UTRECHT, The Netherlands — Last summer, when the Dutch government debated mandating that all schools provide three hours of physical education a week to students, Jasper Bunt, 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 — and 930 hours a year, more than what’s required by half of the states in the U.S. and most countries worldwide. He 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 school system. With complete control of the budget and no laws about class size or extracurricular mandates, principals can opt to have two classes of 15 second-graders 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 said that while they had certain topics they had to cover, they felt free to teach how they wanted. The idea of a scripted curriculum with pre-prepared lessons, used by thousands in the United States, is alien.

Bunt 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.”


Students at Basisschool Jeroen in The Hague, Netherlands, work on an art project. The school uses its long school year to offer many electives like art, drama and music. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

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In a 2008 report, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that 94 percent of decisions for lower secondary schools are made at the school level in the Netherlands, 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 curriculum and tests. The United States 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, significantly outperforming the United States, whose scores fall in the middle.

Both countries would like to move up in the international rankings. Unlike many places in the United States, 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 expressed concern about pressure to teach to the test, and Dutch students also must pass standardized tests in many subjects to graduate 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.

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, 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, 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 Leon van Gelder French teacher Sophie Traas.

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Freedom of education is guaranteed in the Dutch constitution, meaning anyone can open a school and determine how they want to teach there. More than 60 percent of schools in the Netherlands are private with a religious affiliation (but are still publicly funded). Among the rest, many schools are based on a specific educational philosophy, like Montessori, in which students pick their own projects from a range of choices and independent learning is emphasized.

Outside factors, like the small number of Dutch textbook publishing companies, indirectly limit how different schools can be in practice. Still, the right to have those differences is vigorously defended, and some experts say there is a great deal of innovation. In some ways, the educational system in the Netherlands, a country the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, with a population of 17 million, functions like a group of 8,000 charter schools.

 “I don’t know what they’re doing right now. I don’t have to know.” Dutch principal Jasper Bunt on why he doesn’t check his teachers’ lesson plans.

The government inspects the schools once every four years. The 3 or 4 percent that are deemed weak are watched more closely, but the rest are free to carry on. In large cities where options abound, parents shop around for schools, not always going to the closest one. Since the 1990s, all schools have been overseen by a school board that monitors progress and provides support. While half of the school boards in the country are responsible for only one school each, large boards can control several dozen, much like American charter school networks.

Some teachers 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.

“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. “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.”

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Leon van Gelder is one of 3,000 schools participating in the government’s School aan Zet program. The name, which roughly translated means “school in charge,” began in 2012 out of a feeling that there were too many government-run organizations trying to help schools reach government-set goals, said School aan Zet manager Fabiènne Hendricks. The program has settled on a general, yet complex, goal: help schools figure out how to improve internally.

“Strong autonomy does not lead immediately to innovation or improvement,” Hendricks said, adding that it was important to trust in the “power of the people to do a lot themselves.”

With 40 million Euros (about $50 million) over four years, School aan Zet has set up networks for teachers and principals to talk and share ideas. (An unintentional byproduct of several decades of autonomy is that schools aren’t used to collaborating with each other.) Experts visit the schools four or five times over the course of the program to introduce the schools to School aan Zet’s basic framework, which outlines areas schools can work on, like professional development, vision and teacher evaluation. The experts also lead self-reflections and discussions. Schools have to set their own goals and own strategies for reaching them. The end objective is to create the ability and capacity for each school to nimbly make adjustments to its vision and practices on its own.

At Leon van Gelder, that’s meant having many conversations about how educators can do more to foster the social and emotional development of students, such as through an advising program aimed at building long-term relationships between students and teachers. The school is also working to improve internal training and collaboration among teachers.

During a morning break in mid-November, as students scattered to their own gathering places throughout the school, Rookmaker stood smiling in the teacher’s lounge, watching as her employees checked in with each other. Rookmaker says she places a premium on the school retaining its independence and not having to answer to school board or government mandates.

But taking part in government-funded initiatives, like School aan Zet, doesn’t threaten that. “It’s not a program where every school does the same thing,” she said. “It’s what’s good for my school.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Sarah Butrymowicz received a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.