The French disconnection

Liam Julian

European nations' primary and secondary schools are rightly praised for their commitment to strong core curricula and starting children's educations early. (France, for example, has funded universal preschool for over a century.) But when it comes to educating the continent's burgeoning immigrant populations, some EU countries do a better job than others.

Two researchers at the University of Amsterdam have examined how well second-generation Turks living in Europe fare in education achievement. France leads the way, due in no small part to French children starting school early (around age 3), receiving more hours of face-to-face instruction, and having access to significant amounts of supplementary support. Moreover, students are not "selected" for a career track at a young age.

Compare this to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, where students begin school at a later age and enter career tracks relatively early in their educational lives. It is no surprise, therefore, that about twice as many second-generation Turks living in France reach middle and higher levels of education than in Germany.

So, why are students rioting in Paris while the streets of Berlin are calm? Why, last autumn, were French immigrant communities illuminated for weeks by bonfires of burning cars?      

Because French students have little prospect of a pay-off for their hard work in the classroom. In the United States, a college degree usually translates into gainful employment. That's not the case in France, where students graduate into a hopelessly backwards economy.

Every graduate of a French high school who receives the ubiquitous baccalaureat diploma is admitted to a university, though most of these are not well-respected. So bad are they, in fact, that two-fifths of French undergraduates drop out. And why not? Those who stay face thin employment prospects, especially if they're second-generation immigrants. According to the aforementioned study, when jobs are scarce, second-generation Turks with little work experience suffer disproportionately. The overall French unemployment rate for those under age 26 is around 25 percent; in the nation's immigrant communities it's closer to 50 percent.

The United States has the opposite problem. America's economy continues to grow, but our education woes seem to worsen. The nation's job market exploded in the 1990s, but unemployment among African-American men continued to rise, and is rising still. Black males aren't hamstrung by a tight job market, but by poor education opportunities. In our inner cities, more than half of all black men don't finish high school.

Successful societies have educational and economic systems that work hand-in-hand. Both the United States and France are missing key components of the equation, and because of that, both countries are growing more stratified as their discontented classes swell.

The recent riots and strikes in France suggest large numbers of that nation's citizens are unwilling to change. The tide in America is not so grim. But we can, and must, do better. Policymakers take note: It's still the economy, stupid. But that economy can't function without a strong educational system behind it.

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