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French Lessons on Education Reform

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From February 10 to February 12, 2014, French President François Hollande will pay an official visit to the United States, in Washington, D.C. and in San Francisco. This meeting will include a White House state dinner and marks the first French state visit since 1996, when Jacques Chirac visited Bill Clinton. No doubt national security issues -- including Iran, Syria, Africa, cyber security and electronic eavesdropping -- plus trade and economic policies will figure prominently in the presidential discussions. At the same time, let's hope that Mr. Hollande and Mr. Obama devote some time to education reform, because the French experience in every sector -- pre-K, K-12 and postsecondary -- offers important lessons for the United States.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama cited high-quality, universal pre-K as one of his top domestic policy goals. Since then, the newly elected New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, has made universal pre-K a signature part of his progressive reform agenda, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also has embraced universal pre-K. Both leaders offer different funding schemes, but their strong support is a welcome development.

Messrs. Obama, de Blasio and Cuomo should study carefully the French example. For decades, France has had perhaps the highest quality universal pre-K system in the world. Parents throughout France can send their children starting at age three months to a "crèche" that includes certified professionals who provide not only daycare but high-quality, affordable early education. In New York City, comparable services can exceed $29,000 annually. In France, the out-of-pocket cost is means-tested according to income. For example, a family with a monthly income of 609 euros would pay 3.65 euros per day (about $4.99). A family with a monthly income of 7,145 euros pays about 43 euros per day. The "écoles maternelles" start at ages two and three. More than 90 percent of French children attend these schools which are free.

University of Chicago Nobel laureate in economics James Heckman has reported that the return on a dollar invested in pre-K is roughly seven to one, and economist Art Rolnick at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Board argues that it is far better in terms of economic returns for a city to invest in pre-K than to build a new sports stadium. The French understand that investing early in their young people is sound education and economic policy.

In K-12 education, the United States is now inching its way towards adopting the Common Core Standards produced by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Math, science and history should not vary from state to state. Algebra should be the same in Alaska and Alabama. A high school degree should also reflect what we expect our high school graduates to know and be able to do. Instead, far too often we award high school diplomas to 12th graders who cannot do third grade math.

By contrast, in France, the baccalaureate exam, typically given at age 18, constitutes a standard of what a young French person should know and be able to do after his or her secondary education. The baccalaureate exam is relatively rigorous, is given over the course of at least a week, and does not involve multiple-choice answers. Passing the baccalaureate is a prerequisite to further advancement to postsecondary education in France.

The French baccalaureate opens the door to almost any French university, where the cost of attendance is relatively low, typically approaching one thousand euros per year. By contrast, in the United States, we urge our young people to get more postsecondary credentials in order to be competitive in an increasingly globalized world. At the same time, they have become increasingly burdened with student loan debt -- a relatively recent phenomenon that would be abhorrent in France.

We now have more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the United States, which helps explain why so many young Americans are living at home and are unable to participate in the U.S. economy. French colleges and universities typically do not offer country-club style amenities or overindulge in sports mania. The costs in France are modest, and issues of access are rare.

Presidents Obama and Hollande should also discuss the collaborations that are now underway between several U.S. and French postsecondary institutions. These collaborations offer excellent examples of education partnerships that can bear fruit on several fronts: economic, scientific, commercial and diplomatic. Columbia University's Alliance Program offers graduate and undergraduate degrees involving the École Polytechnique, Sciences Po and Panthéon-Sorbonne University. There is also a France-Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Studies founded in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This fellowship program fosters interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange between Stanford and French researchers and students.

New York University's Stern School of Business has an exchange program with the Paris-based École des Hautes Études Commerciales which enables graduates to pursue a dual MBA program. There is an MIT-France Program that has been connecting MIT students and faculty with companies and research opportunities in France for more than 11 years. There are also collaboratives with Yale University, the University of Maryland and the Partner University Fund founded in 2007 by the Embassy of France to the United States and the French-American Cultural Exchange Foundation to support collaborations in research and education.

The French education system is, by no means, perfect. France's recent ranking in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment is only slightly better than the U.S. ranking. Nonetheless, the French approach to education demonstrates a solid commitment to investing in youth human capital, and there is much that the United States can learn from the French example. French youth get a solid start in their early years and do not have to assume the equivalent of home mortgages to obtain excellent postsecondary education.

Charles Kolb, a Lumina Foundation Fellow, is President of the French-American Foundation--United States in New York City. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990-1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and at the U.S. Department of Education from 1986-1990. From 1997 until 2012, he was President of the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The views in this article are solely the author's.