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French President François Hollande visits the Necotin school on the first day of the new school year in Orleans, France, Sept. 1.
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France confronts familiar question: How best to integrate public schools?

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With diversity in its public schools on the wane – despite parents saying it matters to them – the French Ministry of Education is weighing measures to counter inequality, including an algorithm to scientifically place students in schools.

  • Colette Davidson

Anne-Flore Vaucelle, a middle school teacher in Paris’s western suburbs, still remembers the day when her 13-year-old student told the class he was promised in marriage to an infant girl back home in central Africa.

“His classmates were shocked by this and asked him, ‘Is this what you want?’ He said no,” says Ms. Vaucelle. “We ended up having a huge debate in class about religion and forced child marriage.”

The boy went home and told his parents that he didn’t want to get married, using arguments he had heard in his class of students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. His parents eventually called off the union.

“If we hadn’t had such a diverse classroom, we never would have had this discussion and who knows, maybe he would still be promised to this girl,” says Vaucelle. “That diversity created tolerance.”

While Vaucelle’s classroom may be a beacon of cultural openness, France’s public school system – primarily its middle schools – has seen a troubling decline in diversity in recent years, counting some of the largest disparities between socio-economic status and school performance among developed countries, according to 2012 research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Pisa for Schools. Economist Thomas Piketty wrote in a recent controversial piece for Le Monde newspaper that school segregation has reached unacceptable levels, and the government hasn’t gotten serious about reform. For its part, the  government has said that social diversity can’t be forced or fixed with a magic wand.

But creating more tolerance in the school system has even more relevance today as populist groups around Europe – such as France’s National Front party – push an anti-immigrant rhetoric.

As increasing numbers of parents flee the public school system in hopes of better opportunities for their children in private schools, the Ministry of Education says it is working on several measures to impose what France calls mixité sociale without removing parents from the decision-making process. But can algorithms and American-style busing programs revamp France’s public middle schools?

Sociologist Pierre Merle says the current system has led some students to feel left behind, and France desperately needs to find ways to move forward.

“If there are middle schools with only black and North African students, who already don’t feel entirely French, you create feelings of inequality, injustice, and revenge,” says Mr. Merle. “We have a real challenge on our hands to learn how to live all together, and that starts at school."

Mixité sociale

Since 1963, France’s zoning system has placed students in middle schools based on geographical location. In the past few decades, however, French cities have seen a phenomenon similar to the United States, where gentrification has caused neighborhoods – and their schools – to become increasingly polarized. In Paris, the discrepancy between a high and low-functioning school could be the difference of a few city blocks.

“If you look at a map, household incomes are clustered around the city,” says Julien Grenet, an associate professor of the economics of education at the Paris School of Economics. “Even within one district, you can have lots of diversity in one neighborhood next to a neighborhood with almost none. That magnifies the inequality across schools.”

Last November, the French Ministry of Education proposed a series of measures to counter this inequality, such as doing away with school zoning, introducing a busing system, and giving more power to parent groups. In mid-September, the Paris Rectorat suggested using an algorithm – already used in high schools –  to place students scientifically based on a number of factors.

“The government says there’s no magic solution, but using modern assignment tools is a very promising solution,” says Mr. Grenet.

He says using a system similar to those found in the US or Britain to expand school zones would help take advantage of social diversity in certain neighborhoods. School choice plans such as those introduced in Chicago and New York have allowed students from low-income areas the ability to access better high schools. And an algorithm system – such as those used in Britain, Belgium, and Spain – has transformed the educational landscape, says Grenet.

“Right now, parents are faced with the dilemma of either sending their kids to a rough school or a rich kid school,” says Grenet. “So this algorithm avoids this difficult choice.”

The algorithm could help prevent the growing urban phenomenon here of “white flight,” where parents move their children to private schools to avoid their low-functioning neighborhood school. In 2015, 21 percent all middle and high school students were enrolled in private school, according to the state-run statistical body RERS – a proportion that far exceeds the US.

“Quality of education is the most important thing for parents,” says Liliana Moyano, the president of Fédération des Conseils de Parents, one of France’s largest parents’ organizations. “Is the teacher inexperienced? Absent too often? Are there too many discipline problems in class? Many parents have a fantasy that private school offers the best that education has to offer.”

While France’s private schools may advertise glowing test scores, critics say they epitomize the discrepancy in France’s middle school system. Around 95 percent of private schools are actually public-private and receive state funding. Yet they have almost full control over their enrollment process, choosing which students to admit.

According to a study of France’s middle schools by RERS, between 2002 and 2012 41 percent of students from lower economic brackets attended public schools, versus 19.5 percent of higher income students. In 2012, the proportion of high-income students in the private sector was nearly 36 percent.

Still, Ms. Moyano says that the overwhelming majority of parents would ultimately prefer a high-functioning public school. This is why, she says, most are willing to deal with some of the challenges that the forced diversity proposals could cause, such as transportation issues and questions about teacher quality.

'I would have loved to put her in the public school'

Paris resident Louise Tabouis ultimately chose to put her 13-year-old daughter in an international private school because her local middle school didn’t have the resources to teach her child, who is bilingual and was diagnosed with a mild developmental disorder.

“I would have loved to put her in the public school,” says Ms. Tabouis. “But if you mention any type of disability, they send you to the private system…. Plus, her classes are in English, which is great for us.”

When her son enters middle school in two years, Tabouis says she will take into account his personal preferences and what she hears from other parents. Still, she says an algorithm to place students seems appealing.

“I think it sounds ideal,” she says. “More than now, where everyone is just thrown together.”

12-year-olds on the metro?

If France does implement such a system, it will have to resolve the contentious issue of transportation. France does not have a state-run busing system, meaning parents get their kids to school. While an algorithm that sends high school students across town may work, sending a 12-year-old on the Paris metro is a concern for many parents. But Grenet says the proposed algorithm would not result in the kind of hour-long bus rides seen in US cities like Boston in the 1970s and ’80s.

“In reality, the average distance for middle school students from home to school right now is 500 meters,” says Grenet. “So even if we were to merge three schools together, students wouldn’t have to walk more than 15 minutes to school.”

Grouping schools to create new school zones could have more success than busing, a practice implemented in US public schools in the 1970s and 1980s to integrate schools. While the program was initially successful, the US experienced a similar “white flight” phenomenon that France is seeing.  

This isn’t the first time middle school has come up against controversy in France. Middle schools have been at the forefront of the school debate over the past year, with a reform to add more extracurricular activities and a change to teaching hours causing mass demonstrations and dissatisfaction among parents and teachers alike.

But the current debate about diversity has barely lifted eyebrows. Moyano says that this is because parents, regardless of what they may choose for their own children, want diversity to work. And addressing the issues of social diversity in middle school is important because it acts as an indicator of future success, says Merle.

“Otherwise, by the time kids get to high school, you end up with school ghettos, where students feel like they’re condemned to a ‘bad’ high school, and this sets them up to go in the wrong direction,” says Merle. “When you put lower-functioning students amongst each other, they discourage one another. They think, 'We’re bad and we’re not going to get any better.' ”