French Education Is Failing Its Most Talented Students

(Bloomberg View) -- In the 21st century, a country’s gifted children are arguably a more valuable natural resource than, say, oil or gas. A new study shows that France is largely wasting this precious resource.

The study is by Laurence Vaivre-Douret, a professor of neuropsychology at the University of Paris; it was presented at a recent conference organized by the ministry of education and has not yet been published. It found that 39 percent of French gifted children are medically depressed, versus 2 percent for the general population of children. More than 80 percent in the sample are diagnosed with anxiety. More than a fifth of the gifted children in the study were deemed a suicide risk.

As the author notes, there is reason to be cautious about these results: In France gifted children are typically only identified as such after encountering social or other difficulties that lead to testing, which biases the sample. There is no mechanism for identifying gifted children early, as exists in the U.S. and other countries. Still, the findings are quite alarming -- and, to me, not in the least bit surprising.

While some of the struggles of gifted children are doubtless universal (“intelligence itself is a cause of anxiety,” the author notes, almost metaphysically), there is also something systemically wrong here. According to a 2012 study, only a third of gifted children earn a university degree, and fully 70 percent experience failure in school. Something in their environment is failing them.

France’s system of education emphasizes rote memorization rather than creativity, curiosity or self-expression. That might seem to play to the strengths of the talented, but gifted children are often bored by rote schoolwork and stop applying themselves. Because most parents are unaware of the particular struggles of gifted children and most school teachers refuse to be, the child is then branded a problem. Too often, the young child internalizes this perception and simply stops trying, or rebels against the institution.

Another long-standing feature of the French system compounds the problem: An extreme egalitarianism holds that every child must be treated exactly the same, regardless of individual need. France’s monolithic education system combines a rigid conservative mindset inherited from its hallowed 19th century roots with the worst of the progressive mindset, inherited from the May 1968 protests, when left-wing teachers’ unions essentially wrested control of the education ministry from politicians. What results is a system that disserves both the under-performing and the gifted.

Private schools are no different: Under the so-called “contract” system, the vast majority of private schools get subsidies from the government, but must use government-mandated curricula, textbooks and methods. And because private schools compete largely on the basis of test scores, it leads to an even greater emphasis on rote learning, and they have much more freedom to expel a child deemed problematic than public schools. Truly independent schools are very rare and out of the reach of most pocketbooks.

I am hardly a neutral observer. As a child, I was part of the inaugural class of the first middle school for the gifted to open in the Paris area, and the second nationwide, after having already skipped three grades. A majority of my classmates came from schools where the teachers had told the parents that their children were mentally deficient and would never amount to anything, and experienced a transformation once they were in an environment where their challenges were recognized. Parents made extensive sacrifices to send their children to the school because they had seen the damage of the traditional system.

A profile of Julien, 13, by the daily Libération, is chilling. Julien was failing in school; he was found to have an IQ of 146 only because his teacher believed him to be mentally deficient and wanted to have him tested for disabilities. School staff dismissed the test results and subjected him to public humiliation in the classroom, which predictably led to bullying by classmates, until he was transferred on a school psychiatrist’s recommendation to a prison-like school for children with severe mental or behavioral problems. He ended up hurting himself and was hospitalized on a suicide watch, and could only become functional again after his mother homeschooled him, at tremendous personal cost. This story fits with countless other stories I witnessed personally, down to specifics like teachers dismissing medical diagnoses as fake, or tracking children to absurdly counterproductive options like programs for deficient or violent children.

Of course, this problem also deepens France’s painful social divisions. A white child who acts out because he’s bored to death in class might catch a break whereas similarly disruptive behavior from an Arab or black child might be interpreted very differently. Parents of higher socioeconomic status would be much more likely than working-class parents to lobby the bureaucracy for help or explore more enlightened schools.

In France’s education ministry, there is a deep, entrenched belief that any difference in treatment for children jeopardizes public schools’ bedrock value of equality. These mandarins are a minority, but a large minority, and they hold the key posts in the ministry and the unions, giving them enormous influence over things like promotion boards and guideline-drafting committees, perpetuating their control and cowing the pragmatic silent majority.

Macron is limited in his options for responding. The education ministry has essentially been independently run since May 1968. Unlucky former education ministers such as Claude Allègre and Luc Ferry have described the bargain incoming ministers face: feel free to pursue cosmetic changes and take all the credit, but anything else will result in crippling strikes. Macron’s savvy education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, has already expended significant political capital on reforming the school-leaving exam, and shows little interest in further significant reform.

Still, there are signs of hope. Since 2009, every regional school district has a point person for gifted education issues. An increasing number of public schools now have special programs for gifted children, who can customize their own curriculum, attend classes at various levels and even engage in self-study. Jean-Marc Huart, the senior civil servant at the education ministry, recently declared that the ministry wants to “shift gears” in its approach. In 2017, the Paris school district created a special team whose job is to train teachers and administrators on gifted education, and assist them in creating special options for them. These moves look modest, and they are, but they were previously unthinkable.

They are possible because the generation shaped by May 1968 is retiring and the pragmatists are slowly climbing up the ranks. Over the past 15 years, and after much internal resistance, French schools have made tremendous strides recognizing and adapting to learning disorders such as dyslexia, thereby implicitly solidifying the notion that offering different options for different needs is not necessarily a betrayal of egalitarianism. After decades of France spending ever more money on education while its schools keep sliding down the rankings, the need for reform is hard to ignore even inside the Politburo.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a Paris-based writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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