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Column: French Schools Show Pitfalls for U.S. Common Core Curriculum

On June 17, tens of thousands of French 18-year-olds participated in a rite of passage for which they had been preparing all their lives: writing the philosophy essay that kicks off the gantlet of national high-school-completion exams required to earn the baccalaureat.

Nothing is easy about this first hurdle. Students are handed an abstract question and given four hours to write a reasoned analysis buttressed by philosophical quotes and cultural allusions. The 2013 themes included: “Is language only a tool?” and “What do we owe the state?” In subsequent days, students will face a battery of similarly difficult tests of their knowledge in other disciplines such as math, foreign languages and science.

For better and for worse, France’s rigorous national curriculum offers important lessons as the United States sets out to raise standards by introducing a Common Core program in 45 states and the District of Columbia by 2014.

Certainly, the brightest products of the French high-school system often have an impressive range of knowledge — a structured, analytical approach that makes them appear wise beyond their years — and are ranked among the best in the world for their command of math.

Yet France’s excellent standards also come at a human cost. Its education system is plagued by a high failure rate and worsens social inequality. About 20 percent of pupils struggle with basic reading, writing and math throughout their school years, according to recent government and international reports. A decade ago, that figure was 15 percent. The vast majority of those in difficulty come from poor or disadvantaged families.

Most troubling, the proportion of students who complete high school is lower in France than in the U.S.; one-third drop out before getting to the baccalaureat, and most of these are working-class and first- or second-generation immigrant children. Comparative data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA program show that the socioeconomic background of schoolchildren is as much a determinant of their performance in France as it is in the U.S.

It is noteworthy that the best French schools are usually public, and free, and that U.S.-style private schools charging $30,000 or more a year simply don’t exist. Yet the education system also produces a level of social discrimination that can seem Darwinian: Poor kids are likely to fail, while the rich are likely to succeed. That’s in a nation that takes pride in a meritocratic tradition dating to the French Revolution and where the word egalite is inscribed on school buildings.

Why doesn’t the system perform better? The French agonize over that question, and President Francois Hollande has made fixing schools a priority. Money isn’t the issue: The national school system is the single-biggest item in the budget — $60 billion a year, compared with $40 billion for defense. Still, Hollande’s education minister, Vincent Peillon, has determined that 850,000 teachers aren’t enough, and is proposing to hire 60,000 more.

The Cour des Comptes, the government accountability office, issued a report last month that torpedoed the logic of that proposal; there’s no shortage of teachers, it said. The average class size for 15-year-olds in French schools is 26.9 pupils, slightly higher than the OECD average of 24.6 pupils, according to the report. The fault lies with the centralized national-education administration, which is inflexible, costly and highly bureaucratic and offers little opportunity for mobility.

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 students who weren’t pursuing the full baccalaureat. 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.