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Student Achievement - An International Struggle

A couple of months ago I traveled to Paris, France.  Although I majored in French in college, it had been eight years since I had actively studied and used the language, and I thought I should brush up before visiting the country.  One study approach I used was to read articles from French magazines provided to me by a friend.  As I was working my way through a volume of Paris Match, I came across an article* about the education system in France.

It turns out that France, like America, is falling behind other countries on international standardized tests like PISA (Program for International Student Assessment).  The article is a year old, but I'm sure the topic is still fresh for France, because, as we have learned, there is no silver bullet solution.  While the article did not offer a solution, and neither do I, it was interesting to me to learn where the French are looking for explanations and to know that we are not alone in this challenge. 

Time in the classroom: How much time and how it is spent

France recently added a fourth day to the school week (that's right, students in France previously went to school three days a week). The four-day school week brought the annual hours in primary school up to 914 hours (spread over 144 days). Despite the additional time in the classroom, France continues to lag behind Germany on PISA, where primary school students spend only 622 hours (spread over 190 days) in the classroom each year.

It appears the extra time in the classroom creates a catch-22. With more subject matter being taught, the time spent in school becomes more important, but the students have a harder time staying focused. In response, the teachers assign more homework in order to try to fill the gap.

Additionally, the time spent in a French classroom looks vastly different than the time spent in a German classroom.  Pascal Meynadier, one of the journalists that wrote this article, hosted a German exchange student as part of a program in which his daughter participated. Before the German student, Mascha, arrived for her three-month exchange in France, Meynadier's daughter, Alix, who had already completed her exchange in Germany, said to him, "She is going to think she is in prison." In addition to the longer school day, Mascha had to adjust to the silence of a classroom where the teacher is always at the front of the room lecturing and the students silently take notes - no group work, no discussion, simply take notes and understand the lesson by listening to the lecture.

Like some charter schools in the U.S., there are schools in France that are trying to think outside of the box. Marianne Dodinet, leader of George-Brassens middle school in Paris is taking advantage of a 2005 law that gives principals the right to experiment in their schools. Dodinet doesn't think the answer lies in adding more time to the core courses; rather she seeks to build her students' sense of self-worth through individualized tutoring and extracurricular courses such art and sports. In fact, after the first trimester, Dodinet noted that student grades increased with their morale.

What do you think?  Is there anything we can learn from France's struggle?  Should America look at reducing the time spent in the classroom, or at least the amount of time spent strictly on academics?  Do we need to change the way classrooms are run? What combination of factors will help our students succeed?

-- Carly Yetzer