Samuel Abrams is the Director of the National Center for the Study of Privaization in Education. He writes here about his recent work on education issues in France. France has a long history of public schools, but it also subsidizes religious schools. A candidate for President proposed. That France should authorize charter schools. Her reasoning was similar to that of charter proponents in the U.S., that charter schools of the “no-excuses” type would improve the academic skills of the poorest children.

Abrams wrote the following introduction to an article he co-authored with a French political scientist, published in Le Monde.

Abrams wrote:

France is widely known as a country with a strong commitment to public education. Unlike the United States, which makes no mention of education in its Constitution, France has made education a centerpiece of each iteration of its five constitutions. In its Constitution of 1791, the nation’s first, the commitment was frank: “There will be established a system of uniform and free public education in subjects indispensable for all citizens, with the organization to take place gradually in concert with the division of the kingdom.”

Yet since 1959, France has funded education at private schools—which are primarily Catholic—through a system called sous contrat (“under contract”), whereby the government covers about 90 percent of tuition, and schools, in turn, must hire only state-certified teachers and follow the national curriculum. About 15 percent of France’s primary and secondary schools fall into this category.

During the current presidential campaign, one candidate, Valérie Pécresse, proposed vastly expanding the sous contrat system to include charter schools. Pécresse called specifically for charter schools of the “no-excuses” ilk to address underperformance in such marginalized regions as the banlieues surrounding major cities and declared that she would like 10 percent of the nation’s public schools to function in this manner by 2027.

In a lecture on educational privatization that I gave in October as a visiting scholar at the Institute of Advanced Studies at CY Cergy Paris University, I addressed Pécresse’s proposal and its implications. My host, a political scientist named Philippe Bongrand, afterward suggested we co-author an op-ed on this topic. Our op-ed appeared in Le Monde on November 30. Below is my English translation, followed by the original.

Samuel E. Abrams

Director, NCSPE

Abrams translated the article: into English:

Public Contract Schools Risk Exacerbating the Problem of Segregation

Samuel E. Abrams and Philippe Bongrand

English translation

Le Monde, November 30, 2021

In outlining the educational platform for her presidential candidacy in a speech in Venoy (Yonne) on October 12, Valérie Pécresse proposed transforming 10 percent of the nation’s public schools into “a new kind of public school under contract, inspired by ‘charter schools’ found in England and Sweden.” These schools, which would be primarily located in marginalized neighborhoods, would benefit, Pécresse declared, from the managerial autonomy currently exercised in France by private schools under contract, which account for 15 percent of the nation’s 60,000 primary and secondary schools. In these charter schools, “enrollment will depend on parents and students abiding by a charter of commitment.”

Mistakenly attributed to Sweden and England by Pécresse, charter schools, in fact, originated in the United States in 1992. Charter schools benefit from exemptions from conventional rules governing administration and curriculum in exchange for exhibiting a certain level of performance by their students on state-mandated tests. They now constitute 7 percent of American public schools. Sweden’s free schools (friskolor), also launched in 1992, and England’s academies, established a decade later, comport far more with the ideals of a free market in education than with the concept of posting specific results for their students on standardized tests.

In her speech, Pécresse echoed the typical arguments of charter school advocates, vowing to “combine the best of public and private teaching methods” to increase the effectiveness of teachers and to narrow the achievement gap for disadvantaged children. However, the research accumulated over the past thirty years calls for vigilance, to say the least.

First, rigid contracts at charter schools for parents and students have had perverse effects. Not all families have the necessary resources to commit to and abide by such contracts. The rigidity of these contracts alone discourages many parents from entering lotteries to enroll their children in such schools. For many of the students who do enroll, the steep academic and behavioral expectations prove to be too much, leading to high levels of attrition. Conventional neighborhood public schools then find themselves with even higher concentrations of struggling students, which, in turn, reinforces the desire of many parents to avoid them. Such charter schools in France would accordingly risk compounding the problem of segregation already present due to many selective pathways [including those created by the private schools under contract].

Second, the highly directive pedagogical methods that define such charter schools cultivate mechanical compliance rather than nurture the agency necessary for students to become independent learners. These charter schools, commonly referred to as “no-excuses” schools because of their quasi-military code of behavior, share a telling acronym, SLANT: Sit up; Listen; Ask and answer questions; Nod in acknowledgment of understanding a point or lesson; and Track the eyes of the speaker. In Scripting the Moves (Princeton University Press, 2021), the sociologist Joanne W. Golann documents how this strict approach to instruction undermines authentic learning.

Third, the arrangement whereby charter contracts hinge on student results on state-mandated tests can place untenable pressure on staff. Such pressure engenders relentless teaching to the test and leads administrators to quantify the “added value” of teachers. The leading network of “no-excuses” schools (named KIPP for Knowledge Is Power Program) loses a third of its teachers each year. Such turnover over time compromises pedagogical continuity and thus the quality of instruction.

Foreign policy borrowing should derive from substantial academic research. There are far better lessons to be learned from looking abroad. Academic progress in Finland, for example, has not been the result of rigid contracts with parents and students, nor, more generally, from the privatization of schooling. The Finnish model is based on better training and pay for teachers along with a more holistic approach to learning, involving many classes in music, art, carpentry, and cooking, all of which make school more enticing for students while implicitly teaching important lessons in math and science.

Skeptics reflexively reject the example of Finland because the country is small and homogeneous. Yet Finland’s Nordic neighbors—Denmark, Norway and Sweden—are similar in size and composition. For the seven administrations of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), [administered every three years] from 2000 to 2018, the mean score for all OECD students in science was 497. [One year of learning corresponds to about 35 points.] The mean score for students in France was 499; in Denmark, 492; in Norway, 493; in Sweden, 499; and in Finland, 543.

Coming soon: Priyadarshani Joshi, “Perspectives from Principals in Nepal on What Motivates and Constrains Public Schools from Instituting Changes to Compete with Private Schools,” NCSPE Working Paper No. 246; Joanna Härmä, Low-fee Private Schooling and Poverty in Developing Countries (Bloomsbury, 2021), NCSPE Book Excerpt No. 4. Visit our Website