Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Reform of the Collège

To listen to the polemics raging in France these days about the reform of the collège proposed by education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, you'd think the very basis of civilization was at stake. The most contested reforms, involving the teaching of Latin and Greek and dual-language classes in French and German, are really rather minor, as this article makes clear. Clearly, it is not the reforms themselves that have provoked such passion but what they are taken to symbolize: namely, a "downward leveling" of the public educational system and an attack on "elitism." Questions of "national identity" are also involved, especially in the accusation that less time will be devoted to the history of Christianity and the Enlightenment and more to Islam and non-European cultures.

There is no question that the French educational system is elitist, but its elitism remains firmly entrenched at the top of the system, in the Grandes Ecoles. The collèges, or middle schools, are hardly the place to begin an attack on the ills that stem from the rapid narrowing of the educational pyramid. French students need better preparation in (living) foreign languages, and the proposed reform seems intended to extend that better preparation to a larger number of pupils. As for Latin and Greek, those who want to study them--and their number is relatively small--will still be able to do so.

History programs everywhere must face the challenge that "the world" has grown larger in recent decades. It is no longer enough to concentrate on Europe alone, or "the West." Curricular adjustments will have to be made. The proposed middle-school reforms may not strike the optimal balance, but they are not yet set in stone, and the debate inaugurated by the ministry makes a necessary start. Defenders of the status quo should ask themselves if they really believe the status quo leaves out nothing essential.


bernard said...

As usual and for as long as I can remember (the sixties...earlier maybe), a new minister of education will inevitably attempt to propose a reform and face severe opposition, irrespective of the merits or not of his/her reform. It usually/always is a sure and well travelled road to political oblivion. Face off with the most reactionary lobby in France - teachers - and lose.

Now of course, if you are a young woman politician and have to bear the cross of a rebeu name on top of your looks in France, why, it's like expecting to cross the street in Ferguson with a dark skin and expect to actually get across the street. Forget about it.

Elitism. Funny how for decades every reform of education in France attempted to reduce elitism and how the percentages of students from the lower classes admitted in the elite Grandes Ecoles has steadily declined during these decades. Something is not quite right, but what it actually is, no one has managed to exactly pin down for decades either, it would seem.

Latin/ancient Greek. Was always a way to get into the best classrooms (Russian too, and German to some extent). And led always to a better understanding of the French language and culture since French almost entirely derives from these two extinct languages, which are for this reason considered useless by all educated idiots. So their teaching must be continued, otherwise we will only have educated idiots - there already are a lot of those - among our elite in the future.

Thanks for a well balanced post, Art.

Arun Kapil said...

I agree with Bernard.

Here's Laurent Joffrin's editorial in yesterday's Libé, which gets it right IMO
11 MAI 2015 À 20:16

La mauvaise foi outrancière avec laquelle la droite et une partie des intellectuels accueillent la réforme de Najat Vallaud-Belkacem a quelque chose d’accablant. Non que ces projets soient exempts de reproches, loin de là. Mais il arrive un moment où le dogmatisme à front bas des procureurs de la gauche passe les limites. D’où vient cette réforme ? D’une constatation attestée par plusieurs études internationales, à commencer par les enquêtes Pisa de l’OCDE, et dont le sens général ne fait pas de doute : depuis une quinzaine d’années, la performance globale du système scolaire français est en baisse. Avec un toupet hors du commun, l’opposition actuelle incrimine «l’idéologie égalitariste» en vigueur à gauche. Mais qui a géré le système scolaire pendant cette décennie funeste ? On croit se souvenir vaguement que de 2002 à 2012 la droite était au pouvoir. La voilà donc implacable avec les résultats de sa propre gestion…

Au vrai, de quoi souffre le système français ? Selon les mêmes études, le niveau moyen baisse non pas à cause d’une moindre réussite des meilleurs mais parce que les élèves peu performants le sont de moins en moins. Les conservateurs taxent donc d’égalitarisme un système… de plus en plus élitiste.

Constatant ces piètres performances, le gouvernement propose d’accroître dans les cursus du collège la part du soutien personnel ; il veut aussi renforcer l’autonomie laissée aux équipes de professeurs pour améliorer leurs résultats. C’est là le cœur de la réforme. On peut discuter de telle ou telle modalité, contester telle ou telle disposition. On doit rassurer l’opinion sur le sort du grec, du latin et de l’allemand, qui doivent être sauvegardés. On doit aussi embaucher une équipe de traducteurs pour mettre en français les écrits du ministère, rédigés dans un sabir ridicule. Mais l’idée générale du ministère est-elle si mauvaise ? Souvent les systèmes scolaires performants à l’étranger - en Europe en tout cas - sont moins centralisés et moins élitistes que le système français. Il faudrait donc tenir pour nulles et non avenues les expériences des autres pays ? A moins de vouloir détruire le collège unique, pierre angulaire de la politique scolaire dans la plupart des pays. C’est probablement le vrai sens de ces grotesques philippiques.


Anonymous said...

Some aspects of the reform are good, but others completely forget (as usual), the "isolated" schools - either economic or geographic isolation.
The "dual language" program is pointless in schools that offer several options. Kids who CAN take German, or English, or Russian as 6th graders have a choice.
In the "isolated" middle schools, rural, exurban, "cités", there's English OR bilangue. So if you remove the dual language program, you remove choice from the middle schools that are already deprived.
It's also the way many culturally margnialized French groups have found to maintain their language and culture: you have dual language programs for English and Provençal, English and Breton, English and Basque...

If you remove the European elective from middle schools where virtually all students go on a "linguistic trip" in the summer, often to Great Britain AND Spain or Germany, there won't be a huge difference. If you remove the European elective from middle schools where many students have never taken a train, you remove something essential.

As for Latin and Greek, two middle schools - one in the center of town, 450 students, 70 students interested; one in a formerly industrial town, 870 students, 12 students interested. The class must still be offered, but the schools should be able to allocate their funds so that the 58 students not interested in Latin in School number 2 get to do something intellectually cool/new/exciting and equally important.
Starting a second foreign language in 7th grade? Okay, but what are they going to learn with 2h/week - and instead of having 3hours/week in the following years, the plan is for them to have only 2hrs/week, too. Can anyone here seriously maintain you can learn a language - from scratch- in 2 hours a week?
As for Islam, its cultural context and role in history has been part of the history curriculum for over 20 years (since Bayrou, famously Catholic himself, was the minister). The goal here is to present all three religions and their context, equally.
Please note that thephilosophy of the englightenment would become optional in the 8th grade, but is still mandatory in the 10th - and while the philosophers' wouldn't necessarily be studied in all schools, the French Revolution would still be mandatory in 8th.
Finally, people have been calling NVB names in such ways that make me ashamed of France. For instance, a former minister said "hers is a name for a maid, not for a minister"...

DavidinParis said...

French education needs reform, and including a larger view of world history addresses a deep blind spot in French education. I have worked with young French students (some from the elite schools) for the last 9 years. I find that most have no understanding regarding their own language, no grasp of many Greek and even Latin words that make up their unusually limited vocabulary and an odd myopic sense of history. My daughter's history class in the 5eme and 4eme begins with 'prehistoric', jumps to the 'Gallo-Romano' and then centers on French history from that point on. The Egyptians? The Ancient Greeks? The Roman Empire...all get one day each. Maybe her school was an aberration, but from what I see, it is high time this Franco-centric view undergoes some major overhaul.

Alexandra Marshall said...

Allow me to once again air my progressive 1970s California gifted program-informed perspective, but the thing that concerns me most about French education as I see it refracted through the young French kids I know is the relentless negativism towards the students. NOT saying the American way of coddling and social promotion and its soft bigotry of low expectations is the answer. But most young French kids I know are terrified of their teachers. There is very little encouragement, lots of authoritarianism and really harsh criticism. Memorization is more important than critical thought. Kids are still forced to write with fountain pens. Don't get me started. Wish I'd see some movement to bring some positivity and encouragement of thinking outside the box. God, I am so American.

DavidinParis said...

@ Alexandra,

Indeed, students are terrified of their teachers. If a student is doing poorly in math with scores of 10 out of 20 and then does a 15/20, one rarely sees a 'bon travail' written on the exam.

And while we are on the topic of math, and again with regard to both my children, the most points they lose are due to grammar errors. Grammar errors!? Math in France is wordy.
They do not use the 'universal' and language neutral math symbols that everyone else understands (you know, people in Korea, China, Japan, UK, Russia, Canada...) such as:


This has to be written out to be:
l'angle AB ajouté à l'angle CD est egale à l'angleEF qui intersecte l'angleAF, donc, le rayon CD est egale au rayon FA.
(p.s. accents count and I am sure I did this wrong).

But as they say here in France, not even God gets an 18/20!

Alexandra Marshall said...


Exactly! It's utterly insane. If we wonder sometimes about where this famous French pessimism comes from, I can certainly point a finger there.

The difference in orientation makes me useless to my stepchildren, who have to rewrite their homework over three times to make sure their FOUNTAIN PEN hasn't smudged. (How this is helping them in a world of keyboards is anyone's guess.)

From where I sit they're being trained to follow orders without questioning them, to repeat dogma. I am not so utopian and naive to think that a publically funded national education system can turn on a dime and encourage free thought and creativity. But just some movement in this direction, please? The world we live in today requires flexibility, movement, and improvisation. And France is creating a nation of trembling sheep, or worse, pissed-off and checked-out ones failing out with no hope for the future.

When I see the debates over education and pedagogy is almost never discussed, but this hand-wringing over the availability of Latin, I continue to think twice about having children of my own here and subjecting them to this system.

Anonymous said...

David and Alexandra: the schools you now ARE NOT representative. I'll wager a guess that you live in a city with at least 80,000 people or perhaps even two or three hundred thousands, with lots and lots of middle schools to choose from; I will also bet that your children attend "un bon collège", one where the brevet and going to a lycée général is taken for granted because most parents have a bac and even went to university.
MOST French people aren't in this situation and this does NOT describe most middle schools.

I am all in favor of writing with fountain pens - the reason children can't type their assignements is that they copy-paste answers from websites, and for final exams they'll have to write (and by the time they're 15 or 18, they'll have mastered the fountain pen and it makes writing much more legible than a ballpoint pen.)

I am ALL in favor of everything in the reform for schools where kids routinely travel and have parents with the bac. But for many others (remember that 60% French people don't even have the bac) the issue isn't Latin or not latin. It's having a language class or a lab with 18 instead of 30students, "project" classes, etc. It's making sure the 30% kids who haven't ever read a full book do so,and the 30% others who actually have trouble reading, get over the problem. There's supposedly "individual help" except it's supposed to be done with full classes (30 on average). And for the 30% kids who are bored silly because when their 9th grade class reads Jules Verne and Lowry's The Giver (real examples), they're not even allowed to speak up because they read both in the 6th grade and would be shot down by classmates as being "intello" and thus deserving of relentless bullying.
And no, this is not a "zep/eclair" low-income/low performing school, just an average school like there are thousands others.

DavidinParis said...

@ anon,

I love fountain pens, but, I hate doing the wash to get the ink stains out because the kids no longer were the aprons they used to...but that is another discussion.

Indeed, I live in Paris (DavidinParis?) and my child is in a good school. This stated, there are 28-30 kids per class. My daughter does remark that the other kids accuse her of being an 'intello' meant as a put-down and the reading lists are indeed watered down. While her school does not suffer from 'inner city poverty kids' there are many taking drugs, more concerned with sex and clothes and others that have never been sensitized to the potential suffering inflicted upon others by bullying.

I am sorry to hear that the small towns (of which you appear to refer to) also suffer the same ills. I had naively thought that this would be less of an issue. But do not think that those of us in the 'big city' have it any different.

For may own part, and from what I can tell from Alexandra's remarks, our comments have more to do with a built in 'rigidity' in the scholastic system here that can be crushing for a student, regardless of there backgrounds.

bernard said...

Well, from the number (in 24 hours) and content of comments on this post, we can at least draw one conclusion: education reform is a super sensitive subject and it arouses passionate debate. And this is precisely why education ministers in France almost always end up in trouble! The third rail of French Politics...

Alexandra Marshall said...

@DavidinParis, exactly. In fact, I think @anon is finding dissention where there is none, as we are all in agreement that classes are too large, and that disadvantaged kids are not being served in this system.

*In agreement other than fountain pens, of course, which, frankly, are a 19th century absurdity that should not be a cause for vexation in 2015.

Anonymous said...

No Alexandra, fountain pens are not an absurdity and yes handwriting (beautiful copperplate) is still very important to French culture. Some employees require handwritten letters of motivation from job applicants which they then send them off to graphologists for a report before even considering a face to face interview. The French way is NOT the American way (thank God) so get over it.

DavidinParis said...

Now we are really off topic. But to anon, you really do have an ax to grind! While Alexandra may seem a bit too 'red white and blue' to you, the example you gave on graphology prompted me to do a bit of research. As I live and work here (9+ years) and hire people (>50% French), other than a signature, I have never seen a handwritten letter from a job candidate.

So, I looked into 'graphology', as it were, and while there was a brief time it caught on outside of France, it is considered primarily to be a pseudoscience, alongside astrology and phrenology. The major use of it in other countries is to help ascertain the validity of a handwritten will or suicide note, etc.

An analysis by graphologists of the handwriting of a notorious mass murderer yielded the following nuggets:

1) The author is someone who “relates easily to others’ problems,”

2) according to the second report. “He is a people person.”

As the report stated, these conclusions may well be true! Neither factor excludes the fact the he is also a sociopath!

While I am sure some subtle aspects of a person can be judged by their handwriting, it is astonishing to learn that after all these years in Paris, I have been oblivious to this practice being carried out all around me! Mon dieu! It is worse than I thought!

But then again, I do understand the desperate need to figure out the suitability of a candidate for a job. After 18 months, you have to make them a permanent employee, and in my experience, 18 months is not enough time to really see the candidate's ability to work, particularly under deadlines stress, and interpersonal relations that contribute to a proper work environment.

No one is claiming the "American way" is the best. I cannot speak for Alexandra, but I have a long list of gripes about the US. But to cite such an anachronistic pseudoscientific practice as an example of the validity of the 'French way' is quite telling. The irony is that France, during its last heyday, was the country that brought the ballpoint pen to the masses (Bic : thereby ending the supremacy of the fountain pen. Apparently Monsieur Bich (the founder) had terrible handwriting and well, based upon his penmanship, was destined to amount to nothing.

bernard said...

I love fountain pen, have only contempt for graphology and loathe a number of French/American idiosyncrasies. Does that make me a sociopath, doctor?

DavidinParis said...

I do not know. But if it does, I am one too.

Bonne nuit!

Anonymous said...

I'm the anon #1 with fountain pens (not the second one). I love fountain pens, I do think they help in handwriting well, and I find graphology worthy of nothing but contempt.
My point was that the "notation sanction" is not an issue in MANY schools. As far as I can tell, primary schools only give "acquis/en voie d'acquisition" and any student who does a half hearted attempt at answering questions will get a 10 at the local middle school.
I agree that including a bit of understanding the world outside of France/Europe and more hands-on/"interesting"/"motivating" ways of learning are essential points, while some aspects against "elitism" strike me as misguided when it comes to small schools (but well-thought out when it comes to some schools where a majority of parents have college degrees. Some of the things there seem insane as seen from here, the pressure to achieve, the negativity, etc.)