and days is meticulously recorded and can affect admission decisions when switching to another school.
One way out might be to make annual standardized tests, rather than school attendance, compulsory. Yes, many teachers hate exam preparation and don’t believe in exams (as I know from my time as a publisher of test prep books in Russia). But every teacher knows what basic skills kids are supposed to have learned by the end of a school year and, no matter how creatively they are taught, a skill is a skill. It must be testable, so why not annually?
Those with the best results – say, those in the upper 20 percent – could be allowed to attend as they wished. They will get an education whether or not they come to school every day. The middle 60 percent would get more flexibility in those subjects where their test scores were highest. The bottom 20 percent are closest to Harmon’s “marginal” cases. Some of them may under-perform because their parents don’t care about their education; some may have un-diagnosed learning disabilities; others may be victims of bullying. It’s these children who deserve the most attention from teachers – and with smaller class sizes, they would benefit.
In this age of big data, it wouldn’t be impossible to quantify achievement throughout a kid’s school life and move away from the one-size-fits-all practice of forcing everyone to attend school five days a week.
For her part, Thunberg is done wasting her time, at least for now. She is taking the next school year off to continue her climate change campaign. Whatever school she ends up in next is unlikely to make stringent attendance demands on a potential Nobel Peace Prize winner.
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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