French rethink ‘le bac’

French students spend weeks cramming for the baccalauréat, better known as “le bac,” the weeklong national test that decides who earns a high school diploma, reports the New York Times. “Without a passing score, university doors are closed and job prospects are generally grim.” Now “most everyone” is questioning the utility of le bac, according to the Times.

France once liked to think of its educational system as a model for the world, but studies show academic performance here to be unexceptional and on the decline, and officials have in recent years begun to fret. Increasingly, the bac is viewed as the flagship of a flawed system, a symbol not so much of French excellence but of what is wrong with education here.

It focuses too little on logic or creativity, many complain, and too much on rote knowledge and the esoterica that thrill the Parisian cultural aristocracy. Some critics say it has grown too easy, with a pass rate of about 90 percent last year; others contend that it now serves as little more than an exceptionally inefficient way to weed out the least-proficient students.

There are 91 versions of the exam, including three “general” options (focused on the sciences, economics or literature), eight for technical students and 80 vocational bacs.

More than 70 percent of young people earn bacs today. Some argue the test has been dumbed down to allow all but the weakest students to pass. Certainly passing the bac doesn’t guarantee university success: More than half of university students don’t make it to their second year.

Proposals to count classroom grades have been rejected “because grading standards vary between schools and instructors,” reports the Times. “Everyone is sort of equal in front of the bac,” said Corentin Durand, a 17-year-old official in the Union Nationale Lycéenne, the country’s largest high school union.

A wealth of words

Vocabulary is (academic and economic) destiny, writes Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in City Journal.  Teaching “a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts” enables students to build a large vocabulary, while “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.”

Countries that use a “coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language” show the highest verbal achievement and narrow the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children, Hirsch argues. Korea, Finland, Japan and Canada combine excellence with equity.

In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.

France slipped on the equity index when its elementary schools abandoned a specific sequential curriculum to follow the American roll-your-own model, Hirsch writes. But French preschools remain excellent.

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects.

U.S. schools have adopted “how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge,” writes Hirsch. “These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future.”

 In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.

Hirsch recommends French-style preschools, classroom instruction based on immersing students in a field of knowledge and “a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.” He hopes Common Core State Standards for language arts will move U.S. schools in this direction.

Egalite, fraternite, no homework

France’s president, Francois Hollande, wants to ban homework because some children get more help from their parents than others. Is this  The End of Homework? asks Louis Menand in The New Yorker.

It’s not true that homework is just “busywork, with no effect on academic achievement,” writes Menand.

According to the leading authority in the field, Harris Cooper, of Duke University, homework correlates positively—although the effect is not large—with success in school. Professor Cooper says that this is more true in middle school and high school than in primary school, since younger children get distracted more easily. He also thinks that there is such a thing as homework overload—he recommends no more than ten minutes per grade a night. But his conclusion that homework matters is based on a synthesis of forty years’ worth of research.

U.S. students aren’t doing more homework than they were in the 1940′s, according to researchers.  A majority of students, including high-school seniors, spend less than an hour a day on homework during the school week.

Finland has the most successful educational system in the world, according to The Economist, writes Gill.  ”Students there are assigned virtually no homework; they don’t start school until age seven; and the school day is short.”

The No. 2 country is South Korea, “whose schools are notorious for their backbreaking rigidity.” South Korean kids don’t just do homework: 90 percent study with private tutors or go to cram schools.

Yet both systems are successful, and the reason is that Finnish schools are doing what Finns want them to do, which is to bring everyone up to the same level and instill a commitment to equality, and South Korean schools are doing what South Koreans want, which is to enable hard workers to get ahead.

Americans “want everyone to have an equal chance to become better-off than everyone else,” writes Menand.

Supporters of homework say that it’s a way of getting parents involved in their children’s education by bringing school into the home, and that has to be a good thing. But it’s also likely (contrary to President Hollande’s assumption) that the people most hostile to homework are affluent parents who want their children to spend their after-school time taking violin lessons and going to Tae Kwon Do classes—activities that are more enriching and (often) more fun than conjugating irregular verbs. Less affluent parents are likely to prefer more homework as a way of keeping their kids off the streets. If we provided after-school music lessons, museum trips, and cool sports programs to poor children, we could abolish homework in a French minute. No one would miss it.

Homework isn’t the root of all evil, but it’s often counter-productive, writes Peter DeWitt, an elementary school principal,  in Ed Week.

If we really want students to be engaged with learning, we should allow them the autonomy to self-explore at home one their own and not give them death by ditto because it makes us feel better about the assignments we provide.

DeWitt quotes teacher Mark Barnes, who thinks homework “fails our students.”  Assigning homework “is undermining effective 21st-century teaching and learning,” writes Barnes. “Most teachers link homework to grades so the students who don’t do homework don’t learn the material — mainly because not enough teaching is being done in class — and many would-be learners grow to hate school because they wind up with poor grades and, ultimately, feel like failures.”

French president pushes homework ban

In the name of egalite, French President Francois Hollande wants to ban homework. “He doesn’t think it is fair that some kids get help from their parents at home while children who come from disadvantaged families don’t,” writes Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.

Hollande also proposes hiring more teachers and adding a half day of school on Wednesday, while shortening the eight-hour school day — which includes two hours for lunch — on the other four days of the week.

Currently, French children spend Wednesdays in state-run “leisure centers,” if there’s no parent or babysitter at home, AP reports. At some schools, the “afterschool program amounts to sitting silently at a desk for two hours or near-chaos in the play areas

French elementary school students spend 847 hours per year in school compared to an average of 774 for other developed nations, but “France ranks below most of its European neighbors and the United States in results on international tests.”

 

‘Je suis nul’

“Je suis nul!” (“I’m useless!”) is a common expression for French students, writes Ben Wildavsky, who wonders on Chronicle of Higher Education if France’s schools are sapping students’ confidence.

Now comes a new book by Peter Gumbel, a British expat who teaches at Sciences Po, France’s elite Institute of Political Studies, lambasting the French education system for humiliating children, neglecting teamwork, character-building, and positive reinforcement, and fostering pervasive low self-confidence. In an excerpt of On achève bien les écoliers (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They?), published in Sunday’s Observer, Gumbel writes that when he moved to Paris and enrolled his two daughters in school, the rigor he had expected was accompanied by a worrisome downside:

There were obvious symptoms: tummy aches and other signs of stress, an unhealthy phobia about making mistakes and flashes of self-doubt. “I’m hopeless at maths,” my eldest daughter declared one day. “No, you’re not, you just need to work at it harder,” was my reply. “No, daddy, you don’t understand anything. I’m hopeless.”

Gumbel’s Sciences Po students have passed exceptionally difficult admissions exams. They’re very bright, but have no self-confidence, Gumbel writes.

Getting them to participate in classroom discussions was like pulling teeth. Exam time was trauma time: every year, several burst into tears during the oral.

In The Great Brain Race, Wildavsky extols “the potential of meritocratic college admissions standards around the world to allow young people to get ahead based on what they know rather than who they are (whether family background or nationality).”

But high scholastic standards and an exam-based path to upward mobility won’t help France if the K-12 system turns the brightest students into anxious, timid crybabies, Wildavsky writes.

It makes American over-confidence look not so bad.

France's 'grandes écoles' are blanche

France’s elite universities, the grandes écoles, admit only the very best students, as measured by very difficult tests. Graduates end up running the country. Very few come from low-income, non-white or immigrant families. Now the French government wants to open elite schools to diverse students, reports the New York Times. But the grandes écoles fear that means lowering standards.

France is prodding schools like Sciences Po in Paris to set a goal of increasing the percentage of scholarship students to 30 percent.

The daughter of protective North African parents in the tough northeastern suburb of Bondy, Ms. Yazidi is enrolled in a trial program aimed at helping smart children of the poor overcome the huge cultural disadvantages that have often spelled failure in the crucial school entrance exams.

France sees itself as a color-blind meritocracy. But only affluent parents can afford the typical route to an elite university, “an extra two years of intensive study in expensive preparatory schools after high school.” Even then, half of prep school graduates don’t score well enough to enter the grandes écoles and end up at a lower-ranked university.

There is a serious question about how to measure diversity in a country where every citizen is presumed equal and there are no official statistics based on race, religion or ethnicity. A goal cannot be called a “quota,” which has an odor of the United States and affirmative action. Instead, there is the presumption here that poorer citizens will be more diverse, containing a much larger percentage of Muslims, blacks and second-generation immigrants.

The government may reduce the current exam’s reliance on familiarity with French history and culture to help students from immigrant backgrounds. In addition, the government will expand programs to “reach out to smart children, give them higher goals and help them get into preparatory schools” with scholarships.  It’s not yet clear whether these programs will produce students capable of passing the entrance exams.

French teachers: No aid for slow kids

French elementary teachers are rallying against government rules requiring extra work for slow learners, reports the Washington Post. They say it violates the French ideal of providing the same education for all students.

A new rule requires teachers to do two hours a week of remedial work with failing elementary students. Alain Refalo refused to obey the ministry directive. (The French education system is run from the top down.)

(Refalo declares) that youngsters cannot work fruitfully after a six-hour classroom day. Moreover, he pointed out, the ministry had just announced budget cuts in which 3,000 special education teachers were being eliminated — and whose jobs were to help students in difficulty.

In a protest letter to the education ministry, Refalo complained that American “ideas such as competition, individualist thinking, privatization and survival of the fittest were being introduced.”

Instead of doing remedial work, Refalo used the extra time to organize theater workshops, with an eye to encouraging his 10-year-old pupils to express themselves and to delve into literature.

What about the students who can’t “delve into literature” because they can’t read well?