Foreign education systems severely in need of reform

Emily Hsu ('12)/Eastside staff

We spend roughly a quarter of our lives acquiring a formal education.  After all, as the old adage goes, education is the key to success.  With enough hard work, a high school education leads to a college diploma.  A job.  A car.  A future.

But what if success hinges not on hard work and determination, but rather the income level of your parents?  Or if a single test can determine your future?

The U.S. federal government has relatively little control over education.  State and local school districts are given a great deal of leeway when it comes to determining curricula, and unlike some countries such as France and China, the U.S. does not have an all-important national college entrance exam administered by the federal government.  In fact, the American college application process is fairly unusual.

In China, all students who wish to attend college must take the National Higher Education Entrance Examination.  This exam is virtually the sole criterion for college admissions – the higher the score, the more prestigious the university.  Because of the importance placed on the exam, parents go to great extremes to ensure that their children do well.  Some families immigrate to foreign countries because international students have less stringent university entrance requirements.  Despite the government’s efforts to prevent leaking of exam content, instances of bribery and other abuses are still being exposed, and some complain of regional discrimination since university entrance requirements vary depending on location.

It’s clear that some method of reform is needed if a single test susceptible to corruption can determine the direction of millions of lives.  A possible solution retaining the current meritocratic system would be to administer multiple tests over the span of a year, instead of just one single test.  This would be a more accurate assessment of the students’ abilities, and since each individual test would carry less weight, students would have less pressure to do well on each test.  Less pressure to do well equals less incentive to cheat.

On the other hand, in France, university student aspirants must take the baccalauréat (colloquially known as “the bac”).  Implemented by Napoleon in 1808, the bac is essentially a diploma required for entrance to a university.  Passing the bac gets a student into a public university, but really ambitious students take preparatory classes, aptly nicknamed “the royal way,” to study for another extremely competitive national exam.  Passing this exam allows a student to enroll in a grand école.  The grandes écoles, or “great schools,” groom France’s future leaders in politics, industry, and science.

According to Professor Jean-Pierre Nioche, an expert in higher education, “It’s the dream of every family for their child to attend a grande école.”

However, the preparatory classes are often expensive, and as a result, working-class pupils are five times less likely than middle-class children to end up at a grand école.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, is one of the few French rulers who did not reach a position of power through the traditional elite channels.  In an attempt to diversify the grandes écoles, Sarkozy has asked the universities to recruit 30 percent of their students from low-income backgrounds.  The government has taken further steps by making state aid more readily available to students taking preparatory classes.

The response?  Anger mixed with stubborn reluctance.

The Conférence des Grandes Ecoles (CGE), which represents the elite schools, claims that imposing “quotas” would “lead inevitably to a lowering of standards.”  Boosting the number of grant-aided students would threaten the current preserve of a “veritable Republican elite.”

Nevertheless, the CGE signed an agreement to fix a goal of 30 percent underprivileged recruits, more than doubling the previous percentage of about 10 to 15 percent.  It’s not exactly a promise, but it’s a start.

As disturbing as it is to think that increasing the number of underprivileged students might degrade the quality of the grandes écoles, in a way, the CGE does have a point.  The elite schools admit students based on the results of a merit based test.  On average, low-income students perform significantly worse on standardized tests, primarily because they have limited access to resources such as preparatory classes.  Requiring the grandes écoles to accept a certain percentage of grant-aided students would be akin to a doctor trying to cover up the symptoms of an illness rather than addressing its root cause.

The best way to give underprivileged students the chance to excel would be to make all preparatory classes free, or at the very least, available at an extremely low cost.  In this manner, all students would have the opportunity to prepare for the grande école exam, regardless of income level.  It would be an expensive program to implement but plausible if the grandes écoles agreed to help fund the classes.

In many ways, it’s true that education is the key to success.  Unfortunately, not everyone gets the chance to open the door to a brighter future.  It’s time to knock down the locked doors so that children of all backgrounds will have equal opportunities to reach their full potential.