A few years ago an American academic living in Paris mentioned to me that kids coming back to France (and maybe other European countries) after a year of high school in the United States (the famous “junior year abroad”) typically have one thing to report: “Trop fac(e)! So easy!” In French schools the level is higher, she asserted. FYI, this was very important to her to believe because her kids were attending high school in Paris (at international school, which she considered to represent French schooling). I pushed back: “Everything you say implies that US schools are not as good as French ones. But then there should be some evidence for that. Like the PISA report? And there isn’t any such evidence. So, do you have new data or are you just perpetuating a cliche?” She said the latter. Bravo for the insight.
Now there have been plenty of international rankings and analyses of education and educational systems. The PISA report (2000, 2009) is just one. The recent synthesis of educational outcomes by the Economist, which I mentioned in a previous post, also comes to mind. None of these surveys show that French primary and secondary education is better than its American counterpart. There are problems with both systems, they are not the same problems, and the result is kids with good and bad aspects of their education. But no one seems to outperform the other. French kids’ ability to memorize mathematic equations appears better. But, on most counts the American system actually ranks higher than the French one.
I have never met a French exchange school student who was doing poorly back in France, so I sure hope they were doing well here. But I have heard the Trop Fac(e) comment so many times that it makes me wonder what this perception serves besides the strong need among the French to believe that everything is better there, and the bizarre need for some Americans to think that everything is better there (in France) too (at least during the time they are visiting, as is the case with the American academic quoted above).
I also have wondered how the Trop fac(e) cliché is perpetuated. It seems to me that at least three thought processes support the faulty conclusion. These are: 1) the FUN = EASY equation, 2) the, “I am taking the same classes as everyone else, because in my country all students DO take the same classes (and thus my information is sufficient for a judgment)” assessment, and 3) the “I represent the average student” calculation.
1. The FUN = EASY SCHOOL or FUN = NOT EDUCATION equation. I don’t have to unpack this equation, but I will. It means: if I am having a good time, enjoying learning, or finding it easy to understand, then the content must be simpler, just not as advanced as if I were struggling, hating the class (or the teacher), and just generally miserable. So it could be that some French or other European students return from their year abroad and say: “I really liked it, it was fun. And it was really easy for me. THUS…. American schools are inferior.” There is also a hidden aspect of this equation, which is that “public education” in American high schools usually also involves civic engagement, clubs such as debate, forensics, Model United Nations, theater, chess, AND all those sports teams. These other activities are part of the process of forming the educated adult. The notion that the school shares in fostering the qualities of civic engagement and application of knowledge characterizes French schooling far, far less.
2. The “I am taking the same classes as everyone else” Assessment. When we moved three of our children to the United States two years ago, and put one of them in public high school, we noticed that every student did NOT take the same classes. A student who was in their third year of high school could have been taking advanced calculus or advanced algebra. It depended upon that student’s progress in math. Similarly, the student could be taking Spanish 1 or Spanish 4. Our kid, coming from France, took Spanish 3, with other juniors, and found it very hard and excruciating in the amount of homework. My friends’ kids who were taking AP American History cried at night because they had to read 100 pages of text a week and write one essay per week. With all the heavy work going on around me I could only wonder how exchange students are placed in classes. Do schools assess their math skills and make sure they are at the right level? Are language skills assessed too? And, related to Point 1, do the exchange students also spend hours on debate team or leave early in the morning for the two hours of swim practice? Although I have no evidence, the facts that in France students in a particular year of school all have to learn the same content and that the schools are not responsible for the skills that are considered to lie outside of the curriculum suggest to me that exchange students are not having the same educational experience as the American students of their specific caliber. And about caliber…
3. The “I represent the average student” Calculation. Who goes on a year abroad, anyway? Interestingly, I don’t think that the American kids and the French kids who leave their country for an exchange year are the same population of kids. I would absolutely want data on this, but when I was growing up, my peers at my very fancy private high school only went abroad when one of their parents took them on a sabbatical year. And those kids very rarely went to a foreign public school in the sabbatical location. Almost always they went to private, international, school. In contrast, the kids I know who went to Europe or somewhere for a year to stay with a family and go to public school came from much more simple situations in the United States. The flow in the other direction is not the same. So far, all of the French exchange students I have met (and the ones I have heard about) come from fancier or at least more special circumstances. Their bourgeois parents are very worried about their child’s level of English, so they sign up for some program and send their (relatively-speaking) fancy child to a very regular high school in the United States, where all of the other faulty thinking can take place.
If you think about it, these elements – which may be statistically true – can continue to support the perception that American high school is Trop fac(e). But this is too bad, because, of course, the real story is the idea, embedded up there in point number 1, that American schooling involves the possibility of doing many other civic, academic, and athletic activities that then produce a different college-ready individual. Indeed, a very different adult. I then get those college-ready people in my university courses. I know which ones I like to teach.