School Climate & Safety

In Wake of Riots, France Refashions Priority Zones

By Caroline Hendrie — October 31, 2006 11 min read
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A quarter-century ago, France made its first foray into “positive discrimination”—a cousin of the American concept of affirmative action—with the launch of a national education policy aimed at steering greater resources to public precollegiate schools serving neighborhoods with the most serious disadvantages.

Now, one year after widespread youth violence in many of those same communities, the government has embarked on an initiative aimed at adapting the 25-year-old “priority education” program to a landscape that has dramatically changed.

Announced by Minister of Education Gilles de Robien a few weeks after last fall’s rioting had abated, the initiative is the centerpiece of a raft of policy changes aimed at reducing the chronic inequities that the scenes of rioting young people drove home. Those directing the undertaking, as well as other French educators and analysts, say much is at stake in the government’s third attempt to revamp the policy, known here as éducation prioritaire.

“The republic and the school are linked in France,” said Pierre Polivka, the Education Ministry official tapped to lead the venture, during a recent interview in his office here in the French capital. “At present, this link is coming undone. If we succeed with this reform, we will reconstitute the school system; if we fail, the system will fall apart.”

Educational Triage

At the heart of the enterprise is a new form of triage: Starting this school year, there are to be three levels of éducation prioritaire,based mainly on students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and academic results.

Schools in the top-priority level, EP1, are receiving 1,000 experienced teachers with reduced teaching loads and 3,000 teachers’ aides. In exchange, the schools must sign contracts with their districts detailing how they will use their extra resources. Meanwhile, schools in the middle level are to keep the benefits they got previously, while the third group will be dropped after three years.

Recent visits to five EP1 schools and interviews with local educators and national experts suggest the change is rolling out relatively smoothly in many places. But in others, it is off to a rocky start amid strong resistance from the nation’s major union of secondary school teachers, the Syndicat National des Enseignements de Second Degré, or SNES.

“What the SNES wants is that the schools facing a concentration of all sorts of problems be given help that it is on a par with their needs,” said Bruno Mer, a teacher in an EP1 school who is coordinating the union’s response to the initiative. “The reform proposed by Mr. de Robien doesn’t correspond at all to our expectations or to the needs of these schools.”

Such feelings are strong in some schools in Seine-Saint-Denis, the northeastern Parisian suburb where the deaths on Oct. 27, 2005, of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, two teenagers from immigrant families, touched off weeks of violence. That unrest, which spread to poor neighborhoods around the country, included car burnings, confrontations with police, and more than 250 incidents of arson or other damage to schools.

Last week, leading up to the anniversary of those deaths, a string of bus burnings in the Paris suburbs by groups of armed youths raised fears that the violence was rekindling. Meanwhile, hundreds of young people from suburban housing projects marched peacefully in Paris to deliver a list of grievances to national lawmakers, including demands for better schools. And mourners held a memorial march Oct. 27 in the town where the youths had died exactly one year earlier.

More to Those With Less

Éducation prioritaire got its start in 1981, when the election of Socialist François Mitterand as president brought the political left to power in France for the first time in 23 years.

The policy did not breach France’s tradition of refusing to make distinctions among its citizens based on their racial or ethnic backgrounds. But it did take the previously unheard-of step of “giving more to those who have less,” in an effort to level the playing field in a country where success in a fiercely competitive school system has long been a key to upward social mobility.

Borrowing from a 1960s British policy of “educational priority areas,” the French government created zones d’éducation prioritaire, or ZEPs, and gave schools within them various benefits that boiled down chiefly to a lower student-to-staff ratio and a pay differential for staff members.

“It was launched … amid a great deal of political hope for educational and social change,” recalled Jean-Yves Rochex, an education researcher and professor at Paris VIII University in Saint Denis.

Since then, he said, the policy has seen peaks and valleys of political interest, with the highs marked by two previous relaunches of the policy in 1990 and 1997 and the rest characterized by “quasi-abandonment” by the political and institutional powers that be.

In trying to offset the effects of poverty on children’s chances in school, éducation prioritaire bears a passing resemblance to the federal Title I program in the United States, born of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. A major difference, some experts note, is that France’s school funding system is centralized, whereas federal spending accounts for only about 8 percent of precollegiate education spending in the United States.

In America, “we have tremendous differences among states and within states, and schools with large concentrations of disadvantaged children only get help at the state and local level if they’re in a state that targets money to schools with disadvantaged kids,” said Cynthia G. Brown, the director of education policy for the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. “France at least, by having a national funding system, really has a uniform national policy about getting money to disadvantaged kids.”

Just how uniform that policy actually is, though, has been an issue in France.

The ZEP policy was based mainly on the socioeconomic characteristics of the communities the schools served, a geography-based system that was much debated at the time, and that the French government now argues needs to be jettisoned. That was all the more needed, supporters of the change say, because of the perception that political connections played an influential role in determining which schools received priority status.

“The concept of zones no longer corresponds to social reality,” contends Philippe Meirieu, a prominent professor of education in Lyon who, like others in this story, was interviewed in French. Moreover, he says, the system never managed to settle on fair criteria for assigning ZEP status.

Revised Rationale

The current policy drops the notion of ZEPs, as part of a shift toward what government officials see as a system based on what students need rather than where they live.

Schools were chosen for EP1 based on four criteria: students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, the percentages of students at least two years below grade level, test-score results from students entering middle school, and numbers of students whose native language is not French.

Changing Priority

In the wake of widespread street violence one year ago, French Minister of Education Gilles de Robien announced a plan to improve performance in the nation’s disadvantaged, or “priority,” public schools. The decision to designate a subgroup of “ambition success” schools attracted the most attention, but the plan features numerous other elements as well.

Eliminate the “global method” for teaching reading, which emphasizes the learning of entire words, in favor of a phonics-only approach. Introduce a new national reading and writing test in the French equivalent of 2nd grade.

Offer educational programs during school vacations; open more residential programs for promising students; require students to complete workplace internships; and ratchet up services to and expectations of parents.

Match 100,000 university-level students with 100,000 precollegiate students from disadvantaged schools and involve them in activities promoting a successful transition to higher education.

Offer high-school-age students one-on-one interviews with school staff members and other working adults to discuss students’ career plans.

Increase the number of scholarships for high-achieving students from priority schools from 28,000 to 100,000.

Improve teacher training in how to effectively address learning differences and discipline issues; facilitate transfer requests for teachers with five years in priority schools; and give precedence to professional-development requests from priority schools.

Designate an official from the nation’s elite corps of educational inspectors general to be responsible for carrying out and evaluating the policy changes.

SOURCE: French Ministry of National Education

“The new reasoning consists not of carving out ‘zones,’ but of defining the population, according to criteria that are uniform and more precise,” explained Mr. de Robien in a speech last December unveiling the initiative. “It’s an issue above all of focusing on people and of using all the available levers to improve their situation.”

A chief complaint of proponents of overhauling priority educationis that, over time, it lost effectiveness as more schools came into the fold.

Earlier attempts to overhaul the system in 1990 and 1997—the second under the leadership of former Education Minister Ségolène Royal, now the front-runner for the Socialist nomination for president in next spring’s election—helped push the number of ZEPs from 363 in fall 1982 to 710 at the start of the last school year.

That translated into more than 5,500 preschool or elementary sites, 874 middle schools, and more than 130 high schools. Estimates pegged the proportion of students served in éducation prioritaire at more than one in five, compared with only about one in 20 at the start.

“We had too little funding for too many students who didn’t really need it,” said the ministry’s Mr. Polivka.

Roughly $1.25 billion extra annually is spent on priority education, he said, out of a national precollegiate school budget of roughly $74 billion. Such schools average about 10 percent more money per pupil, the government estimates. Teachers in the schools receive an annual salary premium of 1,000 euros, or roughly $1,250 at current exchange rates.

Studies of the effectiveness of éducation prioritaire have essentially concluded that the policy has not narrowed the achievement gap between ZEP and non-ZEP schools, Mr. Rochex of Paris VIII University wrote in a recent research synthesis. But that in itself can be seen as an accomplishment, he said.

“The pessimists say that the ZEPs are good for nothing,” Mr. Rochex said. “The optimists say that, given that the social and economic situation in the neighborhoods has deteriorated, if the gap hasn’t widened, then the ZEP policy has had a certain efficacy.”

Under the new policy, the government identified 249 clusters for EP1, also known as ambition réussite, or ambition success. Each consists of one middle school and the preschools and elementary schools that feed into them.

The politically sensitive determination of which sites will be EP2 or EP3—the latter facing the elimination of their extra funding—has not yet been made. Mr. Polivka said the chiefs of France’s 30 school districts, known as académies, want the decision on which schools will lose their priority education label to be left until after the presidential election.

Union leaders, who oppose the right-of-center administration of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, say the government’s real aim is to save money.

The union is upset, Mr. Mer said, that the funds for the 1,000 extra teachers came from trimming staffing allocations in the rest of the country’s middle schools. It also says at least another 250 schools should have been included in EP1 and disagrees with how the extra staff members are being deployed.

Experiments Encouraged

Nicolas Renard, the president of the Observatoire des Zones Prioritaires, a national association of educators and researchers interested in priority education, said that from the start the policy has been seen by some chiefly as a means of channeling extra pay to staff members in schools with the most difficult working conditions.

But he said his association, which worked with the government on the current policy initiative, “always thought it should be much more ambitious.”

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.

“It shouldn’t just be a salary bonus, but extra funding to do things differently,” said Mr. Renard, who is also the principal of Collège André Malraux, an 850-student ambition réussite middle school in Asnières-sur-Seine, a suburb northwest of Paris.

A major theme of the current initiative has been the need for local educators to innovate, to try new approaches to reach students without the cultural reference points, family support, and mastery of French that more advantaged children enjoy.

The idea, supporters say, is to encourage experimentation and then evaluate which measures have yielded student gains.

“All that is innovative is poorly regarded in France,” Mr. Polivka asserted. “We can experiment now in school, but it’s very difficult. In this reform, we are trying to make that possible, and to replicate experiments that succeed.”

Ambition réussite schools are required to sign four- or five-year contracts with their districts laying out how they will use their extra allotments of teachers.

Those contracts do not typically promise a particular increase in test scores or other outcome measures, and no formal penalties are to be imposed if schools do not see achievement gains. Each school is to be supervised, though, by a member of the school system’s corps of inspectors general.

So while EP1 schools are not subject to the type of accountability pressures that Title I schools in the United States face under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, some French educators say the current initiative reflects a shift in perception about their role in students’ performance.

“This is the first time in France that a reform has created the obligation to make sure students succeed,” said Éric Alexandre, the principal of Collège Arthur Rimbaud, a 375-student EP1 middle school in Amiens, a city 70 miles north of Paris. “It’s the first time that they are requiring principals to put in place a program and asking us every year, ‘What have you done with your extra resources?’ ”

Looking ahead, Mr. Alexandre says he worries that the 2007 election, which will choose a successor to President Chirac, could bring another shift in direction for schools facing the greatest disadvantages. That would be hugely demoralizing, he says, given that the changes his school and others like it are putting in place need several years to bear fruit.

If those ventures don’t pay off after that time, he added, éducation prioritaire won’t likely have much of a future. “If we don’t succeed with all these resources and all this support, I believe this will be our last chance,” he said. “But we’re going to succeed.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as In Wake of Riots, France Refashions Priority Zones


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