Improving France's teachers

When Christine Gendre stepped into her third grade classroom in a Paris suburb for the first time in 1972, she had a high school diploma and no teaching experience. ``One day I was a secretary in an insurance company,'' she recalls, ``and the next I found myself facing a classroom.'' Christine was not alone. In the past, French schools were elitist -- and so were the teachers. But when the postwar explosion in enrollment caught the school system unawares, there was no choice but to compromise.

Between 1950 and 1980 the number of positions for high school teachers increased tenfold. To meet the crying need for them, good grade school teachers were given a quick training supplement and packed off to the high schools. This left a vacuum. Primary school teachers were hired in haste. Two-thirds of them, like Christine, had no training.

Today, recent measures by the national Education Ministry aim at improving teacher formation and narrowing the chasm between grade school and high school teacher qualifications.

Ten years ago, the school that prepares grade school teachers, the 'ecole normale, took three years to complete. It was the equivalent of the baccalaureat, or French high school diploma. Presently the requirement for primary school teachers is the bac plus two years of university and one year of student teaching. Next year another year will be added to the requirement.

High school and college teachers still study at least four or five more years at universities after earning the bac. They become teachers only if they pass the arduous competitive exams -- capes for high school teachers, aggregation for college professors. Only about 5 percent pass the exams on the first try. The exam is followed by only a year of practice teaching.

All this comes in response to the needs of a rapidly changing country. France was long an agrarian society. There was little automation, and the need for unskilled labor was great. Thirty years ago, only one-third of primary school students ever made it to high school.

As France industrialized, more educated workers were needed. Reforms aimed at democratizing the system were implemented. While 60 percent of French students left school at age 13 in 1958, today most stay. Although there is still the possibility of entering a vocational school, the students who stay in school take the same subjects through Grade 10.

The new reforms are not without criticism, though. ``The level is too high and too theoretical, and the goals are unrealistic,'' says Annie Gang-loff, a certified teacher who has taught at the 'ecole normal.

Proponents of two schools of pedagogical thought are now battling it out. Christine never learned any method but the one she grew up with -- learning through repetition and effort. Taken to the extreme, this traditional method is rigid: It results in some teachers categorically refusing any change, continuing to emphasize 17th-century authors: Diderot, Montesquieu, Fenelon, Rousseau, etc.

At the opposite pole are the progressive teachers. They scorn textbooks and borrow from Rousseau and the behaviorists the notion that knowledge dwells in the child waiting to be gently extracted. Experimentation with their ``free'' method has led in the past to what Yves Mah'e of the Education Ministry terms ``pedagogical tourism'': children taken to visit a train station, for instance, but when teachers ask them to describe the experience in class, they lack the writing skills to do so.

The chaos created by this mixed bag of teaching methods directed to a mixed bag of students (by teachers with mixed qualifications) has drastically lowered scholastic standards, according to authors Herv'e Homan and Patrick Rotman in their recent best seller, ``As Long as There Are Teachers.''

Perhaps an even greater problem is the number of bureaucratic rigidities built into the system. As civil servants, teachers cannot be fired. This makes inspections largely a formality. There are 12 grades on the salary scale, with automatic promotion every four years.

The starting salary for a grade school teacher is $582 a month; at the end of his career, a high school teacher can hope to earn $915. Certified teachers earn about 50 percent less than they would in the private sector with comparable diplomas, but they have two extra months of vacation, and numerous perks.

Private schools, on the other hand, have far more autonomy. Teachers are slightly less qualified on the whole, but school directors hire and fire them at will.

The recent battle to save private schools from increased government regulation has opened many Socialists' eyes to the extent of damage done to the schools over the past decade. Public schools needed teachers, and for a long time the school board could not afford to be choosy. Parents were ferocious in defending the independence of private schools.

Today the teaching corps is young, with the majority under 40 in primary and secondary schools. Newly appointed Education Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement is attempting a total turnabout -- emphasizing the importance of acquiring the basic skills in grade school, upgrading teacher formation, introducing daring new technological programs, and insisting on closer ties between schools and industry.

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