Sunday, November 22, 2015

The French School System: When Will It Learn?

One thing foreign parents (like me) love about the French public school system is the focus on the three Rs: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. One thing we hate …. the focus on the three Rs. To the exclusion of much else—even a child's well-being.

It's tolerable for the academic types who fit into the “mould,” as the French say. If you don't, too bad. There is almost no tolerance for physical, learning, or other disabilities. Negative reinforcement is the norm. Learning is often by rote: Teacher writes on blackboard, pupils take notes and memorize them. Don't get me wrong, there are exceptional teachers and programs.


For those pupils who don't fit in, France has some “alternative schools.” They go by the name of Montessori, Steiner, or Freinet. The country even has a few charter schools. To many Americans, these schools are the best of educational options! But many French people view them with suspicion or even derision.

In his latest book about French education, “French School Without Tears,” journalist Peter Gumbel goes into these alternative schools and reports about what's going on. (I read the paperback version in French, “Ces écoles pas comme les autres: A la rencontre des dissidents de l'éducation.)

What's shocking is that even though these schools have been generally successful over the past decades (and I mean decades), the French education system doesn't take them seriously. Many of the schools or teachers take a low profile, saying modestly, “we're not here to give the French system lessons.” When French education inspectors visit the schools, the attitude is to find out what's wrong, not what's going right. That's a shame, because study after study is showing that the traditional French system is failing.

Is the French educational system such a bad pupil, unwilling to learn and improve? Not entirely, Mr. Gumbel told me:

“So far the 'official' reaction has been largely positive. The book has been widely reviewed in the French press, and one of the reviews was published online by the Académie de Créteil. (The reviewer didn’t love the book but highlighted some points that he or she agreed with.)

“I have been invited to speak at various official conferences, including in Menton, where the city authorities invited me, and at the universities of Perpignan and Nancy, on the invitation of the education departments, as well as to numerous events in Paris. Also, Alain Juppé wrote me a nice letter. I found with my 2010 book, 'On achève bien les écoliers,' that the political parties tend to take a little longer to get their act together but hope I’ll be invited to various party conferences as I was then--the point of writing the book being to feed into the national debate about educational reform.
The French minister of education,
Najat Vallaud Belkacem

“No word yet from the cabinet of the minister, Najat Vallaud Belkacem, but I know from having talked to her before publication that she is quite ideological (i.e. anti) on the issue of alternatives.”

And Mr. Gumbel knows a bit about teaching himself, as he has taught at the prestigious Sciences Po (the equivalent of the Harvard Kennedy School of government). When he tries to engage students, foreign students tend to take the bait, working in teams and participating in discussions. “The French ones, because of the culture of their primary and secondary school system, were far more reluctant to participate,” Mr. Gumbel said.

What can French education learn from the country's own alternative schools? The author counts four best practices: 1. The best teachers regularly call into question their methods. 2. Teachers work closely together in teams. 3. Schools are run by administrations devoted to continuous improvement. 4. Teachers are concerned about the personal development of students, each of whom has a teacher who acts as tutor.

It sounds so reasonable, but is so difficult for an establishment that is used to giving lessons, not learning them.

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home."