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?
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.