The most delicate issue in the national debate is over standards. A recurrent refrain among French conservatives is that the educational level has steadily declined, and that the “bac” is no longer as rigorous as it once was. Educational progressives vigorously contest that assertion. Whatever the truth, the dropout rate suggests that the academic demands are simply too high for most pupils.
Attempts to ease the requirements have had mixed results, and in some cases have hardened the social rigidities in the system. In the 1980s, two less academic, vocational qualifications — “ technologique” and “ professionel” — were created for school leavers. They are also called the baccalaureat, but don’t have the same rigorous academic demands.
The “real” bac, the one with the philosophy paper, is taken by just one-third of pupils. The life-determining decision about who will be able to take the exam is made at the end of middle school. The 14- and 15-year-olds deemed not to have the intellectual wherewithal for higher education are shunted into the vocational high schools, often against their will.
All in all, the high pressure and heavy-handed selectivity make for an unhappy atmosphere. PISA studies show that French students are among the most stressed and are more likely than their peers elsewhere to complain that teachers don’t listen to them and aren’t interested in their well-being.
How should the French experience inform the U.S. push for a Common Core? The first lesson is that national standards can be an effective way to improve the quality of education and to benefit students. Yet care must be taken to avoid standards that are too rigid or too ambitious and would worsen the race-class divide in education that has been a cause of concern in the U.S. since a 1983 national commission report warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity.”
Avoiding those pitfalls requires the transition to national standards to be accompanied by a serious support system to detect and help failing students as early as possible, and provide significant tutoring for those at risk of falling through the cracks.
Learning the tools of the philosophe, it turns out, isn’t a smart idea for everyone.
Peter Gumbel, a Paris-based journalist, is the author, most recently, of “France’s Got Talent: The Woeful Consequences of French Elitism.”