Monday, September 14, 2009

School Daze

When my wife and I moved to Cameroon in 2002, we had two schooling choices for our then five-year old daughter; the American school on the other side of town that cost $10,000 a year or the French school around the corner that cost $2,000. It was, as the French might say, a decision sans cerveau.

However, negotiating our way through the thickets of the French educational system required some very arduous scrambling for which we were completely unprepared.

For example, American school grades ascend logically from K to 12. Not so the French.

Their system starts with a long sequence of at first meaningless abbreviations that evolve into a NASA-like countdown. It goes like this; TPS, PS, MS, GS, CP, CE1, CE2, CM1, CM2, 6ème, 5ème, 4ème, 3ème, 2ème, 1, Terminale. Even Francophones need refresher classes on what these abbreviations mean. The chart below clarifies, even if it doesn't illuminate:

Grade Name Abbreviation

Actual Name of Grade Level

Equivalent in the United States


Toute Petite Section



Petite Section



Moyenne Section



Grande Section



Cours Preparatif

First grade


Cours Elementaire 1

Second grade


Cours Elementaire 2

Third grade


Cours Moyenne 1

Fourth grade


Cours Moyenne 2

Fifth grade



Sixth grade



Seventh grade



Eighth grade



Ninth grade



Tenth grade



Eleventh grade



Twelfth grade

What we also learned is that while standardized testing provokes the passion of religious debate in the U.S., the French have long since determined how best Dick et Jeanne should learn to read - which is pretty much that every student in every French school everywhere in the world should be turning the same page at more or less the same instant. Miraculously, this seems to work and nearly all holders of a French sixth grade education know the difference between the passé composé and the imparfait whereas most American recipients of PhDs in English do not.

Additionally, the French do not play loosey-goosey with grade assignments. If a newly enrolled child will turn five at two minutes before midnight on December 31st, he goes into CP. (The French call it "Say-Pay," probably because they, too, can't remember what the hell all the abbreviations mean.) If the child's birthday falls on January 1st at two minutes past midnight, then it's Grande Section. Point final.

Unlike Americans, the French do not assume that parents are likely to be any more responsible than their children. With rare exceptions, they are all but banned from the classroom. This has the remarkable effect of freeing up hundreds of hours a year for teachers to concentrate on their students rather than on the neuroses of their students' parents.

Parents are still expected to be involved in their children's education by initialing the nearly daily directives that are pasted into each student's texte de jour. While I am not sure what the sanctions are for non-compliance, I believe they are severe and may include having to spend several hours in the close company of dedicated smokers of Gauloises and Gitanes sans filtre.

The French also do not make the mistake of believing that the effectiveness of schooling is directly related to the number of hours of school, the amount of homework assigned, or the weight of a child's cartable (school bag). During our daughter's first five years of French schooling in Cameroon, she had about ten hours of homework - total. This had my wife gravely concerned for her future. To me, it seemed just about right and reminded me a bit of my own elementary school days - except without the snow.

For parents, the real challenge begins in September with preparation for the rentrée. This involves purchasing all the materials specified in long, grade-specific lists. Parents must not only locate these items but also present them to the teacher before the rentrée so that they can be assessed, with any deficiencies identified and rectified - tout de suite.

Deciphering what some of the things are is, for the non-French parent, about as complex as conjugating irregular French verbs in the pluperfect subjunctive. Here, for example, is the list for the fourth grade:

Four notebooks of 192 pages, in large format, with large, ruled squares. Daily notebook to be covered in red, evaluation notebook to be covered in yellow, literature notebook to be covered in green, and English notebook to be covered in purple.

One notebook of 96 pages, small format, large-ruled squares, for essays, to be covered in green.

One notebook of 48 pages, small format, large-ruled squares, for liaison, to be covered in pink.

One notebook of 48 pages, small format, large-ruled squares, for practical work, to be covered in violet.

One daily work calendar book.

One small pad.

One plastic pocket envelop with a leaf.

One portfolio.

One large format binder with five dividers (for history, geography, science and social studies).

Two 50-page packets of A4 paper with large-ruled squares.

One packet of white "Canson" in large format with a paper weight of not less than 120 grams.

10 brightly colored paper sleeves. Do not write the child's name on them.

Five sheets of tracing paper.

Five sheets of millimeter paper.

A box of pens including five blue pens, two black pens, two green pens and one red pen.

A flat, plastic ruler.

A flat, plastic angle.

A pencil.

An eraser.

A compass.

A scissors with rounded ends.

One small chalkboard.

A box of chalk.

A sponge.

A towel for wiping.

A box of 12 colored pencils ("European norm").

A box of 12 felt-tip pens.

A finely tipped #10 paint brush.

A regularly tipped #10 brush.

A ream of A4 paper of not less than 80-gram weight.

A role of plastic (for covering text books).

A pot of glue.

A school bag.

Never wishing to cut their vacation short by a single day, the French can be counted on to find all this stuff by laying siege to supply stores just before the rentrée. The closest cinematic equivalent would be the Oklahoma Land Rush as staged by Ron Howard in Far and Away - minus the horses and wagons. Comparatively speaking, a clearance sale at Filene's is a stroll in the park as parents rifle the shelves looking for the protège cahier grand format violet, a thin, textured plastic notebook cover which is always out of stock. (My thinking on this is that all French retailers are in cahoots and in mid-August gather in a room filled with smoke, Armagnac and lingerie models where they decide to send all the protège cahier grand format violet to one store and all the cahiers grand format to another store located as far away as possible yet in the same municipality. In this way, every vendor is assured of his piece of Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité.)

This year, for example, I was able to find all of the required supplies at a single store - except for the protèges cahier grand format violet, vert and jaune. That required stopping at several other stores - most of which turned out to have plenty of protège cahier petit format in the missing colors but not in grand format.

Finally fully equipped, I reported to Maitresse Veronique, our daughter's teacher, who dutifully ticked each item off her long list. When, at the end of each of the first three days of school, we asked our daughter what she had done in school that day, to no surprise, she answered, "We wrote our names on our supplies."

Someday an American entering the French system for the first time will rally other parents to petition the French Ministry of Education to revise what is clearly a regressive, non-egalitarian tax on the families of school-age children. After spending several years failing to move the French bureaucracy a millimeter, this American will then take it upon herself to form a company that will bundle all the materials required for each grade in a single box that includes all the correct sizes and colors of protège cahier. A large political debate will then break out among the French who will agonize over who was responsible for letting an American undermine a vital aspect of their cultural heritage while wondering what they can do to stop the onslaught.

On the brighter side, once parents have purchased everything, they can look forward to having nearly no involvement in their children's education for the rest of the year aside from three short parent-teacher meetings before each of the major holidays. Our daughter's generally favorable evaluations haven't prevented my wife from worrying that by the time she reaches Terminale she'll be 13 years behind her American contemporaries. Most parents, however, seem to be comfortable with the French system. After all, nearly every French-educated child knows that Canada is a large, North American country whereas most American children believe it is simply a hockey association.

On the downside, the French approach to childhood education can engender a certain parental lassitude. For example, despite streams of red ink adorning my daughter's fourth grade cahiers, I remained unconcerned because her teacher was unconcerned. Only much later did I learn that fourth grade students are required to write all upper case letters in red and all lower case letters in blue. How this benefits anyone other than the Bic family, I have no idea. But as long as the French continue to produce marvelous butter and excellent pastries at reasonable prices, I couldn't care less. It seems, after all, a small price to pay for having a well-educated child.

A version of this story appeared in the September/October 2008 edition of Stanford magazine.

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