May 19, 2015 4:05 AM

Unequal schools in France prompt strike, soul-searching

The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) France's government is proposing an overhaul that would end elite bilingual programs in middle school and give individual schools more say in how students spend their time, fearing that inequality among schoolchildren threatens the education system and the country's future.

The plan from the Socialist-led government came after an international study ranked France among the developed world's most unequal school systems, with student performance highly dependent upon students' socio-economic status. But the plan has drawn criticism from both left-leaning teachers' unions and from French conservatives in a debate that mirrors discussions across the United States.

Middle-school teachers were striking Tuesday. The government wants to add multidisciplinary classes and cut a well-respected bilingual program that enrolls about 15 percent of top students in favor of expanding foreign language classes to a broader range of younger children. Students will start learning their first foreign language in the equivalent of first-grade, and their second around age 12.

But French conservatives have fixed on a new required theme for middle school history classes, titled "A world dominated by Europe: Colonial empires, commercial exchanges and slave trades." A seemingly more positive take on the period, titled "Society and culture at the time of light" is elective.

Latin and Greek will be de-emphasized currently 20 percent of middle schoolers learn an ancient language but still optional one hour a week.

The number of hours in class 26 per week will not change under the plan.

Teachers are divided over the plan, fearing it will pit instructors against each other in the multidisciplinary courses, and students will be the ones to pay for the discord.

"It will create a battle between teachers," Jean-Remi Girard, a French teacher, told France Television.

But France's government is under pressure to fix the system after the 2012 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that France's education system showed gaping disparities between rich and poor children, notably in math. Among all the 39 countries that participated in the PISA study, only Taipei showed more inequality in math results.

"How can we accept that our educational system can't promote all talents, that so many middle schoolers do not master basics, do not master foreign languages?" Prime Minister Manuel Valls wrote Monday in the Liberation newspaper. "In the current world a globalized world, a world of exchanges this is sending our children, and therefore our country, toward an impasse."


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