Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Reflections on French and American school systems

If you're in seconde (sophomore year) then this is the time of year you declare your "major" for the remainder of high school. The types of BACs you can obtain here at this high school are these: Science (S), Lettres (L), Economic and Social Sciences (ES).
By the time French students reach high school they are all too familiar with the fork in the road concept. The final year of college or middle school (troisieme) results in a large percentage of students, perhaps as many as 30 -40%, opting for specialized schools with technical diplomas in the manual arts or in hotelery, tourism, fishing ... many of these options require students to either take long bus trips to Arcachon or Bordeaux or to board during the week in dormitories. For some families this is a tough choice, weighing the dislocation against the potentially appropriate academic orientation.
For those who choose to come to this lycee which is a general lycee, the next fork in the road is right now. They must declare which BAC they will pursue. It is up to each conseil de classe to decide then, based on the student's performance, whether or not he will be recommended for that option. If you look at the three options: S, L, and ES what you notice is that there is a rough division between students who favor the hard sciences and math and those who don't.
The conseil de classe examines each student's grades and then makes a recommendation concerning whatever option the student has requested. Basically the conseil makes one of the follwowing three decisions: favorable, unfavorable, wait and see the third trimester results. An unfavorable decision probably triggers a meeting with parents about choosing an appropriate orientation for their child (again, this could include leaving the high school for a different school). A wait and see decision is simply an attempt to challenge the student produce a positive result by the end of the year.
At the year's end, the conseil makes its final recommendations. If, at that time, a student's choice is turned down, then he must either take the year over or change his plans (this sort of change is pretty traumatic for the French...selecting a career path is fraught with all kinds of stress and expectations...the sort of pressure and expectations one might attach to the process of finding a mate to marry). Or, he and his parents can appeal, first to the proviseur and failing that take his appeal to a committee made up of staff members not affiliated with that particular conseil de classe. That committe reviews the student's dossier and renders a verdict which is final. Remember this is the sophomore of high school.
I asked the proviseur how many appeals like this happen each year. He seemed a bit uncomfortable with the question but he finally said about four or five each year, sometimes more, sometimes less.
It is a signature characteristic of the French system students starting from a young age are periodically subject to high stakes evaluations which in turn lead to high stakes choices about academic orientations and ulitmately career paths.
It is a signature characteristic of the French professional ethos that these evaluations are usually administered as a "common" test, which is to say that the entire class of sophomores or juniors or seniors is given an exam (written or oral) in a particular discipline, a test designed and corrected by the teachers of that discipline...who correct the exams of their colleagues' students but not their own students. This is part of what the French proudly and with justification refer to as rigor. Professional standards are not just assumed nor are they mere boasts, they are exposed and put to the test regularly in very tangible ways.
I am beginning to get a clearer idea of some of the things I don't like about the French school system, I think. One can, for example, argue about the role high stakes testing should play in an educational system but I find it very hard to find anything wrong with the way my colleagues go about the business of developing well coordinated and calibrated notions of quality student performance.
It is one of my biggest frustrations as an American teacher that this notion of common assessments as a tool for both assessing student performance and maitaining professional standards has not gotten any real traction at the department or building level. Most of us look warily out from our own classrooms, we're deeply skeptical of initiatives that somehow obligate us to one another in critically important ways or that require us to relinquish certain idiosyncratic grading practices in favor of professionally normed processes.
In America, getting high marks is in no small part a question of figuring out the man or woman who is standing up in front of the class. What does he/she want? In France, while that element is also present, the challenge is really more figuring out how to successfully pass the BACs at the end of the year... exams which will be corrected not by the student's own teachers, not even by teachers from his own school.
As I scan the previous paragraph it occurs to me that these differences are in some ways examples of highly adapted strategies which are important within the cultures where they reside. In France, one must become hardened to the structured society, bristling as it is with beauracracy and hoops for all and sundry to jump through. In America, it still helps a great deal to have that kind of social intelligence that allows you to adapt to different personalities and groups and thus develop a kind of radar for hidden agendas.
Anybody out there resemble these remarks? of course, I meant to say "resent".


Anonymous cjones said...


Thought I would throw out a topic that I would enjoy hearing you discourse on: The difference in being an expat/foreigner in the Poiters(?) era (1985?) vis-a-vis the Lege era; specifically the impact the internet, blogs, email, cheap phone calls, and nearly instant communication have had on your experience living overseas.

I realize there are many more variables affecting your two French experiences than just electronic communications -- e.g. wife, children, job, income, location, age ... . But if you have any thoughts.............

10:54 AM  
Blogger kc said...

Your comment triggered a deja vu for me...I finally figured out why. I actually blogged about this very thing, although not in great depth, back on Sept 11. I'd be curious to see if it's the sort of thing you were thinking about. You right, I think, about how the media environment has altered the expat experience. It's worthy of more thought.

3:26 PM  

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