Sunday, May 10, 2009


We've definitely decided to try the local college, despite all the problems that the principal so kindly outlined in detail for us last week.
We'll send the twins there for one year and see how it goes.
My post on this subject garnered about half a dozen comments and even more emails. One of them contained this bone-chilling phrase...
"Now that there are People Who Decide Things salivating over the baccalaureate system as a potential educational system here in the US..."
This was from a blogging teacher in the USA, so she knows of what she speaks. And what she speaks of would SO never work, I can only hope the Powers That Be give up the idea, pronto.

The Bac system in France is a bit complicated and I don't want to describe it in detail here- otherwise this post will puff up to Godzilla-on-steroids-sized porportions. If you want to know more about how it works, visit our friends at Wiki and spend a moment. But in short, it's a huge test that you take at the end of lycée (high school) that qualifies you for further education. It's NOT multiple choice. It's essays and oral exams and it's very, very demanding. A score of 10 out of 20 is the minimal passing grade. Perfect scores are almost unheard of.

But here's the thing: The Bac is a French institution that works in tandem with the totality of the French educational system. They start training the kids for this from the moment they enter school at age three.
I'm not saying they "teach to the test". That's certainly not the case. I'm saying that the educational system is not warm and fuzzy. Everybody is NOT a winner. The teachers do not think it is their job to "build self-esteem" in their students merely because the latter are present in the classroom and breathing oxygen. Self-esteem is (quite properly, I think) seen as something that stems naturally from real accomplishments and mastery.
What a concept!
Sadly, this is NOT the case in the US system, where students tend to have sky-high self-esteem (from being praised constantly for even the most trivial things) and comparatively few real skills.
Maybe you think I'm being a little harsh?
Very harsh?
Just have a look at this report from the well-respected Brookings Institution.

Here are a few excerpts:
"6% of Korean 8th graders surveyed expressed confidence in their math skills, compared with 39% of US 8th graders. But Korean students far outscore American students in math tests."
(So, all this US 'confidence' does not translate into actual mastery..)

"The world’s most confident eighth graders are found in the Middle East, Africa, and the United States (ranked ninth)...... however, these countries are not particularly high scoring on the TIMSS math exam"
(Again, kids in the USA think they are math wizards, but don't actually have the achievements to justify this attitude. Isn't anyone getting cognitive dissonance overload? )

"...even the least confident student in Singapore outscores the most confident American student"
(emphasis in bold added)

"It is only natural that adults want children to be happy. Indeed, many of the most popular education reforms of today, once all of the rhetorical flourishes are stripped away, place children’s happiness on equal footing with their learning. The pursuit of knowledge
may be important, but only if it simultaneously raises student contentment and self-esteem
"


So, in the US educational system, self-esteem is much more important than actually learning anything. They're admitting it! And that alone makes something like the Bac completely inappropriate. You can't coddle and cosset the kids in the shallow end for 12 years, constantly telling them "good job" for each feeble splash they make, and then suddenly throw them into deep water, expecting an Olympic-caliber butterfly stroke.


To put it bluntly: The Bac works in France because the system is harsh and merciless from day one. Nobody is particularly worried if kids are bored, unhappy or lacking in elevated self-esteem levels. They are supposed to be learning things and becoming responsible people. It is assumed that happiness and confidence will eventually come from growth, learning and achievement.

The system isn't always "nice". Ok. It's not even occasionally "nice". I have mostly found that the teachers are very harsh and critical compared with teachers in the USA. They get away with behavior and comments that would have parents in the USA yanking their kids out of school and contacting their lawyers.

Also, the schools don't really offer any 'fun' courses. It's all math, French, biology, etc... something that many Americans have a hard time imagining. But you don't have TIME for band, archery or journalism when you are trying to prepare for the Brevet and the Bac.

I just can't imagine how the US could effectively institute a reasonable equivalent to the Bac. And what would be the point, anyway? The Bac is not a test that lets you "graduate" from lycee. It's a test that qualifies you to go on in your education. If you have a menial job waiting for you after lycée, you can just skip the Bac. No problem.

In that sense the Bac is more like the ACT or SAT exams. (Only the Bac is MUCH harder. It's hours long and there's NO multiple choice, remember) As the US already has pre-university testing in place, why bother with a Bac?

Sound like a recipe for disaster to me...

7 comments:

Pardon My French said...

Very interesting post -- it seems that there's a slight backlash growing against the 'high self-esteem' movement. There's a lot to be said for compassionate teachers who can motivate and encourage everyone to do their best, but it's not really necessary to say "Good job!" for every single little simple thing. I read a book by Alfie Kohn (not sure of spelling) about the drawbacks of constant praise and I do think it's counterproductive in the long run. I think I still have a tendency to overpraise my daughter for unnecessary things but I'm working on it.

Patricia said...

I found your blog through another blog and you have had quite an interesting life - great blog!

My daughter attends an all girls catholic school in the Washington, DC area. They are going to offer a Bac program, but after she graduates. My daughter went to the French school in DC for 8 years and the American system is definitely easier. She is an A student now. Although, the public schools "coddle" a lot more than catholic schools - catholic schools are a lot stricter and have a much better curriculum. Also, the public school she would attend has gangs, and I would be terrified to send her there every day! I am glad my daughter has experienced both the French and American systems. She has great memories of her years at the French school and loves her school now. She hopes to go to university in Montreal. Good luck with your children. Sounds like the right choice to me.

Patricia

Beth said...

ITA that common sense may be slowly returning in this area. I was recently listening to a podcast of Fresh Air and part of the show was about well-meaning parents over-praising their children.

And Patricia- Thanks for the praise (well-deserved, I hope!) and welcome to my blog!
Thanks also for weighing in with your own experiences in three different educational systems.
If we lived in the USA, we'd probably be doing the same as you, education-wise.

TeacherMommy said...

As that blogging teacher, my philosophy lies between the two extremes. Any student who's had me will assure you that I am NOT in the "self-esteem is more important than actual accomplishment" camp, not by a long shot. I'm told I even teach my (elective) Mythology course like it's an AP course. And *gasp* I actually expect them to WORK and don't hand-hold through it all. After all, most serial killers have fabulous self-esteems.

However, I DO believe in the egalitarian OPPORTUNITY of the American concept (not necessarily reality) of education. I strongly disagree with the way the French system dictates at such an early age whether or not a student may pursue certain avenues of education. Part of true accomplishment, in my mind, is the right to try whatever one desires to try--and the right to fail and discover something else.

But then, perhaps I'm a little too pie-in-the-sky.

Beth said...

Thanks, TM!

I think your attitude represents the ideal: demanding but not oppressive.

Kelly said...

Our 1st grader attends a charter school that emphasized education in a global setting. (kids start Spanish and Chinese in kindergarten).

I, too, feel like the system in the US is saying "good job" way too many times for things that should just be expected. I'm one of those that just wants to puke every time I'm at the park and some mommy is patting her kid on the back every other second. Give me a break. I liked the post. I guess I sound harsh.

Beth said...

Chinese and Spanish in kindergarten? That's extremely cool.