Recent Events in French Education

 

By Ralph A. Raimi, 19 April 2006

 

France and the USA have been following strikingly similar paths in recent years on the national education front, though I would say France now has a better organized Opposition.  Of course, France has a national Ministry of Education, which issues the Standards they go by, whereas our NCTM is only informally the creator of math standards; but if you compare what the French ministry has been putting out in its successive decrees, their curriculum has been dumbed down quite as visibly as ours, with national exams to match.  It is this dumbing that Michel Delord and his confrères (that's French for "confreres") are trying to counter, with direct appeals to the Ministry on more than one front. 

 

I shall later say more about Delord himself and about his confreres, but for now it is enough to know that he is a middle-school math teacher in a remote village in the Bordeaux wine country, and yet a member of the Council of the French Mathematical Society, having been elected on a platform of activism against fuzzy math in the schools.  This placing of Delord in the national scene is remarkable in itself, since a middle school teacher ordinarily has no incentive even to join that Society (I doubt if there is another such teacher in all France), which is devoted to mathematical research and college-level teaching if to teaching at all; and to become a member of its Council is more extraordinary still, bespeaking both Delord’s energy and the interest of the French world of mathematics in the quality of education in the schools, as well as in the higher reaches of its own craft.

 

France has had interesting problems with reading as well as with math (and everything else!), phonics vs "global" methods, the defense employing language as opaque and as familiar there as here, educationese,  falsifications in which “all students” and “balance” are prominent.  In the higher grades, grammar is dying and the French language is being killed by the abandoning of the “dictée” as well.  Ignorance of French naturally hinders the teaching of mathematics, too; so this gets compensated for by removing things from the math requirements.  Hence the examinations and the  “brevet” certifying completion of middle school are merely a joke, according to my informants.

 

The French Middle school, called “Collège”, parallels our Grades 6-9, a four-year span, and the high school (“Lycée”) has three years.  The “Primaire” matches our Grades 1-5, but the French have three years of “Maternelle”, free but optional for the two “Pre-K” levels as we would call them, and compulsory at the 5-year-old level.  Most parents take advantage of all three Maternelle years, though only the most elementary orientation to the world of talk, numbers and letters takes place before the third year (age 5); even so it sounds to me as if children in the first two years of Maternelle receive a more systematic “academic” orientation than their American counterparts in our own pre-schools.  Though the Ministry of Education provides academic standards for all three of those years, I will refer only to their third year of Maternelle as “Kindergarten”, since it corresponds to ours in intent and age group (5 years).  In fact, France has recently (1989) changed the names of all the grades, though casual conversation still uses the old ones, and the third Maternelle (our K) is now called the first year of the three-year “Cycle of fundamentals”, which therefore runs through what we would call the second grade. 

 

Yet, unfortunately, the old designation, “Primaire”, omits Kindergarten, and this was of some importance until very recently, for while the standards (“Programme”) for the teaching of reading in the Primaire had one prescripion the Programme for Kindergarten was less definite, and written in such a way that students entering the first grade had often been infected with a “look-say” mentality by Kindergarten teachers proud of how many words their charges had “learned”.  Result:  many of them resisted the tedium of having to learn the alphabet, etc. when they got to Primaire.  But this dispute is by the way.

 

The methods of enforcement of academic standards differs between the our countries, too.  We enforce by underground methods you know so well, the NCTM (in the case of mathematics) taking advantage of the national putative desire for more and better math education to sign up with NSF for money to write awful texts, followed by relentless advertising, ultimately also at public expense via NSF or Department of Education grants for “professional development” and other attractive heading, including “research” and “partnerships”, urged on increasing numbers of school systems by the publishers and the colleges of education, all of whom have a financial interest in their promulgation.

 

Our fifty States, in principle independent of the national government, accordingly have varying Standards, mostly bad or incoherent; and even what they might be deciphered to prescribe is incompletely asked for in the statewide exams, which now are mainly written – and scored -- to maximize the quota of “passing” students, a necessity now that federal law (“NCLB”) stigmatizes states which don’t show enough improvement from one year to the next.  The improvement is judged by the state itself; one can hardly imagine a less reliable judge.

 

We here seem to have more phony educational research too, than France does, for the debates there do not seem to focus on experiment, or alleged experimental results of this or that program.  I have read only a few newspaper articles or polemics on this subject, and in judging curricula they never quote comparative statistics since all schools have the same programs.  Longitudinal comparisons are possible, though subjective.  To know that as many students are “passing” today as ever before is not to know very much.  At any rate, none of my information (except demographic and plainly factual) can be based on educational research, and (warning!) my information almost all comes from my side of what debate there is. 

 

Not that the other side (even apart from the Ministry itself, which has a very rich web site) is silent or unknown to me.  There is a web site called "Café Pédagogique", the home of discussion groups of teachers, and helpful hints and so on, but also news of the education world. Here is the place to find articles by educationists attacking the critics of current policy, generally with a combination of stuffiness and sarcasm.  The arguments here are on a high intellectual plane, or try to be, and between them and the occasional newspaper article from Le Figaro or Le Monde (Parisian, hence national, papers), and other op-ed pieces whose URLs are sometimes sent me by my French correspondents, I do get word from the various parties.  I must say that the literary level of the teachers, educators and journalists I read is very high, despite what is said about the decline of language in the schools.

 

Now, back to America: A recent announcement (January, 2006) of the Bush education budget proposal for the next year at NSF suddenly sounded, in one item, as if it were proposing something like what recently seemed to be happening in France on a rather detailed level.  That item concerns a financially trivial part of the total education appropriation, but its wording is ominous:

 

“...  $10 million for "a National Mathematics Panel to identify key mathematics content and instructional principles;"

 

One comment I have read concerning this legislation had it that NCTM was strongly in favor of this proposal, modest though it would be in terms of dollars; furthermore, NCTM said it was prepared to help in any way.  How generous. The way is now clear to producing a third edition of their Standards or PSSM, this time at federal expense instead of from its own coffers, as were the 1989 Standards and the PSSM of 2000.  The new edition would have a mighty propaganda advantage in an official American Eagle imprimatur instead of the indirect ones from math societies NCTM had smuggled into the “front matter” of the first two editions.  On the other hand, this time NCTM might not have the field entirely to itself in the appointment of the committees of writers. I will not now speculate further on our problems, which in this connection would initially depend on the way the members of this National Mathematics Panel should be chosen.  Let us return to France.

 

France has teachers’ associations, unions comparable to our NEA and AFT except that there are more than two big ones, but I don’t know that the associations of mathematics teachers have any force comparable to that of our NCTM, even though NCTM is ultimately only a voluntary force.  In France the dictates of the national Ministry (They don't always say "national" there, but prefer, in some contexts, "de la République") are enforced in three important public ways:

 

First, directly and most visibly, they have a corps of  "Inspectors" who scour the countryside, visiting classes and talking to principals and supervisors, giving grades to individual teachers and writing reports to the superiors of those teachers.  This Inspectorate before 1989 was strictly national, but now is somewhat decentralized, there being 30 Districts (called “Academies”) covering the nation, each with its Rector in charge of its own budget, and each with its own Inspectorate, so that there can be some divergence in policy, despite standards (le Programme) that are uniform, and a national office for the Inspectorate as well.  For example, the nationwide exam system, including the “Bac” for college-intending students graduating from the high schools, is operated by the national Inspectorate. 

 

Local districts within the Academies have some autonomy as well, by certain decrees of 1982 and 1983 which I have never seen, but the division of responsibility that goes with local budgets is too much for me to follow.   I do know that the actual curricular decisions are in no way local; they are national, and promulgated by the office of the Minister of Education in printed form, with fairly detailed commentary, somewhat like the “Frameworks” published by some of our states to aid in the understanding of the import of the state’s Standards.  It is whether a teacher is following the Programme”, which is printed for everyone to see, that an Inspector judges.  I'm not sure how often the inspection of any individual teacher takes place, but it is often enough to be a cause of concern, and if a teacher teaches something the Inspector considers to be in violation of the current Programme it generates a bad mark.

 

For example, teachers in the Primaire (Grades 1-5, following the Kindergartens) wanting to teach phonics a few years ago had to hide it from the Inspectorate.  After much petitioning from distressed teachers and apparently everyone else except the experts in reading, a 2002 revision of Les Programmes , despite its further steps in dumbing down of the curriculum in basic mathematics and French, was accompanied by a clause stating that teachers (over the entire nation) were free to use what “methods” they thought proper, if not subject-matter.  Academic freedom!  Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.  In the following three years there was considerable turmoil among teachers of early grades:  Is phonics a forbidden subject or is it now permissible as a type of teaching?  That depended on the District Inspectorate, it seemed, or sometimes even the particular Inspector who came around to the school; and some conflicts have ensued. Delord's group, SPRIM, has long espoused phonics, of course, and its associated email list has had many messages from teachers who have been, even since 2002, disciplined for exercising their apparent right to use phonics instruction as announced by the Republic.

 

“SPRIM” is the name of an email list Delord invited me to subscribe to; I read as much as I can there.  It resembles the NYC Math Forum and the California K-16 list, except that it concerns only the Primaire, and contains news and controversy on all subjects, though mainly math and reading and writing.  The acronym SPRIM is for “Sauver le Primaire” (i.e., “Rescue the Primaire” [from its present degradation]), this being the name of a petition Delord got up in 2002, signed by teachers and parents mainly, to submit to the authorities.  The protest concerned the newly promulgated Programme for all the schools and all the grades, including another step in lowering standards for the Primaire.  That 2002 Programme is still the law of the land.

 

In math such ambiguities as to whether phonics is a subject or a method of teaching don't seem to be in question: Such  instructions as that multiplication, by hand, of decimally represented numbers of more than two-digits is forbidden admit no such evasive tactics.  You will not do it, period.  The Programme explicitly states how many digits you can call for, at each grade. Delord says he was nearly fired in 2000 for daring to teach 6th graders how to multiply two four-digit decimals.  I have seen a comparison of math standards for K-5, as stated in the Programmes from 1895 through 2002, and the decline, while gradual, is enormous when seen over a century’s time.  The Programmes can be tweaked every year, by decree of the Ministry, but major changes have been at rather long intervals.  They are often the subject of some public debate, one of which has been taking place almost continuously and with increasing vehemence since 2002, as I shall describe when the time comes.

 

Every revision of the French math standards, from 1967 I believe, has "lightened" the list of things to teach, or shoved them into later grades, so much so that when college-intending high school seniors take the famous “Bac” (for “Baccalaureate”, the classy high school diploma), they find themselves answering questions demonstrably similar to what was asked of 10th grade students fifty years ago.  What was done in the last two years of the classical (19th Century, in fact) curriculum has now been shoved up to the universities, who complain about having to teach college freshmen to read and speak French, not to mention mathematics.  (Business men say the same thing, in newspaper articles much like those in this country.) Familiar story to us, of course, except that here it has not been done by Congressional action, or official decree of the Department of Education.  Perhaps with the “...  $10 million for "a National Mathematics Panel to identify key mathematics content and instructional principles"  we will find ourselves following France in this regard as well, even though our federal intrusions into the schools are in principle restrained.

 

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The French Inspectorate and the Programme are not the only means of enforcing the dumbing down of curriculum.  The rather ragged system of preparing teachers for the French schools that was in existence until very recently, a combination of "normal schools" and divisions of universities, has now been standardized by calling them all sites within a system called IUFM,  “University Institutes for the Training of Teachers".  As with the Inspectorate, there is one IUFM for each of the 30 or so Academies, though this doesn’t mean a single physical location, since a given IUFM may have links with several local universities, and assign practice teaching (as part of the program) anywhere within the district, too.  One cannot say the IUFMs “enforce” the national decrees concerning curriculum in the way the Inspectorate does, but it is clearly an enforcing mechanism in that it teaches future teachers according to the current educationist dogma.

 

A teaching certificate from an IUFM takes two years beyond a college degree (the college degree, called the License, represents three years’ work, not four).  In this the French education establishment is behind ours in the race to mediocrity, since their teachers are presumably college graduates with a non-education major before getting to the IUFM for polishing up. I don’t believe there is such a thing as an “education major” in the French universities, though I might be wrong; still, since the IUFMs get to the future teachers at the final stage of their preparation, their attitudes do get across.  Furthermore, the IUFMs are increasingly “cooperating” with universities in seeing to it that proper undergraduate programs are established.  It might be that education “majors” have been or will be established at some universities with the assistance of the local IUFM. 

 

All the IUFMs of today have a constructivist philosophy, more recently established there than here in the USA but just as firm.  They have not yet trained as much of the national teaching corps as we have under NCTM influence in our own schools of education, but they appear to have as bright a future.  The main point I would make here is that there really is no effective difference between the French nationalized training of future teachers and our own teacher training via "independent" colleges of education, even though in principle our schools of education stand on their own feet, independent of federal or even NCTM philosophy if they like.  Our schools of education represent a uniform system just as much as do the thirty IUFMs in France, and we partly (at least) govern them by the strings on our grant money from Washington, whereas France does it by decree from Paris.

 

The third influence on French educational policy, curriculum and teaching, at least in mathematics, is the system of 26 IREMs (Institutes of Research in Math Teaching) that was established in 1967, even before the IUFM (Teachers’ Colleges) were established.  Again, the IREMs are not strictly speaking a mechanism for enforcing current Ministry educational requirements, but their influence resembles that of our larger schools of education, as places where education experts do formal education research.  I don’t know if these 26 IREM’s are divided using the same regional boundaries as the IUFMs and the Inspectorates, but they do cooperate with teacher training in a big way, and they got into the game earlier than did the IUFMs.  They publish a journal, they organize Conferences,  regional and national summer schools, and so on.  I have not found out why anyone pays attention to their activities, i.e., whether teachers who attend their conferences and summer schools get higher pay or something, but I do know that many of their activities are in general considered another bad influence by Delord and his party.  This is not universally the case, e.g., the Director of the IREM of Lorraine is a mathematician (J. P. Ferrier, at the University of Nancy) and an associate of Delord’s in the GRIP, which is described below.  So the education researchers in France might not be all bad.  Sorry to say, I have never seen a French education research journal.

 

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When I first began to correspond with Delord, in December of 2001, he told me he had felt himself, until a year or two before, quite alone in France in his concerns about math teaching in the schools.  There already were organizations with email lists and web pages opposed to official doctrine in reading and writing, and to the dilution of curriculum in general, but none as yet devoted to math in particular.  Reading some American web pages, Delord came into contact with Wu, Askey and a few others, and little by little saw a way to approach the French authorities (who had recently nearly ended his teaching career) with his petitions, via his own web page and by building an organization similar to Mathematicallycorrect. 

 

Delord reads English well, and can write in English, too, though at some cost in time, much like my trying to write in French.  Still, I write to him in what I conceive to be French, as often as I have courage and energy, and he tries out his English when he feels adventurous. He was invited to the NYC Math Forum list but had to give it up after a year for lack of time.

 

When the 2002 Programme was published, then, Delord got up his petition, the “appel” Sauver le Primaire, protesting that Programme to the Ministry of Education. He got it signed by a lot of people, mostly teachers but also a few university professors and even some foreigners.  That’s how I got into all this, when Delord translated his petition into English and asked (on the list K-16 or NYCHOLD) for someone to read his English version to see if it was acceptably done.  I volunteered, and found it excellent if not quite idiomatic; I signed it and so did a few others from this country, Canada and perhaps England.  Not that anyone in the Ministry paid any attention to the petition; but by this means Delord recruited a good number of members of what was to become a standing organization, also with the name SPRIM.

 

By 2003 Delord and the mathematician Jean Pierre Demailly, with a rather more select crew of associates (fewer than forty),  formed an opposition group called GRIP (Interdisciplinary Group for the Study of  the School Standards). Its interest is the entire curriculum, not just math or the Primaire.  GRIP has a public web site,  http://grip.ujf-grenoble.fr., and last year (5 July 2005) it was officially recognized as a non-profit Association under the Law of 1901. 

 

(Everything you do in France is by virtue of some law or other, always named by giving its date, sometimes down to the day.  Example: "DEFENSE D'AFFICHER", as anyone who has visited France will surely recall, invariably comes with "Loi de 29 Juillet 1881" in explanation, affixed to the same wall, just below the command that denies the legality of its presence there.)

 

Among the members of GRIP are mathematicians, J. P. Demailly, its President, among them; and school teachers and former teachers at all levels, Michel Delord (Vice President) and Marc Le Bris prominent among these.  There are also teachers and university professors of physics, philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, etc., and even a former Inspector.  Le Bris is the author of a 2004 book of his experiences in the public schools:  And Your Children Will Neither Read Nor Calculate. Though GRIP concerns itself with K-12 education generally, it seems to have a particular interest in science and math.  Delord has signed up some foreigners as “Corresponding members”; these all are mathematicians: Tony Gardiner in England, Klaus Hoechsmann in Canada, Garth Gaudry in Australia, Ron Aharoni in Israel and me in the USA.  (I don’t see Wilfried Schmid on the list of members, though he has had some dealings with it.)  GRIP has an email list, too, from which I learn a lot. 

 

The first formal, public action of GRIP was to issue a manifesto, Fundamental Knowledge Needed for the Future of Science and Technology, with Laurent Lafforgue as one of the main authors.  Lafforgue is a Fields Medalist, and while not a member of GRIP though friendly with its leadership and ideals, he does serve as an eminence grise, occasionally writing something that gets communicated to us from above, as it were.  He writes very well, and the Fundamental Knowledge document was mainly written by him and Demailly, though it bears a few other signatures of note, including those of J.P. Serre and Alain Connes, both Fields Medalists.  Who exactly is or was the original audience for this document is not clear to me.  I believe it had been written, or written in another form, before being discussed as a founding document for the GRIP, which it now is.  It has an Appendix containing reproductions of a bit of Delord’s school work in his childhood, which may then be compared with a “modern” 4th grade math text in which one is taught to divide 650 by 24 by subtracting 24 from 650 a sufficient number of times, one by one, a method popular here, too.  Another page of a currently favored French textbook states, with a picture, that the perpendicular bisectors of the sides of a triangle meet in a single point, the center of the circumscribed circle.  No hint of proof is given, nor any indication that such a thing would be desirable.  You can find this document and much else at Delord's own web site:  http://michel.delord.free.fr/index.html.  Some of the Delord site contains things in English, which is not the case for the GRIP site.

 

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One more important acronym is SLECC, for Savoir Lire, Ecrire, Compter et Calculer.  (In plain English: “Let’s hear it for the three R’s!”)  This acronym names the current major project of the GRIP, and indeed is the reason for GRIP’s having taken the legal step of becoming an “Association loi de 1901”.  SLECC itself is a group of people, teachers in the primary schools, who are participating in this project, and who communicate with each other and the world mainly via the list SPRIM (“Sauver le Primaire”, remember?), and it is from reading this list that I have come to understand something of the French educational politics as seen from below. Primaire is all that SLECC deals with, whereas GRIP is all K-12, and in particular is interested in the college-bound, which of course is an ever increasing part of the public.  But all these groups have the common goal of preserving literacy, whichever fragment of that public concerns them.  It is apparent that GRIP hopes to extend its current project (SLECC) from the Primaire to the higher grades, and in the near future.

 

For now, led by Delord and Marc Le Bris, SLECC has coalesced from a bunch of teachers dissatisfied with the dictates of the National Inspectorate, and of the Programme of 2002 limiting the math and reading they can teach, and has incorporated itself into an official “Experimental” group legally in a position to apply for national grant money under the aegis of the GRIP and the Law of 1901.  Le Bris is the leader of the effort, though Delord seems up to now to have put in most of the organizational leg work.

 

Many SLECC members a year or so ago were already busily subverting the official decrees where they could, by teaching forbidden things like phonics and arithmetic, not just as a matter of conscience or for the love of defiance but in preparation for an official standing GRIP had applied for in June (2005) and had reason to believe would be given.  For SLECC had the support of very important people in high reaches in and out of the government of Jacques Chirac, one of them (not in the government) being Laurent Lafforgue, whose titles (Fields Medalist and Member of the Institute, to begin with) carry more dignity and authority in France than membership in the Institute for Advanced Study and a Fields Medal would carry here.  In Congress, I mean, and The White House.

 

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Last spring, then, under the leadership of Jean Pierre Demailly, mathematician and President of GRIP, SLECC began to set up a model curriculum of its own, resembling the 1945 French Programme in math, reading and writing, and whatever in geography and literature (etc.) one can place in those grades.  The program for the first two grades is largely written, since this was the most urgent need if SLECC was to get started in the classroom last fall.  To say that 1945 dates the basic Programme is really to say that SLECC is reverting to a Programme that was fairly stable from 1882 to 1945, 1882 being the year, when Jules Ferry initiated the modern French system of universal secular primary education. (I have heard it said that the Inspectorate was established then for more than observation of teaching effectiveness, but to make sure the Church didn’t smuggle some of its doctrine into the schools of the Republic.)

 

Written out in some detail, and accompanied with a full list of the teachers who, scattered around France, intended to teach it, and with other legal details including a request for some modest financial support, the proposal was submitted to DESCO (Department of school instruction, of the education ministry, at 110 rue de Grenelles in Paris) for formal approval for the year 2005-2006 as an “experimental” project (loi de 2002).  “Rue de Grenelles” is often shorthand for the ministry of education, much as “10 Downing Street” is sometimes a name for the British prime ministry.  It is quite a nice street.

 

Justice is not fast, goes a common French saying, and while Demailly and Delord got friendly noises from Rue de Grenelle, the fall term of 2005 had to do without a formal mandate. Most of its members, those who could get away with it, began teaching it anyway (Grades 1-2 to begin with), after having attended an SLECC "summer school" the previous summer.  (A truly cooperative effort: Nobody got paid to attend or teach in that summer school, imagine!)  In the fall, when some teachers of forbidden lore were having trouble with the Inspectorate, or the local administrations (DESCO), a kindly official directly under the Minister of Education wrote a formal letter to SLECC saying that to do this (teach arithmetic and reading by 1945 standards) was all right, and had the blessing of the Rue de Grenelles for any teacher who secured the permission of the local office of DESCO (the administrative branch of Education Nationale, remember?).  Some did get that permission, some didn't, but those who had trouble generally won when they produced copies of the comforting letter, even though they were not (yet) decrees of the Ministry. Delord organized all this, reproducing copies of the letters wholesale, along with copies of the syllabi and so on, an enormous task, since he was also compiling lists of members and their addresses.  And recruiting.  And posting his philosophical discourses on his web page.  And answering questions from disturbed teachers, sometimes comforting them, on the SPRIM list.  And waiting for the Ministerial decree declaring SLECC a formal "Research experiment" permitted under the Law of 1901.

 

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As mentioned above, one of the points of national contention, going back to before 2002, had to do with phonics, which had been forbidden as a method of teaching reading before the decree of that year, which had improved things slightly by saying rather vaguely that teachers could pursue what methods they liked (the “academic freedom” clause), in whatever they taught. Last fall, in answer to a question in the National Assembly (during a scheduled "question time" as in London), the present Minister, Gilles de Robien (b.1941, lawyer and politician and refreshingly not up from the educational trenches at all), was asked if he really wanted teachers to use phonics rather than "global" (i.e. whole language) instruction, and replied "Sure thing" or words to that effect, and that his office was composing a corresponding decree.  And so it did (3 January 2006).  The embarrassed “global” reading advocates, as soon as he made that startling statement in the Assembly, came back with three sorts of defenses of their own position:

 

1.  There was no problem; global methods hasn’t been used in ages, just ages. Shocking that anyone should have thought otherwise.  Nor has “global” been required by  the Inspectorate, since it should be well-known that since the publication of the 2002 Programme we have been using a “balanced” approach, and not ignoring the “decoding” method at all. Hardly anyone fails to use the sounds of the alphabet, and the majority of textbooks now in use pay close attention to these syllabic features of the reading process.  Besides, the illiteracy rate in France is no different from that in other European countries.  So what was all the hullabaloo about?;

2.  A Ministerial decree specifying a particular method of teaching reading is inconsistent with the 2002 decree saying teachers could use what methods they saw appropriate.  Robien should shut up.

3.  We all have the welfare of the children at heart.  “Methods” of teaching in Grades 1 and 2 are not all that important, since the Kindergarten and pre-school grades, not to mention Grades 3-5, where real literature reinforced reading ability, count for a great deal.  What is important is to take to heart all the research of the past thirty years, and bring our children up to be good citizens of the Republic.

 

(I have taken Points (1) and (3) above from a manifesto issued by a consortium of teachers’ unions, instructors in the teachers’ colleges (IUFMs) former Education department officers, etc, and signed by persons whose names have frequently been mentioned in the GRIP and SPRIM emails as having written articles and books of constructivist bent.  Point (2) appeared in a newspaper column and could carry weight if “phonics” is construed as a “method” of teaching and not a “subject” of knowledge. My paraphrase of the columnist’s disdain for Giles de Robien, conservative Minister of Education, is accurate.)

 

Arguments of this sort filled the op-ed pages and were reproduced in Café Pédagogique for a few days and then died down.  In truth, none of this matters to SLECC, which can use its own syllabus, and which hopes that a few years will show a sufficient difference between the experimental classes' test scores and those of the rest of the country to be convincing.  It would have been nice if SLECC could have had a grant of money to help it on its way, a grant for which GRIP asked as part of its formal proposal to the Ministry; but from the summer of 2005 through the following winter SLECC worked out of Delord's dining room or maybe front yard in summer, and the administrative costs of mail correspondence, photocopy and travel were borne by him as well.

 

Over the course of this period there were other interesting developments in the relationship of the mathematics community, and of mathematics teaching in the early grades, too, with the national government and its education establishment.  It should be mentioned that there is, as there always is in France, a political backdrop to all this.  The year 2002 saw the last major revision of the Programme, in the direction of easing up on requirements, and while that Programme is still in effect it was what the opponents of “soft” education hoped was the swan song of the Jospin administration.  In April all the politics changed:  Chirac, a conservative by French standards, was elected President of France, replacing Jospin, and the following parliamentary elections also favored his conservative party. 

 

The new administration, with Luc Ferry the new (2002) Minister of education, took immediate steps to decentralize the educational establishment, a reorganization that involved the loss of thousands of jobs.  Naturally, there were protests in the streets and strikes of this and that union, but the government held firm.  There were no immediate changes in curriculum, however.  For this, the Ministry had a new idea:  In the spring of 2003 it unleashed what it believed to be a way of enlisting the whole country in establishing a new era in national education:  A National Debate. 

 

A Commission on the National Debate on the Future of the Schools was appointed in September of 2003; it was an enormous Commission, 33 members, plus five “parliamentary associates” and five lawyers (I don’t know why).  The genuine members ranged in degree from former ministers to a professor of cuisine; no part of the population went unrepresented.  Claude Thélot, a distinguished engineer with many previous services in government and the universities, was chairman.  The Minister (Luc Ferry) himself was no politician, but a professor of philosophy with many books to his credit.  He was noted for his rejection of the deconstructionist babble of the academy of the era generally called “1968”, of Lacan and all that.  Things began to look better for education.

 

The Thélot Commission composed 22 good questions for the public to think about, both posted on the internet and printed in many thousands of pamphlets for nationwide distribution, including excellent summaries of the fine points at issue in each question.  The Commission spent six weeks publicizing them all, with talk show appearances and editorials in the papers.  For the next two months 13,000 public meetings were held, in every corner of the country, in schools and town halls, meetings administered by local school or other government officials but each one carefully arranged to have an independent leader of discussion, “independent” meaning not a member of the System.  It would be a prominent local citizen, a lawyer, judge, business man…   Even the schools were dismissed for a couple of days for these meetings. Each meeting discussed whichever of the 22 questions it wished to, or had time for, and the leader then wrote a report synthesizing the views of his meeting and sent it to Paris, where a further great collating and synthesizing was to take place.  A typical meeting would report on five to ten of the questions, the ones that locality considered the most urgent for them.

 

In addition, the Commission web site accepted written opinions from everyone who chose to use his computer to write one.  To do this was easy, and there were 12,000 of these received by the time the Great Debate was over.  The site published (posted) many of the typical submissions received, and the process was as transparent and democratic as possible. The Great Debate ran for two months, November 2003 to January 2004.  The following two months were spent “synthesizing” the results, so that in March the Commission could begin its final study of the nation’s needs and desires, to issue its Report on 15 September 2004.  If the National Education Ministry were to publish any serious amendment to the Decree of 2002, it would certainly have had plenty of input. 

 

Finally, the Thélot commission took personal testimony from representatives of concerned organizations, such as unions of teachers, of industries, scholarship and so on, much as an American Congressional committee hears from lobbyists and experts when considering new legislation.  And Demailly and Delord, representing GRIP and SLECC, made a presentation of their own, urging an old-fashioned program of the SLECC sort, with some detail.

 

The 22 questions covered the ground quite well.  How should we motivate our students?  How should we accomodate students whose home language is not French?  How should we maintain good order in the schools?  Role of parents?  What minimal (“common”) curriculum?  What special attention to the failing students?

 

It was a grand debate all right, but you could have written the report yourselves, any of you who are reading this far.  The Thélot report (found in both French and English at http://www.debatnational.education.fr/index.php?rid=76)   was boiler-plate, in favor of good order, motivation, a demanding curriculum that everyone can pass, and with parental input welcomed.  The report did contain some hard demographic information, however, in that it published the number of reports it had received for each of the 22 questions, thus indicating which questions were most on the mind of the public. Curriculum came in a poor sixth, after such problems as motivation of students, maintenance of good order, and “diversity”.

 

Not much in the way of a new Programme emerged, at least immediately, following the end of the Great Debate.  Though the report did ask for a common minimum curriculum, it was vague, asking, for example, for “mastery of the French language” by the end of – I’ve forgotten just which grade, not that it matters, since “mastery” itself is a matter for debate.  As it was clear that a national minimum curriculum had to be established, the government decided to form a new advisory committee to do this.  And more.

 

Early in 2005, the National Assembly created, replacing what under the preceding law was a pair of such high-ranking councils for setting priorities for the Ministry of Education, a new High Council of Education (HCE), to study the virtues and failings of the current educational system and make recommendations, indeed, commands, to the Education Nationale, which would be obligated under the law to be bound by HCE dicta in its advisories, which are issued at an average rate of between one of two a month, even when the full-scale “loi” (France is still under that loi de 2002, as occasionally amended) hasn’t changed .  The nine members of the HCE were appointed in a legislated fashion:  three by the President of the Republic, two by the Senate, two by the Deputies, one by this and one by that. The appointed members were announced in the spring of 2005 and were all well-known figures in French intellectual and artistic life (its President, for example, is Bruno Racine, Director of the Pompidou Center in Paris), and one of them, one of the three appointed by the President of the Republic himself, was Laurent Lafforgue.

 

At last, one of our own in a very high place!  This HCE was instructed, as its first task, to create a new national "basic learnings" list for K-12. Called a "socle" in French, it intends to be something much shorter and pointed than a Programme, but so definite that future edicts and advisories cannot avoid it.  (The literal meaning of “socle” is “base”, usually referring to the stone base on which a statue or other monument is erected.) Well, Lafforgue was only one of nine, and while most members came from the universities or business, science and the arts more directly, at least one of them is a high official in the national Inspectorate (and earlier was the Inspector General of one of  the Academies), and another HCE member also had close ties with the system, so that there was bound to be trouble, given Lafforgue’s well-known disdain for the entire establishment.

 

In preparation for its first meeting (last November), Racine put out an agenda explaining that the HCE was going to begin its studies by appointing a commission of Experts in Education to guide the Commission of which he was President.  These Experts were of course to be drawn from the knowledgeable officials of the current Education Nationale (e.g. the chiefs of the national Inspectorate, the IREM [educational research institutes], the IUFM [teachers colleges] and so on, plus some correspondingly high foreign education experts.

Though Racine’s Agenda didn’t say so, the Experts were clearly going to instruct the HCE concerning an appropriate “socle”.

 

At this Lafforgue blew up, and wrote a blistering letter to Racine explaining that it was exactly the failure of these so-called experts that had led to the creation of a NON-"Expert" HCE to fix the problem, and that calling on the usual experts would be akin to asking the Khmer Rouge for advice on human rights in France.

 

(An English translation of this letter can be found on Delord’s web page, at http://michel.delord.free.fr/mailll.pdf.)

 

Lafforgue said other pungent things in this private letter (private within the HCE, that is; he sent copies to the other seven members), though the pungent part was followed with a lengthy constructive part that the newspapers (once it was leaked) tended to ignore. In his letter Lafforgue particularly called attention to Marc Le Bris’s 2004 book with its own inflammatory title, Your Children Will Know Neither How to Read Nor Calculate, and to the web site of Michel Delord, for further information on the current state of French education and what needs to be done about it.  He called current directives for both reading and math instruction “insane”, and proposed, in outline and by reference to some books he named, replacements. 

 

Cultural sidelight:  In his letter, Lafforgue wrote, “…I recommend the internet site of Michel Delord, a simple middle-school math teacher but one who has an impressive knowledge of the history of our educational system.”  High praise; I would myself had felt honored if he had mentioned my web page, whatever label he placed on my position or career.  But in America nobody, not even a genius, would have dared to say “a simple middle-school math teacher”; it would be teacher-bashing and would put an American Lafforgue in the elitist dog-house forever.  Not so in France.  Lafforgue is French, where a Fields medallist and Academician is entitled to imagine himself less “simple” than a school teacher.  Furthermore, in this particular letter, from beginning to end, Lafforgue insisted on placing accuracy ahead of diplomacy: When he wrote of the willful “destruction” of the French educational system he was giving Racine the straight facts.  If in interpreting this letter Racine had a right to know Lafforgue was an Academician and Fields medallist, he also had a right to know who Delord was.  Delord’s web page – had Racine consulted it instead of firing Lafforgue – would have told him the rest.

 

Within the hour the letter was leaked -- all over the Ministry of Education, IUFMs, Inspectorate and the newspapers -- and after a few conferences in Paris Lafforgue resigned from the HCE.  (Lafforgue’s web page contains a statement of the exact circumstances of his being persuaded to resign, and other things relative to his letter as well, but all in French:  http://www.ihes.fr/~lafforgue.  (Delord’s web page has an English translation of Lafforgue’s public explanation of why he resigned.)

 

The President of France, Jacques Chirac, accepted the letter of resignation graciously after thinking it over for a few weeks.  (Naturally there had been a petition to him, led by GRIP and SPRIM, asking him not to accept the resignation, but, as expected, it suffered the fate of most "Appel"s.)  Chirac’s letter also said that he appreciated Lafforgue's efforts in behalf of school education, and his lively criticisms, and hoped and expected the HCE to have the benefit of his views in the future even though had had chosen to leave his position there.  We hope so too.

 

This "Affaire Lafforgue" occupied the Delord forces last fall, all the while the SLECC "Experiment" was getting underway, but much has calmed down by now.  The HCE, however, with a new ninth member to replace Lafforgue, was still in process of producing a socle, for which they had a deadline in March, 2006; and it presumably was taking the advice of its panel of Experts.  (The French for "Expert" is "Expert".)  GRIP with good reason expected a constructivist-dominated socle and is therefore producing a counter-socle of its own; but the public debate on that one has not really begun, and of course could not begin before the HCE version became edict.  One wag, when a draft version began circulating last winter, wrote of it, “It is not a base (“socle”); it’s a stump.”

 

After a draft version had been known to the GRIP for some weeks, the final version of the socle was published on 23 March 2006.  In my own view its prescriptions for the learning of French are pretty good, and include explicit requirement of the teaching of grammar (though “in context”, a possible way out for those who oppose systematic grammar lessons); but there can be no getting around the socle’s explicit demand for the “dictée”, proper spelling, and the memorization of classical texts, as once was traditional in French schooling.  In mathematics, however, the HCE managed to finesse some of the important issues, while making grand sounds concerning mathematical reasoning and arithmetic competence. Calculators don’t rate a mention, for example, neither one way nor another, though manipulatives and situated lessons for the early grades are asked for.  Along with explicit mention of the importance of applications, probability in particular, the math part insists on the importance of “proof” in mathematics at all levels, of “proportionality, i.e. “the rule of 3”, and of graphs. So much for the socle, which of course has to be fleshed out by decrees from the Education Nationale.  That debate comes next.

 

Now, SLECC  during January and February had an official permission to exist and, albeit not yet sanctioned by an official decree of the Minister of Education, and still a bit uncertain in some locations, it at least had permission to conduct its experiment if local DESCO officials didn’t forbid it.  Many of its participants did begin the program, some covertly beginning with the fall term of 2005 and until March 10, 2006, when a Ministerial announcement silenced the demurring Inspectors.  Now it is written: the Cabinet of the Minister has formally approved the petition of SLECC, recognizing its members, whose names had been filed in Paris, and approving its curriculum for Grades 1 and 2 also as filed in the petition for recognition as an Experimental Program. 

 

That curriculum, more detailed than any “socle”, by the way, is based on the national Programme for 1945 as I understand it; but wherever the words came from they describe what any sensible person would ask for those grades. The petition also included a brief statement of curriculum expectations for Grades 3,4, and 5, and the decree which recognizes SLECC’s Grade 1 and 2 format also looks forward to including the next three grades if conditions at some future date warrant that.  The whole Primaire! These curriculum expectations include using really old-fashioned texts and methods, including the all-but-defunct “dictée” for learning French and the paper-and-pencil procedures for the full-scale arithmetic of rational numbers in fraction and decimal notations.  Applications of arithmetic will occur throughout.

 

I should mention something about the “dictée”; it is more than the corresponding exercise in English, though its definition is the same:  The teacher reads aloud and the students write it down.  In English of course this is a valuable thing to do, but it doesn’t really teach much about grammar, which in English is mainly conveyed by word order and some easily heard regularities in verb forms. An English “dictée” doesn’t teach as much, and can’t diagnose as much, as a French one.

 

In French there are spellings that don’t get heard at all, a final unpronounced “e”, or “s” for example, which can only be got right by the listener if he knows the grammatical structure of what he is hearing.  Explaining the reasons for these silent changes in spelling is a large part of the teaching of French grammar; students who get these things wrong simply don’t understand what they are hearing.  Thus there are possibilities for the destruction of the ability to read in France that we don’t enjoy in this country, and the French educational establishment with its notions of “natural” learning has been taking full advantage of them, the discouragement of the dictée and of memorization of classic texts being the main ones. 

 

In addition to the permission to experiment thus, using the teachers signed on to SLECC and the Grades 1 and 2 programs indicated, and others as will be added by next fall, the Ministry is granting SLECC 15,000 Euros (about $18,000) for expenses for the present year, and is recognizing Le Bris and Delord as President and Vice President of the organization.  Local authorities are instructed to grant Le Bris a 100% relief from his teaching duties in 2006-2007, and Delord a 50% reduction.  At least, this is how I interpret the unfamiliar technical word “décharge” used in the communication I have read, which is a letter from Demailly to the GRIP list, which did not quote the whole official notice from the Ministry.  All the Rectors of the Academies (the school districts) have been informed of official action of the Cabinet of the Minister of Education approving the SLECC experiment.

 

Obviously the Minister himself approves the project, and it is clear to me that this is not just the equivalent of a minor NSF-EHR grant,  despite the modest appropriation so far in Euros and partial salaries, but a certain sign that at least part of the French government, if not the HCE, is acquainted with the failings of its current education experts and hopes to gather evidence, via SLECC, supporting a reform of the entire national Programme.

 

I have no idea what, if any, “research” will accompany the SLECC program.  The Proposal was a mere letter (though of some length) detailing the purpose of the project, the curricular material SLECC will be using, the names of the participants, the manner of record-keeping, etc.  It cannot help but track the progress of its students in national exams, of course, but whether its (unannounced) control group is the whole rest of the nation or is scientifically matched to its participants I don’t really know.  One thing we can all find out from this project, even without controls, is whether arithmetic algorithms, phonics and dictées curdle children’s brains, softening them and denying their addicts the higher order thinking skills enjoyed by those who have managed to avoid them.

 

As the SLECC participants are coming into the home stretch of the first year, which last September got off to a ragged and barely legal start, they are preparing for the next year, beginning with a big conference in the town of Gien in the chateau country of the Loire, to take place  the weekend of April 21-23, 2006.  There will be about forty participants, mathematicians and master teachers giving papers, and teachers from the ground level taking notes. And the leaders of GRIP and SLECC will plot the future of French education in general, and mathematics and language education in particular. Much of the high brass from the Education Nationale has also been invited, though it appears only one or two will attend.  The meeting will not only be a grand social get-together of SLECC, or folks who communicate by email almost daily, but it will be laying explicit plans for Grades 3 and 4, which will join the experiment in little over a year.

 

France is a small country compared to the USA, and a thing like SLECC is much more visible there than it would be here.  And the idea that a single teacher in each of twenty-five or thirty schools scattered over the country could be part of a unified program, impervious to the opinions and influences of the Principals of the schools affected, sounds impossible here, though perhaps in Grades K-4, where a single teacher governs her class for all academic work it might be managed.  At any rate, it sounds like a good experiment and one worth watching from here.  Now, the eve of the Gien conference, at which many plans for the future of SLECC will be bruited, is a good time to halt this account.  I’ll be back with more news as it breaks.

 

Ralph A. Raimi

19 April 2006