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The Faults in the French Educational System Aggravate Social Inequality

by : Isabelle Metral
Sunday December 19, 2010 - 23:31

by Isabelle Metral and reviewed by Bill Scoble

Aziz Djellab, professor of sociology at the university of Lille-III, comments on the latest PISA report.

Both the media and the French Ministry for National Education were impatiently waiting for its publication: the PISA report [1] has just delivered its verdict. And the verdict is that the French system is getting more and more inegalitarian, and that social class remains a determining factor in students’ achievements.

This means that France’s educational system, unlike Canada’s, Japan’s or Finland’s, is more in-egalitarian than is French society as a whole. Class accounts for 28% of the gaps between the top and bottom levels of achievement, whereas in Japan, class only accounts for 14% of those.

The PISA survey is carried out every three years. It is based on tests for nearly 470,000 15-year-old students. Three areas are assessed: scientific culture, mathematical culture, and written comprehension. In 2000, the percentage of the least proficient in written comprehension was 15%. It stands at 20% in 2009. During the same period, the proportion of the most proficient pupils rose from 8.5% to 9.6%. The proficiency of the best rose in a lesser proportion whereas that of the least proficient rose dramatically. This deterioration is more manifest with pupils born into immigrant families, even though the performances of those who were born into families of the second generation have improved.

Written comprehension is the major theme of the PISA survey. France registers an important regression, and widening gaps between girls and boys, with the former doing better than the latter. In the maths tests, French pupils also do more poorly than they did in the 2003 survey. They got 511 points in 2003, but they get only 497 in 2009, and their ranking among OCDE countries is just average. At a time when the decline in scientific avocations is a subject of concern, this result is a real problem.

It is generally agreed that PISA surveys assess competence and not knowledge, even though this subtle distinction is questionable. (For is not written comprehension a function of linguistic and lexical knowledge that has been previously acquired?) Nevertheless the overall picture drawn by this survey is a subject of great concern and should lead us to probe not only the reasons for this marked regression of the French educational system but also the lessons to be drawn in order to improve it. For indeed the ranking assesses several years of schooling and questions the capacity of the educational system to reform itself.

As it happens, debates in the last few years have focused on equal chances, on meritocracy, with the recurring invocation of republican elitism. Whether we like it or not, this system no longer works, and attempts at promoting the individualization of the “roads to success” seem to be detrimental to the weakest. The fate of the bottom under-achievers clearly proves that the French educational system fails to close the gaps in the pupils’ acquired knowledge and needs to devise more appropriate teaching practices. Try as one may to implement “personalized forms of support”, which are so many variants of “individualized educational support”, this method does not seem to be efficient as long as innovation in our schools is “marginal”, leaving teaching methods in “normal classes” unchanged.

The example of Germany shows us that it is possible to overhaul the structures of an educational system, to revise the mechanisms of the sorting and ranking of pupils so as to improve their competence. Indeed, Germany now does better in the PISA ranking. Likewise, a country like Korea, where repeating a year is not done, has a better record than France where this practice arouses fierce debate as soon as it is questioned.

But it just is not possible to devise a reform of the school system and teaching methods — including the importance of schooling for the 3-to 6 year-olds — by pointing out the better achievements of pupils who had started school at least one year before entering junior school. The PISA survey gives the lie to all those who consider that pre-elementary schooling ensures no profitable foundation for later learning, and do not give teacher training serious thought. Teaching must be taught, and it is hard to imagine how, given the recent reform of teachers’ training, the bottom under-achievers can build up the competence in the fields surveyed, when their teachers have but scant knowledge of the mechanisms of learning and of the most innovating teaching methods.

In technical schools [2] it is evident that difficulties in comprehension, and sometimes the lack of intellectual mobilization in pupils are not irreversible - on condition that inventive teaching strategies are implemented and the fatalism that surveys of this kind paradoxically nourish is actively fought against.

[1] Published by the OECD (Program for International Student Assessment), that covers 65 countries

[2] Aziz Djellab is the author of Sociologie du lycée professionnel, Presses Universitaires du Mirail

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