Equity & Diversity

A Question of Priorities

By Caroline Hendrie — October 31, 2006 11 min read
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It’s not hard to imagine what a newly assigned teacher from the French provinces might feel when first setting foot in Collège Maurice Thorez.

Located in the heart of a public-housing complex with a particularly forbidding reputation, the 720-student school is a far cry from the Louvre, the Champs Élysées, and the other glittering Parisian destinations most Americans associate with France.

Each September brings a flood of new faces to the four-building campus, and not just the usual influx of students. Freshly minted teachers arrive from all corners of the country to replace the large contingent that decamped the previous spring. Though the Eiffel Tower is just seven miles away, many new recruits face a culture shock when they land in the Cité du Clos Saint-Lazare, the housing complex whose faded facades loom beyond the schools’ peeling iron fence.

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“At the end of a year, they take off,” lamented Ali Ben Youssef, who at 33 is the school’s senior math teacher. “And then, everything starts over at zero.”

This year, though, staff members feel they might finally have the means to reduce their sky-high rate of teacher turnover, as well as the discipline problems, low student-achievement levels, and other challenges that help drive their colleagues away.

The campus has been designated as one of 249 middle schools nationwide granted special priority under an initiative announced after a wave of street violence a year ago that riveted international attention on poor neighborhoods such as Clos Saint-Lazare and the largely immigrant families that live in them.

Listen to an interview with Assistant Managing Editor Caroline Hendrie about her recent visit to France to report on the impact on the country’s education system of the youth riots that swept the country last year. The suburban riots created front page news stories around the globe in 2005, and most recently in 2006 as violence has flared up once again. Hendrie talks about what has changed, and what has not, as a result of the widespread violence.

The venture refocuses the extra resources granted to needy schools under France’s 25-year-old program of “priority education” on a subset of campuses—dubbed ambition réussite, or ambition success—deemed to face the gravest disadvantages. The project is part of a package of educational and social service projects targeting unemployment and other social ills afflicting the poor neighborhoods gripped by violence last fall.

Whether ambition réussite amounts to much, experts say, may well hinge on the efforts of the 1,000 teachers, including Mr. Youssef, who are point people for turning its vision of school improvement into reality on the ground. Known as enseignants référents, the teachers are pursuing a diverse portfolio of projects as part of a push to encourage local experimentation on how best to reach students in environments long marred by lagging achievement.

Many of the teachers are candid about the factors conspiring against them: the discouraging social disadvantages their students face, uncertainty about just where to focus their own energies, and skepticism among many of their colleagues about whether their positions should even exist.

Yet they also see their jobs as a chance not to be wasted. Freed up from some of their classroom teaching duties—a point of contention with leaders of their union—they are using those hours for tasks they and their colleagues never had time for before. Some are analyzing test-score data, for example, and then scheduling small-group remedial sessions accordingly. Others are meeting with parent groups, forging partnerships with community organizations, or providing support to newly arrived colleagues. And whatever the project, they are emphasizing teamwork.

“They have brought us flexibility,” said Guy Séguin, the principal of Collège Elsa Triolet, another school labeled ambition réussite. “It’s created a new dynamic.”

Both Maurice Thorez and Elsa Triolet are located in the académie of Créteil, the second-largest school district in France, with 855,000 precollegiate students in an area of nearly 4 million inhabitants.

On the Outskirts
Many of the schools receiving extra resources are in the Paris suburbs, where large concentrations of poor and immigrant children live.

Map of Paris outskirts

The district encompasses three county-sized départements, including Seine-Saint-Denis, which contains Stains, and Val-de-Marne, where Elsa Triolet is located in the town of Champigny-sur-Marne.

Seine-Saint-Denis, with some 1.4 million residents, is the poorest of the départements encircling Paris. It was there that street violence ignited after two teenagers from African-immigrant families were accidentally electrocuted on Oct. 27, 2005, while trying to hide from police in a power substation.

That incident touched off weeks of unrest that spread to poor neighborhoods around the country. The government estimates that 10,000 cars were burned, some 200 public buildings, including schools, were damaged, and 130 police officers were injured on duty.

Here in Stains, on the night and early morning of Nov. 3-4 alone, a fire was started in an elementary school, two buses were stoned, one bus was burned, and a group of some 40 young people faced off with police. Someone even tried to set the mayor’s car on fire while he talked to young people inClos Saint-Lazare. The city was also the site of one of the only deaths to occur amid the rioting, when a local resident died after a scuffle on Nov. 7 of last year.

All that turmoil was felt at the school, which educates children from 68, mostly African, countries. “Lots of incivility, an attempted arson,” and other problems occurred, Mr. Youssef recalled during a recent meeting with school staff members. Three teachers ended up leaving midyear after run-ins with aggressive students, and the faculty went on strike for several days last winterto demand more resources for the school.

“It was the worst year of the whole decade that I’ve been here,” said Mr. Youssef, who, like others in this story, spoke in French.

In that atmosphere, the district of Créteil set about identifying schools to be placed in the top-priority category under ambition réussite. Teachers in some schools, like Maurice Thorez, agitated to be granted that status, while in others, they protested against it.

Such objections were concentrated in some parts of Seine-Saint-Denis, where the political left is strong and teachers’ union leaders oppose the country’s right-of-center administration. Participation in the initiative was not optional, though, and Seine-Saint-Denis wound up with 16 of the district’s 21 top-priority clusters—each made up of an anchor middle school, known here as a collège, and its feeder preschool and elementary sites.

One hallmark of ambition réussite is that all 1,000 enseignants référents are to have substantial experience in disadvantaged schools. For Martin Dufour, a school inspector responsible for carrying out the initiative in the Créteil district, finding those teachers hasn’t been easy.

Higher Ambitions

France’s recent overhaul of its “priority education” program for schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods aims to refocus resources on the sites whose students face the most pressing needs. The initiative, dubbed ambition réussite, or ambition success, features a range of policy changes affecting schools and students.

■ Program includes 249 schools serving roughly 129,300 students in grades 6-9, or about 5 percent of French enrollment for those grades, along with 1,606 preschool and elementary sites serving 262,500 pupils, or 3.2 percent of the total.

■ Schools are organized into networks, each made up of one middle school and its feeder preschools and primary schools. Each network must sign a four- or five-year contract with its school district detailing its improvement plans.

■ Networks receive a nationwide total of 1,000 experienced teachers given reduced teaching loads and schoolwide missions to coordinate efforts to raise student achievement. They are supported by 3,000 additional teachers’ aides.

■ Each middle school chooses a theme—such as foreign languages, sports, arts, environmental studies, or science and technology—through which it aims to distinguish itself.

■ Starting in grade school, students get individual proficiency reports based on skills and knowledge outlined in national academic standards. One goal is to prevent students from having to repeat grades.

■ After-school study sessions are offered four nights a week, supervised by teachers-in-training, outside contractors, or volunteer teachers. Middle school students also receive extra career education.

■ Students with strong scores on national proficiency tests at the end of middle school, the equivalent of U.S. 9th grade, receive waivers allowing them to enroll in high schools outside their attendance areas.

SOURCE: French Ministry of National Education

“I’ve solicited some excellent teachers who have told me, ‘I can’t because in my school nobody would ever talk to me again,’ ” he said during an interview in the district headquarters in the city of Créteil. Mr. Dufour thinks the national Education Ministry would have had more luck selling the initiative to teachers if it had stated from the start that enseignants référents would still have classroom teaching duties, to counter the perception that the government was trying to anoint some teachers as quasi-administrators.

“The unions spread the idea of the ‘superprof,’ the Zorro of pedagogy, the teacher who would give lessons to his colleagues and wouldn’t have any students,” Mr. Dufour said. “The idea that there would be missions that weren’t uniquely administrative—such as the support of young teachers—was not well understood.”

He also thinks the incentives offered—extra points toward transfers and promotions for teachers who serve five years—were not all that attractive. “When you’re already in a difficult middle school, to take on five more years seems like the end of the world,” he said.

Around the country, schools were still working in August to fill some 250 of the 1,000 posts, according to the nation’s major union of secondary school teachers, the Syndicat National des Enseignements de Second Degré, or SNES. Though most of those posts had been filled as of last month, the union said novice teachers had been tapped for some spots.

In the Créteil district, all but two of the 84 enseignants référents had been chosen as of last month. On average, they have nine years of experience, said Bernard Saint-Girons, the district’s schools chief. “It’s not true that we’ve put in beginners.”

Still, faculty members of four of the district’s 21 ambition réussite middle schools were still refusing last month to go along with the initiative. All are in Seine-Saint-Denis.

Laurence Derrey, a union leader at one of those schools, Collège Jean Vilar, located next door to Stains in La Courneuve, said a faculty vote last May found 76 percent against the initiative. Another vote taken last month, she said, found two-thirds were still opposed.

Like other union leaders, Ms. Derrey said the teachers should have classroom duties equal to those of their colleagues, and that the extra personnel should instead be used to lower class sizes for everyone. “We need 18 or 19 students per class instead of 25,” she said.

“I have been in difficult areas for a long time, and I’ve never met a teacher who wasn’t interested in changing their approach,” she continued. “We all want to try new things, but we run into failure because of class sizes.”

Ms. Derrey also argues that it’s unfair that enseignants référents can meet with colleagues as part of their jobs, while regular teachers have to attend such meetings on their own time.

At Collège Elsa Triolet, Laurence Cerchiari said she has run into such concerns as a former elementary teacher now stationed at the middle school as enseignant référent.

One of the “wide gulfs” between the elementary and secondary levels, she said, is that primary school teachers “don’t count their hours.” At the middle school, she said, she’s found it hard to motivate some teachers to stay for meetings outside the 18 hours per week they are expected to teach.

“There are those who’ve said to me, ‘I’ve done my 18 hours,’ ” Ms. Cerchiari said. Still, she sees progress: “We are starting to understand that we cannot work all alone.”

Like Collège Maurice Thorez, Elsa Triolet is located in the middle of a government-built housing complex that originally sheltered workers in factories that have since shut down. The complex, the Cité du Bois l’Abbé, is now populated mainly by poor immigrants from a wide range of African countries.

The 550-pupil campus is in better shape than that of Maurice Thorez, where the three-story classroom building is slated to be renovated in 2010, and an adjoining two-story administration building is due to be razed altogether. Elsa Triolet, by contrast, was recently renovated and expanded, and its brightly painted corridors gleam with natural light.

The principal, Mr. Séguin, says he feels safe in Cité du Bois l’Abbé, a mix of high-rise and lower-elevation apartment buildings with more than 8,600 residents. “The neighborhood feels almost like a village,” he said.

Yet the cité is enclosed by a circular street that cuts it off from nearby neighborhoods of single-family homes, some of which have the feel of a typical American suburb. The street serves as a border that children of the cité rarely cross, Mr. Séguin said.

“They come from all over, and many don’t speak French,” he said. New students enter school all year long, he said, and some move often from the home of one relative to the next.

This year, educators at Elsa Triolet are trying a variety of projects aimed at showing students more of France beyond the cité, the principal said, to kindle their ambition to pursue further studies and “to open their minds.”

“There’s something at stake behind this,” Mr. Séguin said, “and that’s citizenship. Through education, you can touch everything else.”

At Maurice Thorez, Mr. Youssef harbors similar goals. He feels lucky this year, he said, because other teachers at his school are largely supportive of ambition réussite.

Now he has time to pursue projects he couldn’t in the past. Like many of his counterparts in the United States, he wants to make better use of new software tools to slice and dice test-score data. This year, he said, he has been scrutinizing results from the national test given to incoming middle schoolers and then dividing students into remedial groups based on those results.

“Last year, I would have been incapable of doing that,” Mr. Youssef said.

That kind of nitty-gritty work is what it will take for the government’s plans to pay off, said Mr. Saint-Girons, the district’s schools chief. The experienced teachers need both to help introduce approaches tailored to their school populations and do a better job of helping younger teachers learn their craft under trying circumstances, he said.

As for those teachers who reject the government’s approach, “they can change jobs,” he said. “We’re a free country. … If we want to save priority education, it’s necessary to accept this new stage.”

For Bernard Vincent, the newly appointed principal of Maurice Thorez, the first year of the initiative should be about trying new things, while not letting the “ambition” part of ambition réussite get out of hand.

“It’s better to do less, but do it well, than to rush off in all directions and get nowhere,” he said. “We’ll try, we’ll feel our way, and then among all the actions we have tried, maybe some will be continued and others will be abandoned or changed.

“If we had miraculous remedies,” Mr. Vincent added, “we would have put them in place a long time ago.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as A Questionof Priorities


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