Education journalists from some 40 countries gathered here in the suburbs of Paris last week to share information and insights about the education systems in one another’s countries.
The International Forum for Educational Press was the brainchild of Emmanuel Davidenkoff, a newspaper and radio reporter in France. Helping him organize FIEP, as the organization is being informally called by its French acronym, were Laurence Albert, an education journalist for the daily Paris-based financial newspaper Les Echos; Emmanuelle Bastide, a journalist for Radio France Internationale; and Brigitte Perucca, the editor of Le Monde de L’Education, a monthly education supplement to the French daily.
The journalists conceived the idea of the conference after realizing that they were knowledgeable about education in their own country but knew very little about what was going on elsewhere, said Mr. Davidenkoff, who works for the daily Libération and provides radio commentary on France Info, a public radio station. If we have problems understanding some issues, he said the thinking among them went, maybe our colleagues in other countries are in the same situation.
The foursome eventually took their concept to the Centre International d’Études Pédagogiques. A division of the French Ministry of Education, the pedagogy center helped organize and hosted the event at its campus here, once the home of Madame de Pompadour, a mistress of King Louis XV, as well as an artisans’ studio for the production of fine china.
In attendance were journalists from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America, including such regions of the world as the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Regardless of their levels of prosperity, the countries face many of the same issues, such as academic-achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic groups, teacher shortages, and rising college costs. But other problems affect only the less-developed countries: schools without drinking water or toilets.
At the conclusion of the May 19-21 meeting, participants agreed to try to continue FIEP in some fashion. At a minimum, the organization is expected to live on virtually through the Web. Representatives from a half-dozen countries also plan to meet in the coming months to explore the feasibility of future gatherings.
No Easy Answers
The center invited education experts from around the world to talk at the conference about the mutual issues countries encounter. One session focused on the results of the Program for International Student Assessment, and featured Andreas Schleicher, the Paris-based coordinator of the exam, and Jouni Välilärvi, who heads the PISA project in Finland, where students score at the top of the world rankings.
Another session brought together educators from Senegal and the World Bank to discuss what makes an effective school. Two other sessions dealt largely with higher education issues, including the “brain drain” in which Western nations recruit talented individuals away from developing countries.
Though there were no easy answers , the issues did provoke some lively discussions. At the session on mobility, for example, two Indian journalists engaged in a heated exchange on just how inadequate the education system is in their country.
A National Sport for Parents?
One day of the conference was devoted to site visits. When journalists visit schools in the course of their jobs, they are generally steered toward those considered to be the best. But in this instance, the journalists were taken to schools in a “priority education zone,” carved out of poor communities.
French schools in such zones are the beneficiaries of “positive discrimination” that provides extra resources from the government, Ms. Perucca explained.
The zones were created in 1981 by the Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand, whose party had returned to power after a lengthy absence and was eager to do something progressive, she said. Across France, about 20 percent of students are educated in such schools.
At the Ecole Primaire Pablo Picasso in the Corbeil-Essonnes region, Pascal Dejoux, the regional education officer, cited a number of improvements that have taken place. The teacher-turnover rate three years ago was about 30 percent, he said, and is now 22 percent. Students are scoring close to the national average on achievement tests, according to Mr. Dejoux. And violent incidents in the school have dropped from 120 incidents a decade ago to one last year, he said.
Many of the schools also offer activities from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., before the academic day begins, and after school, from 4:30 to 7 p.m. The activities are the responsibility of the local municipal council.
Overall, though, Ms. Perucca pointed out, there have been very few changes in the schools despite the extra resources. “It’s become something of a national sport for parents to avoid these zones,” she said through an interpreter.
The schools look much like American ones, though there are one or two things you wouldn’t find in a U.S. school. In the courtyard of the Lycée Robert Doisneau, a high school, stands a nude statue. And even though lunch looked like what you’d get anywhere in the States, the visitors were served wine with their salads, french fries, and beef.