What Can We Learn from the Dutch? Can (De)Reformers, Teacher Unions, Charters, Opt-Outs Co-Exist and Schools Thrive?

(Revised from a 2015 blog)

I was on a bus traveling from Aachen in Belgium to Maastricht in the Netherlands when I noticed a huge American flag. The bus driver told us it was a United States military cemetery, the grave sites of over 8,000 fallen Americans. The residents of Margraten, a nearby town have “adopted” our soldiers and visit the site maintaining and placing flowers on the graves. “It’s the least we can do,” the bus driver remarked, “your sons and daughters sacrificed their lives to protect us from the Nazis.”

I love the Dutch.

Amsterdam is filled with bikes, everyone, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity is pedaling around the cobblestone streets. I asked the concierge the reason why bikes were so commonplace, with a sly smile, “Part of our anti-alcoholism campaign, if you get drunk and drive you kill someone, if you ride your bike and fall you skin your knee, we like to drink.” Everyone, from bartenders to hotel staff to government officials to teachers is interested and knowledgeable about both American and world politics. They are baffled by our current administration, and, worry about rising nationalist sentiments in their nation.

Can it be their education system?

The darling of the anti-reformers has been Finland, without dissing Finland; the population is only a little larger than Brooklyn, virtually no childhood poverty, a homogeneous population and income equality. The Netherlands is a more interesting nation, the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts, a 15% immigrant population highly concentrated in major cities.

The Netherlands education system functions like a group of 8,000 charter schools.

The Atlantic describes the unique school-centered approach to education,

With complete control of their schools’ budgets and no laws about class size … principals can opt to have two classes of 15 second-graders each or to have one class of 30 and hire an art teacher, … They decide how to evaluate their teachers. They even pick when the school day starts and ends for each grade.

 Teachers across the Netherlands say that while they have certain topics they’re required to cover, they feel free to teach how they want. The idea of a scripted curriculum with pre-prepared lessons, used by thousands in the U.S., is alien. [A principal interviewed] does require his teachers to make lesson plans to ensure they’re thinking ahead, but he never checks them. “I don’t know what they’re doing right now,” he said. “I don’t have to know.”

In high school, Dutch students are required to learn certain things in each subject, but the sequence and details are left up to the schools. [The principal] of Leon van Gelder high school in Groningen, says she only steps in when a teacher’s students are failing exams. Otherwise, teachers say, they’re free to do what they want. “We have a program … but everyone does it their own way,” said Sophie Traas, a French teacher at Leon van Gelder.

According to the Organization for Economic Community Development (OECD) the Netherlands has a 92% high school graduation rate, half of all high school students, the highest in Europe, are in what we would call Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, there are over 2,000 vocation areas. 87% of three year olds are in pre-school programs and 100% of four year olds and there are exit exams in the elementary and secondary schools, not required but commonly taken by students,

The Center on International Education Benchmarking reports an overview of the Netherlands,

Think in terms of a national “parent trigger” system, “… any small group of parents can require the state to establish a school for their children at state expense …, most schools are managed by a school board responsible for several schools, to which the money is supplied by the state. The schools can be religious or non-religious and are often affiliated with organizations committed to a particular pedagogical approach, such as Montessori or Waldorf schools…”

Schools compete with each other for students, “There are no defined school catchment areas in the Netherlands, so parents may enroll their children in any primary school they wish.”

Secondary schools can set their own entrance requirements and use the elementary school exit exam scores and the recommendation of the elementary school teacher to determine acceptance.

As is commonplace in Europe an Inspectorate is charged with inspecting schools to make sure that the schools’ funds are being spent appropriately, the curriculum is in place and the attainment targets are being achieved.

The Netherlands minorities include Indonesians, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao in the Caribbean (former colonies) and new immigrants from troubled nations in Africa and the Middle East. Dutch schools are increasingly segregated by race,

“Many Dutch parents, apparently deciding that their children would be more likely to get a better education in schools populated by children from better educated families chose schools that answer to that description, leaving behind what have come to be called ‘Black schools,’ populated by students of immigrants who, though they have the right to move to other primary schools, often cannot do so or do not wish to do so”

By every measurement Dutch schools are rated at the top of the OECD nations:

Why are Dutch schools so successful?

* “The very high level of support for young children in the Netherlands;
* The willingness of the Dutch to provide substantially more financial support to schools serving poor and minority children than to others;
* The high standards set by the government for student attainment and the effectiveness of the Dutch accountability system with respect to those standards;
* The almost legendary effectiveness of the Dutch approach to mathematics teaching;
* A system of pathways through secondary education that does an unusually good job of matching students … to available education program options and motivates students to work hard in school by assuring them that there will be jobs for them if they do so; and, finally,
* The Dutch teacher preparation system assures teacher quality … candidates are among the top quarter of all school graduates”

Compared with other OECD nations the Netherlands provide higher teacher salary “… and has developed a severe shortage of teachers; the reasons are complex:, some of them demographic, some economic, some having to do with a decline in the perceived status of teachers and some having to do with what the teachers perceive as government intruding in recent years on their professional prerogatives.”

All is not perfect in the Netherlands, in 2012 one of the teacher unions went on strike,

Dutch teachers are to go on strike against a proposed increase in their working hours Dutch secondary teachers – who are members of the union Teachers in Action (LIA) are going on strike for three days this week to protest against the government increasing their hours and their teaching time for no extra pay as well as shortening their holidays. The government is also cutting 300 million Euros from the education budget which will mean bigger classes and even more pressure on the teachers.

The Netherlands appear to support both the reform, parent and teacher union agendas. All charter-like schools run locally, with fully unionized teachers. School funding that matches student need, and a totally reverse school choice at the high school level, the choice is at the school level, as well as highly paid and educated teachers who are fighting against erosions of teacher autonomy. A school system that leads to a job, a school system with high graduation rates and a school system with off the charts test score compared other OECD nations.

The Dutch have seemed to combine policies that appear antithetical to each of the sectors in our nation. Highly autonomous schools, similar to our charters, the government funds all schools, public and religious, all schools are unionized, a “parent-trigger,” parents can start schools, almost total school autonomy with testing at levels, well-paid staff with high pre-service academic requirements, half of high school students are in CTE programs leading to employment, and, on the negative side, a largely segregated school system.

The Obama-Duncan attempts to nationalize education (Race to the Top and the Common Core) have been abysmal failures. The fifty states should be viewed as fifty separate nations; federal intrusion with dollars seemed attractive to state commissioners and turned out to antagonize teachers and parents, and, increasingly, state political establishments.

It is possible that a state could seek a “grand bargain,” emulating the Dutch education system (except integrating schools), unlikely, but possible. It makes more sense than the (de)formers, funded by the far right and billionaires imposing contentious policies that have pitted the (de)formers against teacher, parents the progressives.

And, let us not forget that New York City, fka, New Amsterdam, was a Dutch colony until 1664, Russell Shorto in “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America,” recounts the origins of our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city.

One response to “What Can We Learn from the Dutch? Can (De)Reformers, Teacher Unions, Charters, Opt-Outs Co-Exist and Schools Thrive?

  1. A system like this is the U.S. would be taken over completely by profit seeking corporate interests, much like the virtual schools that ALEC has promoted in many states . The Dutch likely have safeguards in place. They also do not have a separation of church and state due to their own unique history. The parent trigger is a scam to charterize public schools, not a grasroots policy as you seem to imply.


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