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.