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What France Can Learn From the US Education System

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At a recent dinner date with French friends, mostly young graduates, the discussion centered on the tough process of entering today's competitive workforce. My dinner companions all shared one thing in particular: a rather bleak outlook on their future, and little sense of control over the outcomes of this strenuous job search process. It was as if they had already given up, resolved to live off France's generous welfare system until the global tide had turned on this economic crisis.

Why such fatalism? Yes today's youth unemployment in France is around 20%. Yes it does seem like France, or even Europe, will not get out of this prolonged slump in the near future. But while the outlook in the U.S. does not seem to fare off much better, my American peers' mindset is close to the other end of the spectrum.

Although many factors can explain this discrepancy, from culture to social economics, I would like to take a look at the two countries' education systems, and how each plays a role in shaping future job seekers, and young entrepreneurs.

At a time when French President Sarkozy's government has placed education reform as a high priority, laying out ambitious goals for 2011-2014, one can question whether their plan will do the job of realigning secondary education curriculum with teaching kids and teens the necessary tools for today's global labor market. Rather than looking at WHAT we teach shouldn't we also be looking at HOW we teach?

I was enormously lucky to experience both education systems: elementary and middle school in France, three years of high school in the US, with my final year back in France. Anyone who knows someone who has experienced the French education system will not deny this: it is not a happy, child-friendly place.

From grade 1 on to grade 12, children are fed an overwhelming amount of facts and are required to regurgitate the information, often word for word. Grades are severely set, with a 12 out of 20 in middle school or high school (the equivalent of a 60%) usually being considered a good solid grade. Grades are often read aloud in class, and criticism in front of peers the norm -- tactics surely meant to shame the bottom dwellers into performing better, but which generally have the opposite effect of alienating the lower performing students and diminishing their self-worth.

Nevertheless at the ripe age of 14, moving from France to Vermont, I did certainly did not have any insight into my home country's educative flaws. Rather the contrary.

I was appalled to find out that my American classmates had never heard of Oscar Wilde, or read a school-assigned book longer than 300 pages. I judged most of the homework given to me as mindless, with knowledge taking a second seat to creative thinking and imagination -- qualities that are certainly not valued in French classrooms. While the homework aimed at getting us to think on our own, teachers were also generally encouraging of all, and did their best to motivate the ones trailing behind.

One striking moment was the first high school graduation ceremony I attended in my Vermont high school: one teacher's speech to the class was a compilation of praises of each individual student of that graduating class, regardless of his or her number of As or Ds -- making every single student feel valued, and valuable. (Granted, the class was only made of 60, but the point -- and its sentiment! -- still stands).

This commentary by no means denies the plethora of criticism that can be made of the United States' education system; after all the United States joined France in the bottom half of the OECD's latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, and this ranking is not set to improve if cuts to states' education budgets continue. I also surely was in a relatively terrific high school.

I nevertheless find this bright outlook in many American acquaintances that have never laid foot in Vermont.The sense of self-worth and confidence promoted in the US, from an early age on, contributes -- with many other factors -- to the American people's envied go-getter attitude.

It is not the philosophy or ancient Greek classes that make France's school system outdated. It's not just the content; it's also the form. In today's global economy, where innovation and business creation are key drivers, a government needs individual actors who feel confident enough in themselves and the system to take risks and think outside the box.

The word "educate" derives from the Latin educare, understood as "to bring forth, to draw out, to support". As the French government is rethinking their secondary education, they should look across the Atlantic to learn a thing or two about the meaning of education.