Few things in France can provoke heated debate faster than moves to tinker
with the country’s vaunted public-education system, which embodies
republican values that date back to the French Revolution. It’s especially
true when the changes involve an idea as capitalistic and nonegalitarian as
paying certain students the ones most apt to fail and drop out to attend
classes and get good grades.
This is exactly what’s happening in a pilot program that started this month
at three vocational high schools in disadvantaged suburbs of Paris. Accounts
will be set up for two classes in each school, each containing around $3,000
apiece. If the students maintain good attendance records and reach
performance targets agreed upon with their teachers, reward payments will be
added to their class account. But here’s the catch: the students can’t go and
spend the money on a new iPod or an Xbox at the end of the year. Each
account, which could reach a maximum of $15,000, can only be used to finance
a school-related project or endeavor, such as a class trip abroad to improve
foreign-language skills, computer equipment for the classroom or driving
lessons to obtain a license. Still, not a bad deal.
The government’s objective is simple: increase student motivation and class
attendance and reduce the number of French teenagers who leave school
without earning a diploma or professional training certificate, roughly
120,000 to 150,000 each year. The program is being tested at vocational
schools, not at the more traditional high schools that most students attend
to prepare for the Baccalaureate exam and university study beyond. The
reason: students at vocational schools, particularly those in marginalized,
immigrant-heavy areas, tend to have the most performance problems in France.
Many students feel like failures after ending up in professional schools.
Some also lose interest when they’re moved to classes they’re not interested
in due to lack of space in the ones they’d requested. Truancy and dropout
rates are high.
Naturally, though, such a controversial idea is bound to spark opposition,
especially in France. Organizations representing parents, teachers and
students from the right and left alike have denounced the measure as sending
an unacceptable message to students about what education is about. “We
strongly oppose the idea of remunerating students for having fulfilled the
basic requirement of attending school,” says Philippe Vrand, president of
the Parents of Public School Students group. “We should spend this money
making sure vocational students who wanted to learn cooking can get into
those programs rather than being shunted into car repair because there was
no room left. Instead, students are being paid off to compensate [for] their
Other opponents argue that the program flies in the face of France’s
egalitarian ideals regarding education that students be taught that they’re
equal citizens regardless of their background and they should accept the
responsibilities that go along with equality under the law. “We teach
students, educate them and raise them in school, but we don’t pay them,”
says Albert-Jean Mougin, vice-president of the union representing teachers
at middle schools and high schools. “We mustn’t turn education into a
commodity, nor turn accepting responsibilities into transactions between
students and educators.”
Similar motivation schemes have worked elsewhere in the world. In the U.S.,
for example, more than a dozen states have started rewarding students with
cash for improved test scores and enrollment in advanced-placement courses.
In Britain, the Education Maintenance Allowance , which focuses on
helping children from lower-income families, awards students with monthly
payments if they’ve met attendance and performance targets. Like its U.S.
counterparts, the EMA initiative puts money directly into students’ pockets
to spend as they wish. In the decade since it began, the program has
reversed dropout rates by more than 2% annually.
Education officials will closely monitor students’ attendance and
performance rates during the two-year duration of the Paris-area program.
Even if the initiative succeeds, however, officials say they still won’t
expand it nationally if public opinion is against it. If that happens, the
government may be faced with another dilemma: responding to students’ angry
complaints at being denied their monthly allowances.
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