Education in Iceland

Iceland flag over stack of textbooks.(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)Citizens of a country one major crisis away from falling apart at the seams, we Americans would be wise to examine how budding generations are cultivated to diminish the probability of irreversible decline. If you think education is expensive, the old saying goes, try ignorance. En masse.

But as we have seen, that conversation can be hijacked and taken in a suicidal direction. In December 2008, for example, about a dozen weeks after Wall Street brought the planet to its knees, every corporate propagandist’s favorite education “reformer,” then-Washington, DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, adorned the cover of TIME in a Joan of Arc-like pose. The splash (“How to Save America’s Schools”) heralded the bipartisan ascension of Rhee’s attacks on organized labor. Her disdain for due process for sacked teachers (“tenure”) and her arbitrary standardized testing of teachers’ “value added” was celebrated by TIME as a solution to America’s woes, as bankers prepared fraudulent foreclosure mills and right-wing think tanks were rolling out the astroturf carpet for the Tea Party movement. Although inner-city public schools’ poor performance can be largely blamed on disenfranchisement and deprivation – social conditions that benefit the influence-peddling class by keeping working people desperate to rent their labor – those issues were relegated to the background. Rhee’s “no-excuses” policy was a tacit admission this was the case. Those with the major printing presses – editors at TIME magazine, for one – had and still harbor little desire to discuss the driving factor behind inner-city public schools’ poor performance, despite little empirical evidence that mainstream proposals constitute proper solutions. A 2012 study cited by Rheeformers as affirming “good” teachers’ “added value” merely showed – if you hack through the PR flak-massaged headlines – that their students only earn, on average, a dollar more per day than students with “bad teachers.”

The controversy isn’t just about attacks on school systems or teachers’ unions, either. It’s about education reform that would actually reform little in the way of education itself. Merely hoping that teachers can and will up their performance in response to absurd incentives, the Rheevolution is the biggest con since Reaganomics, and an ugly spawn of that ideology to boot. It’s hardly surprising that early evidence shows it’s failing. A thoroughly researched report by veteran education journalist John Merrow showed that Rhee’s program in DC yielded no positive results by its own test-obsessed measures. When it briefly did, the improved measurement was the product of a cheating scandal. But because the Rhee tack remains popular with campaign donation-obsessed politicians, it seems that we are still entertaining its ideas about what to do when these school systems “fail” (major cities’ public schools tend to perform fine in higher-income areas, by the way). Waiting in the wings are experimental corporate charter schools – institutions that are often found to perform worse than traditional public schools. Neglected aren’t just holistic solutions, but largely, actual educational methods, too.

Which is why a story about education in another part of the world caught my eye – not in the least because it is taking place in Iceland, a country synonymous with national calamity and crisis management; one that I have followed since its financial meltdown in 2008. New political parties there that trace their roots to the “Pots and Pans Revolution” that quickly followed Iceland’s collapse are pushing education reform. And, unlike corporate poison pill reform in the United States, these initiatives, if passed, would actually fundamentally alter the nature of education and power dynamics in the classroom, instead of seeking to treat public school teachers like Wal-Mart managers and students like future Wal-Mart employees.

Myths About Iceland

It might come as a surprise to some Americans that Icelanders would feel the need to change their education system, but only because the country, particularly since the financial collapse, is mistakenly overhyped by progressives as some sort of socialist democratic Valhalla (a myth that should be put to bed by Iceland’s recent parliamentary elections – the campaign saw a proliferation of protest parties and resulted in an opportunistic, allegedly anti-austerity, right-wing coalition).

Our overly bucolic view of Iceland often extends to the country’s information economy. Icelanders are often described as “highly literate,” with a high percentage of citizens who are multilingual, and 92 percent of households plugged into the information super highway. But this is, perhaps, in spite of, and not because of, an outstanding education system. In 2009, Iceland had the fifth-highest high school dropout rate among Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member nations at 30 percent. Teen pregnancy – a phenomenon related to relatively poor educational outcomes – happens more frequently in Iceland than it does in any other Nordic country, according to OECD data from 2008.

Not to mention that the education system produced a generational failure in the collective imagination – it’s impossible to make any other assessment after 2008. Iceland adopted some of the most destructive conventional wisdom the West had to offer, giving license to criminal bankers and aluminum smelting multinationals with horrendous environmental records. The result was catastrophic – both for the economic and natural landscapes. Since the banking crash, however, there has been an appeal from some quarters for encouraging a more creative way of thinking.

There is clearly tangible economic demand for creative workers, based on Icelanders’ enterprising activities. Remarkably, according to OECD data, the number of start-ups (“enterprise entries”) actually increased between the last quarter of 2008 and the first of 2009, while protests engulfed the Parliament, and existential anxiety gripped the nation. The volume of new start-ups rose even as the reality of the collapse set in, peaking in the last quarter of 2009. But (assuming these start-ups were not merely tax evasion vehicles or conduits for dodging capital controls) the economy caught up with the doe-eyed entrepreneurs. As enterprise entries fell and business closures increased, the ratio of start-ups to bankruptcies (again, according to the OECD) dropped dramatically, hovering around 2-1 in 2011.

– less than half of what the proportion routinely was in the quarters that preceded the collapse. While tight credit and a generally bleak global economy could be blamed (a theory somewhat undermined by the immediate post-collapse start-up spike), perhaps one of the reasons why Iceland hasn’t been able to sustain its citizens’ entrepreneurial dreams, as of late, can be found in the education system.

“One of the biggest growing fields here, for example, is the gaming industry,” Heiða Helgadóttir, chairperson of the party Bright Future, told Truthout a few days before the election. “We have a huge gaming industry here, compared to how small we are, and we don’t have technical abilities here to support that. We need to import the people with technical abilities.”

The school system’s deficiencies, as she described it, aren’t unique to Iceland. Technological developments happen so rapidly, and schools aren’t keeping pace. What’s the point of having kids memorize the Latin names of animals, for example, when they could be taught how to program a searchable database with pictures of every known species on the planet?

“Children are generally bored at school,” she said. “We need to figure out how we can make them be more creative and such.”

After the election, despite the triumph of old school corporate-minded parties, there might be a new chance to hash out a plan. Bright Future is a newly formed party that ended up winning six out of the Althing’s (Iceland’s parliament) 63 seats in April’s election. It can trace it roots to Reykjavik’s Best Party, which was borne out of post-collapse discontent in 2010 and gave rise to the city’s anarchistic former comedian mayor, Jón Gnarr. Gnarr himself, despite his success, is emblematic of dissatisfaction with Iceland’s education system, having dropped out of high school. In its election manifesto, Bright Future said that it would explore “different models of education and schooling – new ideas that bring more options to the table.” And if the public wants to hold the party’s feet to the fire on this, Bright Future has a website – – where it solicits comment about policy direction.

The Pirate Party, another new party that won three seats on a platform to modernize democracy through technology, is also promoting policies that seek to address gripes with education as we know it. As then-candidate Arnaldur Sigurðarson (he is still active with the party) wrote in the Reykjavik Grapevine, the model of education “in Westernized countries dates back to the industrial revolution because there was an increasing demand for labourers with the basic skills that the education institutions of the time provided.” It’s a system Sigurðarson describes as past its time – one that “strip-mines our minds for particular commodities because of preconceived outdated notions of what intelligence is.” He decried the system’s neglect of the arts and creative thinking, and called for an introduction of seemingly advanced topics in primary school – such as coding, philosophy and gender studies.

While I was in Reykjavik in April to cover Iceland’s parliamentary election, I caught up with Sigurðarson to learn more about his thoughts on education and its relationship to the macroeconomy. He described the financial collapse as a “big reality check” on the system’s limits and echoed Helgadóttir’s concerns that Iceland lacks programmers and “people who can think outside the box.”

But he has been motivated by personal factors. Namely, the fact that he’s a few credits shy of being admitted into university “based on the fact that my Icelandic isn’t all that great,” he explained in English, with only trace amounts of an Icelandic accent. Not fitting the mold of what the ivory tower considers acceptable, Sigurðarson is hoping alternative models might find currency at a time when national soul-searching is more commonplace.

The Pirates are looking at such models all over the world for inspiration. Sigurðarson cited British education researcher Ken Robinson as one. In 1998, Robinson chaired a commission funded by the British government that made a strong case for nurturing seemingly abstract creative tendencies. Even in corporate-speak, the group’s report explained how creative education yields immense benefits. “This is because of the incessant need for businesses to develop new products and services and to adapt management styles and systems of operation to keep pace with rapidly changing market conditions.” Sigurðarson also said that his own experience working at a kindergarten has given him appreciation of the Reggio Emilia preschool educational philosophy. Developed in a town of the same name in post-fascist Italy, the method encourages kids to explore community relationships and their own innate talents.

But systemic inertia could prove resistant to this desire to nurture creative minds – even if it can, theoretically, pay dividends to CEOs. Reggio Emilia, for example, is in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy – a part of the world that has incubated a network of worker-owned cooperatives comprising 30 percent of its entire economy, one of Italy’s richest. Whether it be a causal or correlative relationship, it seems only natural that an educational philosophy encouraging kids to strike a balance between individuality and community would flourish in a corner of the world offering an antiauthoritarian alternative to capitalism. It also seems natural that those invested in systems enforcing obedience from a young age – in Iceland and beyond – would resist making such methods accessible to all.

Another political pitfall can be found in a more tangible problem.

“It’s rather expensive,” Olafur Loftsson, head of the Icelandic Teachers’ Union primary and lower secondary schools division told Truthout. “I think, as a society, we would more or less agree: Yes, we should put more effort into all kinds of arts. But we never see it happen, really.”

Loftsson said that in a time of crisis cutbacks, this could be particularly difficult.

“There are now fewer teachers. They teach more,” he said. The union recently published a study with municipalities that comprise the Reykjavik region, which found that teachers are routinely working up to 50 hours per week when they’re only supposed to work 42.

“The pressure has increased enormously,” he added. “We know that there are lot of other things that have been cut – the buying of school books, the renewal of all kinds of equipment; there are fewer assistants.”

Sigurðarson, however, said that political wrangling over short-term financing could end up costing Iceland in the long run.

“I think ultimately, having more creativity in schools and having a greater emphasis on code and such will, in the end, make us more money than not, exactly because of the great demand for such talents in the job market.” he commented. “Right now, the internet is making a whole lot of different sectors almost obsolete.”

Walking around the center of Reykjavik in the days leading up to the election, it was impossible to miss Sigurðarson’s point. The city was playing host to a convention for fans of the video game EVE Online, developed by the Icelandic company CCP. Planeloads of people flew up north from far and wide to gather and meet in person. The city was awash with nerd gold. How much is unclear, but in 2011, the firm announced that the game has made over $300 million since it was released in 2003 .

Citing initiatives in other countries and existing domestic programs, Sigurðarson said Iceland doesn’t even necessarily need to take massive risks forging new curricula that could support creative labor market demands. The Pirate Party is looking at classrooms in Estonia, where primary school children are being taught how to code. Sigurðarson said that he and newly elected MP Jón Thór Ólafsson have reached out to, a US-based nonprofit “dedicated to growing computer programming education.” Philosophy and gender studies, he said, can be included alongside other social sciences already being taught in Icelandic schools.

In a followup interview via email, Sigurðarson told Truthout that the party is looking to package these reforms and others into a series of legislative proposals called the Icelandic Modern Education Reform, not dissimilar to the style of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative – a spate of press freedom and transparency reforms approved by the Althing in June 2010.

He also said that online instruction platforms could help reduce the cost of individualizing education. In his Grapevine op-ed, he mentioned two possible platforms as examples of online courses – Coursera and the Khan Academy.

Those platforms are, however, not without their critics. Robert Talbert, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, implied that the Khan Academy could only complement conventional teaching. He described it as useful for learning about subjects, but said it falls short when it comes to mastering them – “a level that really makes a difference in the world.” And Coursera’s for-profit venture has come under fire. Bob Meister, a UC Santa Cruz professor penned a lengthy open letter to the company, asking its founders if they are really “a force for reducing academic hierarchy and income inequality.”

“Is that what you are telling your partners in finance and university administration?” Meister queried.

Sigurðarson countered that open-source platforms are what the Pirates would like to promote. He said that some already exist, but that the Icelandic Pirate Party, having been founded by a handful of programmers, might eventually create one such platform.

“Hopefully what IMER will do is to get that ball rolling,” he said. “It’s too early to say at this point whether the Pirates will make a site, or if it will be publicly funded. Either way, I would like to see it open source and free for everyone to use.”

Whatever the case, there appears to be multipartisan support for using the internet to modernize and individualize education. Áslaug María Friðriksdóttir, a right-wing Independence Party candidate (she didn’t win a seat), wrote a column a few days prior to the election proposing that Icelandic schools use online “distance learning” techniques to allow students of all ages to learn according to “their inherent interests.”

For real change to occur, however, Sigurðarson warned that teachers must receive compensation commensurate with other respected professionals, if they are expected to perform more duties. He described their salaries as “practically a joke” – middle school teachers’ salaries in Iceland compared to college-educated counterparts in other sectors are the second lowest in the OECD.

No Mass School Closings

The failure to adequately compensate teachers might be the only common gripes that bond Icelandic teachers with their comrades in the United States, where compensation relative to other college-educated workers is only marginally better. Public school teachers here have it much worse in most regards. Despite cuts, teachers in Iceland haven’t seen anything like the planned public school closings in Chicago and Philadelphia – or the mass closures in recent years in Cleveland and Detroit.

Nor are they being judged by inane scattershot standardized tests that have led to protests by students, parents and teachers from around the United States. Loftsson said that Icelandic politicians aren’t seriously considering mandating standardized testing as a means of judging teachers, even if some politicians do occasionally try to make hay out of suboptimal scores. He intoned that Icelandic educators primarily see standardized tests as a useful tool to assess the progress of students. If, for example, tests show that a student’s abilities in one discipline have slipped over the years, teachers can attempt to give him or her special help.

In other words, Iceland doesn’t appear to have a taste for American-style reform, even if, as Loftsson said, some conservatives have a habit of viewing schools “more like a factory.”

“They use the words and the terminology from the business sector,” he said. “It doesn’t apply.”

The worldview doesn’t bode well for those seeking to modernize and individualize education in Iceland. Newly elected Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson doesn’t appear to care much for creative industry, pushing plans to bring more aluminum smelters to Iceland, even amid dissent on both the left and right. And another right-wing politician – Independence Party MP Brynjar Níelsson – said in a radio interview days after the election that creative industries aren’t profitable – a statement that provoked a backlash on social media.

But currently, at least among those discussing the issue, there appears to be a consensus in Iceland that education reform, if enacted, should actually focus on what is taught and how lessons are conveyed. And if trends in Iceland are any indication, “the United States of America” wouldn’t be an option on a credible multiple-choice question about which countries’ education reforms are the envy of the world.