I didn’t go to a “typical” American school. I attended a private one. In addition to some other reasons (more about the meaning of “typical” in another post), my own primary and secondary school experience was not representative of anything except of this one private school. That experience was useful, though, for thinking about the balance between the content of learning and the process of learning. In the 1970s, when I was in school, I suppose I thought that there was a lot of process and not always enough content. That is one reason I like the fact that in French schools there is a certain amount of memorization, including the learning of poetry by heart. Another observation that I can share about my personal school experience is that there was not a lot of room at that school for diverse and varied means or ends to success. The schooling route was simply competitive academic achievement; emotional and social intelligence was not strongly nurtured. And the main valued outcome was further competitive academic achievement; probably 98% of the students went to college. I could see later, in college for instance, that there were other means and ends to the success of life. These were simply not represented in my own schooling.
One would therefore have to be careful because the thick glossies that arrive regularly in my mailbox, reporting the school’s many achievements and famous alumni, and asking for donations, do not provide any evidence that something could be missing from the education at that school.
I saw also a possibility for false advertising in my own university teaching career. I taught at a private university with an elite reputation, and then (when I could), left that university (actually by resigning on the day I would have been promoted) to go to a larger public university. The latter university did not have the same caché as the former, as is often the case in public opinion. But again, I found the diversity in offerings and the multiple routes for self-definition and definitions of success and life to be a better fit for many of the students. And again, I thought about how you have to be careful in promoting your reputation. Good evidence for the very rich and complicated definition of “fine education” has to be available.
Two research papers are relevant to this issue with regard to US university education*. They can be downloaded from this site: http://www.seaphe.org/topic-pages/college-selectivity.php.
The question in both research programs was whether going to an elite university has an advantage for one indicator of success, namely, earning potential. The conclusion from each is that the eliteness of the university has little impact on the ultimate earning potential of the individual. It would be interesting for a study to look at other indicators of success, such as whether the individual considers him or herself a success, whether their reported quality of life and well-being is the same and so forth. But even with their limitations, the research does not at this point support a conclusion that elite schools are required for at least financial success, and whatever comes with that.
So, that is the conclusion of some research in the US. What about other countries? I tried to find numbers testing the same question about French universities versus the Grandes Ecoles, but I didn’t find research. I found plenty of discussion. The difference is that the purpose of the Grandes Ecoles, at least right now, is to create an elite. So perhaps the empirical question is not of interest. I still think it would be. In this sense, then the Grandes Ecoles are pretty much what they were created to be. There is enormous discussion in France about whether universities and the Grandes Ecoles should be combined. That discussion is likely to continue for a very long time, and I am definitely not informed enough to comment on where that discussion is going.
Hostility has emerged regarding some false advertising about primary and secondary education in France, though. One representation of that is a recent book by Peter Gumbel, called “They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They?” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/05/french-schools-pupils-feel-worthless). If you read about his motivations for this book, it seems that any hostility was inspired by false advertising. We hear often that the French have memorized so many more math equations than other people, and we (the rest of the world) somehow equate that with having a better educational system. That is our fault, of course, because education is much more complicated than that. There is an international evaluation, which is now represented as best as it can be in the periodic PISA report. The findings of the initial report, in 2000, were a shock to Germany: Germany was not classed well, and that didn’t sit with the government or the people. By consequence, measures were taken and Germany’s performance on the 2009 PISA report was much improved.
When my own family went on sabbatical to the US in 2006-2007, knowledge of the PISA report did not prevent our European colleagues from asking us if we were worried that our children would suffer a setback if they went to school in the US for a year. Where should we worry about that? If Gumbel’s book should be taken seriously, then it is France. The PISA report findings suggest the same thing in some areas.
But should I be worried about anything right now? Has someone found the gold standard for education? I would again simply suggest that people be careful about false advertising. Clearly, the different types of education the world-over have good and bad aspects. They also either intentionally or unintentionally form different types of people.
*Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservables
Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger
*Regression and Matching Estimates of the Effects of Elite College Attendance on Educational and Career Achievement
Jennie E. Brand and Charles N. Halaby