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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Education in France: Classer et éliminer

There is a lot to like about the French public school system.  From maternelle (preschool) to lycée (high school) it is well-funded.  The basic infrastructure is good:  schools are clean and orderly with no lack of books and other basic learning materials and the cafeteria food is well-balanced and tasty (especially at the maternelle and elementary school level).  For working parents the system has been expanded to include after-school care and there are camps available for the kids during vacations.  The level of teaching is high and all the teachers I've met were dedicated and serious ( I say this even about the ones I didn't like and there were a few).  In 2010 France spent nearly 135 billion Euros (about 7% of GDP) to serve over 12 million students in 65,173 educational establishments.  This spending is above the OECD average but I've heard few people complain about the cost.  I think this demonstrates the commitment that the French people and government have toward the public school system.  Education is serious business in the Hexagone and a source of much public debate which is rarely about the price tag.  Rather, the arguments tend to be about how the system is administered, how effective it is and how it could be improved.  It is constantly being "reformed."  Why?

Because, as my friends would say, "les résultats ne sont pas là"  a statement that is not entirely correct but just true enough to have people worried.  In spite of spending a great deal of money and exerting great effort, France does not have as high a rating in the OECD's PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) as one might expect.  In 2009 PISA evaluated students in reading, math and science and French students were, well, average. Check out figure 1.2.15 on page 54,  France's reading score was 496 which is respectable but not outstanding and well behind other OECD countries like Finland, Canada, New Zealand and Japan.  Same for math scores (see figure 1.3.11) where France ranks well within the OECD average at 497 but is way behind countries like Finland, Switzerland, Canada and Belgium (not to mention Asian countries like Korea).  Again, these are respectable scores well within the OECD average. All this begs the question:  are we not simply generating "notre propre malheur"  (our own unhappiness) when we look at those numbers and get agitated?  No, because the world is getting more competitive, globalization is a fact of life, and we all want our children to have the best possible education in order to have as many options as possible.  Moreover, since globalization has a tendency to exacerbate existing inequalities (or create new ones), it's important to keep an eye on education and be sure that every child is getting a fair chance and isn't being held back because of factors beyond his control.  The French spend a lot of money on education  and they have the right to question how that money is spent and ask why, given better than average funding, the national numbers are not higher.

Some clues can be found in an excellent analysis called La machine à trier (The Sorting Machine) by Pierre Cahuc , Stéphane Carcillo, Olivier Galland and André Zylberberg (nice excerpt in this on-line article.)   What did these authors of this book find when they looked the French system?

For starters, inequality.  Yes, for the country of "liberté, égalité, fraternité"  the PISA results show incredible inequality.  Take the reading scores, for example.  France has an above average percentage of students in the good to great category but she also has an above average percentage of students in the below to way below average categories.  Lot of students "en difficulté" and having a very hard time reading at the most basic level.  They say that much of this inequality is rooted in the family - not so much money as cultural capital.  Students in families where professional level of the parents is high and have lots of books at home and the like, have more of what they need to succeed in the French system.  The closer the cultural capital of the family is to the system, the better the kids do with the most successful kids having parents who actually work for the educational system.  "En 2009, 89,4% des enfants d’enseignant accèdent à l’enseignement supérieur, alors qu’ils ne sont que 31,1% dans ce cas pour les enfants d’ouvriers non qualifiés." ( In 2009 89.4% of children whose parents are teachers went on to higher education, while only 31.1% of the children of basic workers did.)  This not a new phenomenon in France and I recall that Pierre Bourdieu was already talking about this years ago.  What is disquieting is that it seems to be getting worse, not better.  From 2000 to 2009 "la proportion des élèves de 15 ans les moins performants en compréhension de l’écrit est passée de 15% à 20%" (the proportion of 15-years old the least able to understand written texts went from 15% to 20%).

What in heaven's name is going on here?  This is a well-funded national education system backed by a public that I don't believe for one moment wants to see these kinds of numbers or is willing to throw up its collective hands and shout, "C'est la vie!"    The authors point to three characteristics of the French system that they think work against the goal of basic equality and opportunity for all:

Orientation:  This happens officially at the end of middle-school but in reality sorting starts much sooner than that.  Students are evaluated and orientated toward different schools and different areas of study depending on their results at that time.  I have lived the failure of this method.  When we returned from Japan it was late in the school year and the only places available at the local college were in what is referred to as the "classes poubelles" (the garbage classes).   As a result the elder Frenchling who was in her last year of middle-school was then oriented toward a very poor high school here in Versailles.  The public system gave us no other options though we could have gone private.  We were very fortunate that one teacher at that high school noticed during her first year, made a determination that a terrible casting error had been made, and recommended that she be transferred to a better high school where she succeeded brilliantly - well enough to get into a top university in Canada.

The system is, to say the very least, not terribly flexible.  Kids who are perceived to be poor students are systematically tracked away from programs that would allow them to get into high education later on.  It looks at past success or failure and does everything in its power to  make sure that kids continue to succeed or fail.  This does not take into account that some kids are late-bloomers or any other factor that might explain why there might have been a period of difficulty which would justify putting off judgement for a few years.  The authors of "La machine à trier" point out that countries with the very best PISA scores like Japan and Finland wait until much later to orient students.

Teaching methods:  There are a lot of jokes and criticisms of countries that place great emphasis on building students' self-esteem.  Some of that is fair but sometimes the French system feels like it's actively trying to destroy it.  The teaching methods can be very harsh and the power distance between students and teachers is very wide.  "Certaines écoles se caractérisent par un enseignement « vertical » où les professeurs délivrent des cours de type magistraux, les élèves prennent des notes, lisent des manuels et les enseignants posent des questions aux élèves." (Some schools can be characterized by a "vertical" style where the teachers deliver authoritative lectures, students take notes, read the literature and the teacher asks questions of the students.)  I am very glad that they qualified that statement since it is not true at every school and not every French teacher uses this very traditional method.  However, there is enough truth in it that the many private tutoring companies that exist to serve struggling students talk a lot about their ability to improve self-esteem as well as grades.  From Acadomia, "Notre philosophie : la confiance en soi comme étape fondatrice du succès." (Our philosophy:  self-confidence is the foundation of success.)

Competition:  The French system systematically judges and eliminates but how it judges is a bit particular.  Success is always relative and the only way to have "winners" is to create "losers."   A class where a high percentage of students succeed is simply not credible which leads to a rather vicious practice:  downgrading the class grades until there is a sufficient number of failures. "Si une évaluation n’est crédible que si elle affiche un certain pourcentage d’échec, de nombreux élèves, vont obtenir de « mauvais » résultats scolaires, quels que soient leur travail et leur bonne volonté." (If an evaluation is not credible unless it shows a a certain percentage of failures, than many students will simply get "bad" grades regardless of how hard they work or their motivation.)  This is exactly what happened in the younger Frenchling's high school math class.  The teacher noted (and delivered the news directly to the students) that too many students were doing too well on class tests and that she was obliged, as a result of their good scores, to lower everyone's grades.

Cahuc, Carcillo, Galland and Zylberberg argue instead for "une pédagogie de la réussite pour tous." (a teaching method oriented toward success for all.)   To those who would counter-argue that this would lead to inferior results for everyone, they simply point out in that other countries with better results than France the school systems not only perform better overall but manage to do so in a fairly equitable manner with a much smaller gap between the "worst" and the "best" students.

As a parent here, how do I feel about all this?  As someone whose children have been more or less on the winning side of this system, there is a very human desire to maintain it as is.  I suspect that many French parents in a similar situation feel this way.  Don't tinker with the machine lest allowing other people's children to win might mean that our children will do less well.  Once past that visceral reaction (which I will be the first to admit is petty, small-minded, and entirely based on vague unjustifiable fear) I think they are on to something.  If I dig a little deeper I find that I am appalled at  the notion that one child's success should be almost entirely based on another's failure.  Education should not be a zero-sum game and, where there is substantial evidence that the game is rigged, then there needs to be change especially in a country that has "égalité" as a founding principle.  I'm not sure how seriously their proposals are being taken by the Education nationale but here's one thing I am dead certain of:  the barriers to change do not really concern the financial realm - they are cultural and changing people's attitudes and deep beliefs (not to mention overcoming resistance to and fear of change) is a far greater task than any educational "réforme" devised by a French politician or bureaucrat thus far.


Christophe said...

Hi Victoria,

You're a really good writer and your analysis is excellent. I am surprised you ended up in the IT field :-) The reason I start my comment with that remark is that in France, students are oriented mainly on their skills, not necessarily based on what the best path for the career they might be interested in. In high school, they have to choose roughly at 14 years old, if they're going to choose a path they is going to lead them to a career in economy, literature, or engineering (Premiere S and Terminale C, L, G were the acronyms used when I was in high school: 20 years ago S and C for scientific, L for Literature and G for Economy). Students good in math were oriented towards the S section, while students better in French and languages were oriented to a L section, and students neither really good in either math or languages were oriented towards a G section.
The G section had a somewhat bad connotation, that a singer I like (Michel Sardou) described in one of his songs: "Le bac G"
Good students were almost always choosing S/C, because it was the opening door to any career they might choose later.

Even in earlier years (middle school), some of the options students could choose guaranteed them to be in a class of hard working bright kids: pick German as a second language, as opposed to Spanish, and you were pretty much sure to end up in a class with brilliant kids. Same thing for Latin as an option.

Yes, the French system is elitist. Is this a bad thing? Well it depends on how the classes are made and the ability of the teacher to teach to kids of different levels within the same class, which is not always easy. If you put kids with too much different levels in the same class, and the teacher does not adapt his teaching to give brighter kids something more difficult and challenging (which would be too difficult for some other kids), then the brighter kids will suffer. So I think the key is class composition, and I am not sure principals or whoever make the choice pay attention to that enough. Paying more attention to that might improve results if they do it right (i.e. leveraging from the top, not the bottom).
Your comment about the grades is interesting. I was surprised that this would happen in a math class where you would think results are black and white!

The way of teaching in high school and in my case even in my engineering school is very different than what I experienced in the US. I was lucky enough to spend my last year of engineering school studying in a renowned US university, and let me tell you that I was not well prepared! It might be different in universities in France, but in high school and at my engineering school, as you described, the student takes notes on what the teacher says, and the class book is an accessory. The student might refer to it to complement the teacher's notes, and use it to do exercises. My parents used to tell me that I should use the books more! That was the case all my curriculum.

Continued in next comment. I have more than 4096 characters :-)

Christophe said...

In the university in the US, the class book was the main material, and the teacher was complementing and explaining sections of the book. It is the student's responsibility to extract himself/herself the important parts of the book. I wasn't trained to do that and that was a difficult exercise for me. Maybe that's also why there are way less class hours in the US (12-15 hours per week), as opposed to a full time 35 hours of classes in France. With that many hours, the teacher has to extract the important information for you. In the US, it also seems that the students has a lot more choices as for the classes he/she can choose, which may lead to much more "vertical" degree. Nothing bad with that, but it seems that French engineers are more generalist.

The competition aspect is interesting. A little bit of competition is good and stimulating. Too much, like what happens at higher levels in preparatory classes to engineering school is well... too much. A good selection has already been made based on your results at the baccalaureate and in some cases additional tests to enter a specific school. The tactic the teachers use to demean these bright students to make them stronger is not always the best way to achieve the best results. I went this route, but I chose a private school, whose admission to the engineering school was based on your grades, rather than a test where you're ranked among thousands of students. The atmosphere was much nicer.

I will conclude about the pricing. I think this is great that education is France remains for the most part sponsored by the government. Private schools were also reasonable when I attended. When they reform it, I think they must maintain that aspect of it. The escalating prices of education in the US is going to lead to the next financial crisis. Many students graduate with crazy high student debt, that is going to take them years to reimburse. And that is if they can even find a job. In addition, student debt cannot be wiped out by bankruptcies. I also think that in the medical field, this contributes a lot to the high cost. How can doctors charge less when they graduate with $500,000 in debt. Lowering education cost is part of the healthcare crisis solution. Unfortunately, nothing has been done towards this goal and education costs continue to increase all over the country. I see that as a big problem for the future of this country. I don't think anything should be free. But it gets to the point where it is becoming not affordable for many.
Thanks again for a great post Victoria. I hope you're feeling OK.



the fly in the web said...

In the days of the 11 plus examination in England there was a 'falsifying' of results.
The provision of grammar school places varied wildly - towns usually had good provision, some counties could be appalling.
Thus the number of passes had to fit the number of places and innumerable children with academic capabilities ended up in the vocationally oriented secondary modern system.

My experience of the educational system in France has been at second hand, through the families of French and Turkish friends.

The children of the latter, going to schools usually classed as ZEP, had far less attention paid to their abilities and capacities.

I went with my Turkish builder to see one of his daughter's teachers, who had been continually marking down her English - though her work seemed more than acceptable to me.
The reluctance to grant an interview eventually overcome, the attitude of the teacher was was to regard me as less than the dust beneath the chariot wheels, to refuse to discuss the 'problems' the girl had with English (non existent) and in the end to ask me with fury why I was wasting my time and hers on a girl who would end up being married off to some illiterate from the backwoods of Turkey to get him a visa for France.

The problem was overcome and a new, better school arranged, but only by going round the local political backdoor.

This is anecdotal evidence, I know, but France has to develop all the talent it can, not just that of its self perpetuating elite.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Christophe - I love your comments. You do a fantastic job of supplementing and commenting on the posts and I really enjoy reading what you have to say. For info I have three degrees: Political Science, Network Technology (IT) and an MBA. The first was what I really wanted to do, the second was an interest of mine that seemed a good bet for actually making a living and the third was pure fun. :-)

Feeling okay here. I am conserving my strength today for the next step - my chemo starts this Thursday.

I would agree with you that some elitism is not necessarily bad depending on how you define the term. The system is touted as a meritocracy and I think that is what it tries to be. What worries me is how it is rigged in ways that make it almost impossible for it to be a system based on merit and how some groups are favored over others based on how the rules are written. Clearly, people fall through the cracks and that generates an enormous amount of anger and frustration. Globalization tends to exacerbate the situation and the losers tend to strike out and blame (in no particular order) immigrants, the state, the EU and other exterior forces. Can lead to people joining ever more radical groups. I don't believe, for example, that the Front National is all about people who despise immigrants. I think it gets most of its support from the losers in French society - the people who end up in those tech schools and who are oriented toward jobs that are highly vulnerable to globalization. Good point about the U.S. - another catastrophe in process. The cost is simply outrageous. Something has to give.

@fly in the web, Thanks for the info on England and your experience in France. Yes, I've seen the same and lived some of it. Though we were never in a ZEP we learned from hard experience that the first contact we made with a new school needed to be made by my spouse (a "francais de souche"). Having me do it meant that the girls were tagged as "children of immigrants" and "speakers of a foreign language at home" and that was never EVER a good thing.