UTRECHT, The Netherlands—This summer, when the Dutch government debated mandating that all schools provide three hours of physical education a week to students, Jasper Bunt, the principal at a Montessori school called Oog in Al, argued against it. He already offered the required two hours of gym at his school in Utrecht, a city 30 miles south of Amsterdam. Another 60 minutes would mean giving up time in another subject.

Bunt has each of his 350 students for 200 days a year—four weeks more than the average U.S. school year. That amounts to 930 hours a year, more than what’s required by half of the states in the U.S. and most countries worldwide. Bunt believes that he and his teachers should decide what to do with that time—not the government. It’s a pervasive belief in the Netherlands, where increased school time also comes with increased principal and teacher autonomy.

As schools across America experiment with adding more hours to the school day and more days to the school year, the Netherlands offers examples of what extra time looks like in a largely successful education system. Last fall, I traveled there to see firsthand what lessons the United States could learn and found that several aspects often dictated by law or by district policy in America are decided at individual schools across the Netherlands.

With complete control of their schools’ budgets and no laws about class size or extracurricular programming, principals can opt to have two classes of 15 second-graders each or to have one class of 30 and hire an art teacher, for example. 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. Bunt for his part 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 a 2008 report, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that 94 percent of decisions for middle schools in the Netherlands are made by individual school administrators and teachers, while 6 percent are made at the federal level. In a 2011 OECD analysis, Dutch schools reported the second-highest amount of autonomy in the world in picking tests and teaching materials. The U.S. was ranked 21st out of 32 countries. The same report found that, broadly, the more control that a country’s schools have over these decisions, the better the country does on international assessments. Indeed, the Netherlands is among the top quarter of countries in reading, math, and science, according to the Program for International Student Assessment. The country significantly outperforms the U.S., whose scores fall in the middle.

Both countries would like to move up in the international rankings. Unlike many places in the U.S., though, in the Netherlands teacher autonomy is a crucial part of the education-reform discussion. "We are so entrenched in this culture of top-down authority right now," said Kim Farris-Berg, an American education consultant and lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. The Dutch, she added, "somehow see that path forward" to greater teacher control of schools.

Many Dutch teachers still feel as though they don’t have the authority to make important decisions about their schools, like picking what to teach. In many cases, however, Dutch teachers face fewer constraints than their American peers. For example, although educators in the Netherlands also express concern about pressure to "teach to the test," and although Dutch students also must pass standardized tests in many subjects to graduate from high school, the Dutch students are required to take only three standardized tests in primary school: one at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end. Some principals elect to have students take more, but the choice is theirs. Most American students take standardized tests in multiple subjects each year in third through eighth grade.

The Dutch government also develops standards that dictate what a student should have learned by the end of primary and secondary school. By the end of eighth grade, students should be able to meet 58 targets across all subject areas, like being able to solve simple geometry problems and understand key concepts about weather and climate. By comparison, the Common Core State Standards, benchmarks adopted by more than 40 states in the U.S., have 70 total math and English Language Arts standards for eighth-graders.

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. Like Bunt, Hiltje Rookmaker, 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.

The Dutch constitution guarantees freedom of education, meaning anyone can open a school and determine how they want to teach there. More than 60 percent of the 8,000 or so schools in the Netherlands are private with a religious affiliation—but unlike the U.S., in this country these institutions are still publicly funded. Among the rest, many schools are based on a specific educational philosophy, like Montessori, in which group lessons are mostly abandoned in favor of students working independently. (The U.S. has a few thousand Montessori schools, but most are private and charge tuition.)  

Outside factors, like the small number of Dutch textbook publishing companies, indirectly limit how different schools can be in practice. Still, educators vigorously defend the right to have those differences, and some experts say there is a great deal of innovation in how schools are structured or what kinds of teaching strategies they use. In some ways, the educational system in the Netherlands, a country that’s comparable in size to Massachusetts and Connecticut combined and serves a population of 17 million people, functions like a group of 8,000 charter schools.

Like charters, in exchange for their freedom, Dutch schools are expected to show results. The government inspects the schools once every four years by visiting the schools, meeting with students and parents, and looking at test scores and finances. The small number of schools—a couple hundred or so—that are deemed weak are watched more closely, but the rest are free to carry on. Since the 1990s, all schools have been overseen by boards that monitor progress and provide support. While half of the school boards in the country are responsible for only one school each, large boards can control several dozen, similar to how American charter school networks operate.

Some Dutch teachers told me they fear that the school boards, made up of members of the community but not educators, are eroding teacher’s freedoms. Some boards, for instance, pick which textbooks teachers should use or assign additional standardized tests. This sentiment resembles that of the American teachers who are pushing back against district mandates.

"The autonomy that was supposed to come of the decentralization got stuck with the boards and never reaches the teachers and schools," said Walter Dresscher, president of the Algemene Onderwijsbond, one of the country’s two teachers unions. (The country is home to some 240,000 teachers total in both public and private schools.) "Freedom in the classroom is going backwards quickly."

But other Dutch educators say the threat is more perceived than actual. "If you’re doing okay, they leave you alone," Rookmaker said of her school board, which oversees five schools. "I can do what I want."

Leon van Gelder is one of 3,000 schools participating in the government’s School aan Zet program, or "school in charge."  The 40-million-Euro (about $50 million) program aims help schools figure out how to improve on their own and ultimately emphasizes their autonomy.

Rookmaker says she places a premium on the school not having to answer to school board or government mandates. Taking part in government-funded initiatives, like School aan Zet, doesn’t threaten that independence. "It’s not a program where every school does the same thing," she said. "It’s what’s good for my school."


This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.