Noticeable Differences Between French and American Public Schools

There are a lot of cultural differences between teachers and students here in French high schools. Here are some of the most obvious (to me):

1. School days are much longer; most students are here from 8-5 or 6 PM, with some students even coming in on Saturday mornings. Additionally, in French schools there is normally no school on Wednesday afternoons (although this is an exception in high school). Until a recent reform, all primary students had every Wednesday off.

2. All staff and students receive a long lunch break (usually about an hour, but sometimes longer depending on the day). Food and meals are very important in France, and my colleagues were horrified when I told them that students and teachers are allotted only about 30-40 minutes in the states.) Students almost always eat the school food, as “cold lunches” aren’t really allowed. The only drink offered to students is water, which students must fill with the provided pichers in the cafeteria.

3. Students (and teachers!) can take smoke breaks between classes, during lunch, and if they have a free period. French schools are usually hidden inside high, thick walls or fences, so all the students simply have to do is leave the perimeter walls and then they are free to light up.

4. During the lunch breaks and class breaks, students are allowed to leave school if they have the means of doing so.

5. Typically, there are very few student activities (ie: sports, music, drama, clubs, etc.), and classroom walls are mostly bare. There are few posters or any sort of decorations because teachers change classrooms a lot, so decorating your classroom is something that is just not commonly done in France.

6. La Salle de Profs is the teacher’s lounge, with copy machines, tables and couches, the famous coffee vending machine (more on that later!) and computers. It is normal for teachers to come here and socialize before and after their classes as well as during breaks or passing time over a 30¢ pick-me-up café or tea from the coffee machine.

7. A full time load for high school English teachers in France is 18 hours per week in the public sector, and 15 if you pass an even more complicated exam. Salaries for teachers are also lower in comparison to other countries.

8. In France, teacher training is quite… different (but it has improved a bit in recent years). Basically, all you need to do is pass a very rigorous content exam, and once you do, you will always be guaranteed a job in the public sector. There is not quite as much pedagogical training as in other countries (although that’s not to say that all teachers in France are bad– quite the contrary!) As a civil servant you do not typically choose where you are placed, and many new teachers are forced to teach in ZEP (inner city) schools with zero classroom management experience.

9. There is technology at my school, but it is hit or miss, and the wifi is a lot more shady.

10. There is no dress code apart from the Secularism here in public schools. Spaghetti straps are not a problem, but religious jewelry cannot be worn (this means cross necklaces and earrings, Jewish headwear or Stars of David, etc., and religious tattoos need to be covered.) Girls need to remove their Islamic head wraps and boys need to remove their Sikh head wraps as soon as they are on public school grounds. (But don’t worry, Christmas trees are okay.)



11. There are much fewer services for special education or ESL students (well, French as a second lanaguage).



18 thoughts on “Noticeable Differences Between French and American Public Schools

  1. I really enjoyed your blog! I grew up in France and was educated there all the way to my baccalaureat. I came to the U.S to attend college and 25 years later I am still here!! 🙂 I love both countries of course but now that I have had my own children attend American schools (I actually also work in a school doing speech therapy) I feel that I have a pretty good idea of the differences as well. I heard things haven’t changed much in French schools since I attended. There are things that I have come to appreciate from their schools that I think we should consider here such as repeating grades when necessary but others I think are deplorable such as putting a label on kids who struggle at such a young age without helping the child and parents having no say (for instance my brother struggled in schools his whole education but was never provided help in the schools and at 14 he was forced to pick a technical career because he wasn’t “high school material.” I personally had failed so behind in math when I got to college in the U.S. math was my biggest nightmare!! I was very upset to realize I would have to do more math in college. But with help from tutors and wonderful college professors who gave me confidence again, I aced my college algebra!!

  2. “In France, teacher training is quite dismal “… Reading you has made me laugh with pity and cry with anger on how wrong and uninformed you are…
    I am credentialed both in France and in California and I can tell you that the credentials in the US are a joke compared to the credentials in France.
    In the US, you can get your diploma in 12 months and teach from preschool to 12th Grade in all subjects…What a joke!
    In France, you are specialized (elementary or middle/high school) and you are specialized in one or two subjects if you teach middle/high school, which makes you an expert in what you teach. Can you honestly say that a person can teach any subject with the same set of skills from preschool to grade 12?
    Obviously you are not a teacher and obviously you are deeply anchored in your stereotypes about French education.
    Any other misinformation you would like to post?

    1. Bad teaching is one of the reasons Americans are now so pathetically ignorant about the real world. Most of my fellow citizens have been television-trained to live only as consumers. They realize something is missing from their lives, but they do not know what it is. The presidency of Donald Trump is only the most obvious result.

      1. Here is my comment again:

        “Bad teaching is one of the reasons Americans are now so pathetically ignorant about the real world. Most of my fellow citizens have been television-trained to live only as consumers. They realize something is missing from their lives, but they do not know what it is. The presidency of Donald Trump is only the most obvious result.”

        You replied with:

        “I don’t even know where to start with the ignorance of this comment.”

        This is a critically important subject. My intent is not to criticize or deride any person or group. The situation is no individual’s fault. Please start anywhere and put down some sort of response to what I wrote.


    2. Right… don’t know where to begin here. From my experience, teachers are specialized in their subject but don’t necessarily know how to teach it. Pedagogical training lacks (although it is improving, and that is not to say that all teachers in France are bad- I work and have worked with excellent teachers.)

      I remind you that this is a blog, not the NYT. If you have an issue then feel free to close the browser and not come back here.

    3. Hi, I’m actually writing a research paper comparatively studying US & French Education! Do you think you could recommend any sources that are more credible than this one?

  3. I have always imagined that students in France finish high school with better preparation for university study than American students do from our high schools. Do you think that is true?

    1. In some ways yes, in others, no. The US uses a more hands-on, twenty-first century approach. US students do more extra curriculars and have jobs, etc. So they develop other skills and are able to apply information across contexts. Schools in France are still more about regurgitated information, written essays, 7-hr long tests. It’s changing, but slowly

  4. And you don’t know 1/100.000 of what is wrong in france, not only in schools, but in everything, from their “said free healthcare where you have to wait 6 months before you can have a doctor appointment, when deeper tests are not even mentionned, and if you are older, then, then don’t even try to properly take care of you, because they think: what the heck, they are going to die soon anyway). They use you as guinea pigs without your knowledge, and they say: Well students need to learn.

    and so many of their barbaric institutions.

    1. My personal experience:
      Last month, I had a small health problem, I called my doctor, I had an appointment the next day (there was no emergency), I had an ultrasound and had a blood test and a urine test 2 days later, then I saw my doctor who prescribed the appropriate care.
      2 years ago, I fell from my roof, my wife called firefighters who arrived a quarter of an hour later. They took me to the hospital immediately. I had a scan in the afternoon and had surgery the next day … and I paid nothing.
      It’s happening in France.
      As for barbaric institutions, France abolished the death penalty more than thirty years ago, which does not prevent France (and Europe) from having a crime rate four times lower than in the USA ( 1/100,000 in Eurpoe, 4/100,000 in the USA).
      Some things are better in the USA, others better in France.

  5. One difference I’ve noticed between French and American high schools is at French high schools, all the students have lunch at the same time whereas in the U.S. (at least at my high school), the lunch periods were staggered.

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