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– and depending on the academie and if it’s private or public sector, some students still have Wednesdays off an instead attend school on Saturday mornings.

2. Most 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, unless you go off campus. The only drink offered to students is water, which students must fill with the provided pitchers 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 and especially in secondary seldom have a classroom of their own, 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. The teachers are not required to be at school except for their classroom teaching time– planning, marking, etc. is done outside of class, and because teachers do not have their own classrooms to prep in, they are given fewer classroom hours.

8. In France, teacher training is quite different. The program consists of a two-year Master’s program, which basically trains you to pass an extremely rigorous and competitive content-based exam. There is not quite as much pedagogical training as in other anglophone countries– much is learned on the job. Additionally, if teachers teach in the public sector, they are considered as civil servants and therefore do not choose where they are placed. As a result, many new teachers (whom are single and unmarried and inexperienced) are forced to teach in REP (inner city) schools with stereotypically more behavioral programs and zero classroom management experience.

9. My international school has wifi and Macbooks / projectors in every classroom, but that is not the norm. Depending on the school, available technology can be hit or miss, and the wifi is a lot more shady.

10. There is no dress code apart from the secularism rules 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.

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11. There are much fewer services for special education or ESL students (well, French as a second language). Most teachers are not trained in how to differentiate or accommodate for those students (in my experience.)

What other differences have you noticed?

Bisous,

Dana

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

  1. I was an exchange student in France 30 years ago, in my youth. Maybe not.
    One big difference I noticed is that in the French system, the students were allowed to visibly fail. If you did not pass your tests, you could no longer move on to the next rang of the ladder, education-wise. This possibility of failure hung over the whole experience. I was in a class with premiere (11 grade) students, studying for their exams. If the student did not pass, they could not move on to university. There was no “community college” alternative. No getting into a less prestigious school, and maybe transferring. You were just done (though you could retry). Because the French system is so top down centralized, and so lacking in second chances, you are under great pressure to succeed.
    This same selection, “tracking” process, existed in the United States, but it was much less visible. All students would go to the same school, regardless of educational achievement. There is no “flunking out” and being sent to a trade school. Instead there are different “tracks” for the students in the US. There was no obvious consequences in being in the lower tracks. And I think sometimes the students in them did not understand the consequences of this outcome, for their education. They would get the less qualified teachers, spend more time on remedial topics, etc. Basically they would learn less. But this was not talked about directly.
    So I think that the French system is a more open game, organized for visible global fairness. The American system is the same game, but the rules and scoring are more forgiving, but also more obscured.

    One situation that really surprised me was where the French students in my English class made a point of criticizing the English teacher for her choice of texts to read in the class, and general choice of topics to cover. The students felt they were not getting what they wanted in terms of preparation for the coming exams. They also criticized her for having an American accent (whereas their tests would focus on the English accent). I never saw this sort of sense of ownership of the educational process by the students in the United States. There is also the SAT and the ACT tests in the US. But I think the French BAC exams are a much more immediate consideration, and this drives the students to feel like they have proper license to criticize their teachers when they are not preparing them appropriately.
    When I returned from France, I noticed a similar situation with my AP government teacher. She was not doing a good job preparing us for the AP test and I criticized. This landed me promptly in the principles office! Reverse culture shock!

    How to account for these differences? I think, at least at the high school level, the French students were treated more as adults. They were given the opportunity to fail, but also given respect in terms of making proper choices.
    This also extends to allowing students to come and go from the campus in France. And the ability to easily check out books at the French school library without extensive anti-theft devices – just a simple sign-out.
    One of my craziest french lycee related memories is going to the local cafe during school ours and seeing my substitute math teacher hanging out there at the bar sipping a beer. He asked that I would like to join him for a round! Imagine that in an american school.

    Finally, I saw the French reliance on memory and rote learning. I dont know if this is still done, but I was shocked to see students patiently memorizing maps of French geography – land marks, mountain ranges, city locations and their industries. The prof would law out the map to the students and the students would copy and memorize. It seemed like a waste of time to me.

  2. Requirements for teachers in American schools vary greatly state to state. I teach in California where at least one year of graduate school in education is required in addition to a bachelor’s degree. Most teachers have a master’s degree. Teachers can be certified for K-8. Most middle schools prefer teachers who are specialized in either language and history or science and math as students usually split their day between two teachers except for electives. High school teachers are specialized in subject area. All teachers take numerous tests, go through continuous professional development, are evaluated constantly, and are expected to be up to date on the latest standards-based practices. A typical teaching day in California starts at 7:00 and officially ends at 3:30, but most teachers coach or advise after school activities as well. Maintaining discipline is a huge problem in American schools. Pay is terrible. Burnout is high. Wonder why?

    1. I would also note that the approach to teaching in America is very different from France. France is very traditional and emphasizes rote memorization and lectures with little independent analysis. The American school system has embraced task-based and collaborative learning. Creativity and independent thought is highly valued in American education. Finally, the relationship between teachers and students varies distinctly between the two countries. From what I have understand, it is not uncommon for French teachers to sarcastically ridicule student work. Teachers would be reprimanded in the United States for that behavior in this era, but French classrooms have less discipline problems because of their no-nonsense attitude. Americans believe learning should be fun. Maybe there’s too much fun. The Canadians seem to have found a balance. Their schools perform far better on international tests than their French or American counterparts.

      1. Yeah.. it’s really interesting being an American teacher in France because there are a lot of things I have taken from the American system and have implemented here (Group work, creativity, etc.) I am not someone who yells at students– I think French systems are more about wider, broader, philosophical questioning as well… American systems are criticized for being too easy, I think there’s something to be said about that as well…

  3. 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!!

  4. “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.

        Ralph

      2. Very ignorant comment. Although I do worry about the future of this country, I am an American student who has benefited greatly from wonderful educators in this country during my formal school experience and in university. Many of us are not as ignorant as you think. At least I’ve learned not to form blatant stereotypes about entire communities of people from my American education.

    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.

      1. I went to French high school got my French Baccalaureat and my license es sciences economiques and now living and working in the US. Thank god for my French schooling and my knowledgeable high school teachers who taught how to think rationally and how to write. My American colleagues with all their BA/BS and MA/MS could not write a decent effective work related report and don’t even know who Nabuchodonosor is (we learned it in freshman year of middle school). Please don’t ever say French teachers do not know how to teach. I owed my love for Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu to my French litterature teacher and my understanding of Hegel dialectics to my philosophy teacher.
        The approach is different. American high school is all about fly by, French high school is about nurturing a well-rounded individual.

      2. Hi, thanks for commenting I never said that french teachers don’t know how to teach- I said that the teacher training part of the programme at university was lacking but that is changing. I work/ have worked with many french colleagues whom are wonderful teachers. It’s nice to see your teachers have had a great impact on you!

    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?

    4. I’m not sure how accurate this is; do you have any sources or information pointing to an American Teacher Preparation Program (TPP) and/or state that provides a teaching license for all subjects in grades K-12? I’ve never heard of such a thing; the closest thing to this that that I’ve heard of is an Elementary Education license, which allows teachers to teach all subjects (except related arts/specials) in grades K-6 (or K-8 in some states). Do primary school teachers in France not teach all subjects to their students? I don’t actually know and am genuinely curious. If not, that is just a culture difference between the U.S. and France. However, American teachers are still certainly qualified to teach all subjects to their elementary school students, as they are well-educated, and most veteran teachers have Master’s degrees in Education and above.

      I’ve also never heard of a 12-month TPP for people who don’t have a Bachelor’s degree; where did you find this information? There are TPP’s that can be completed in as quick as a year for people who already have Bachelor’s degrees in a field other than Education and wish to become licensed teachers; usually these people are seeking a career change to Education. These programs usually involve the attainment of a Master’s degree in Education with a focus in the particular discipline(s) that they wish to teach, and the reason that they can sometimes be completed in as little as a year is because they are considered accelerated, alternative routes to teacher licensure for people who already have a Bachelor’s degree. Otherwise, anyone looking to become a teacher in the U.S. must go through a traditional, 4 or 5 year Teacher Education Program and pass the appropriate examinations in their particular discipline(s) in order to become a licensed teacher.

      1. Requirements for teachers in American schools vary greatly state to state. I teach in California where at least one year of graduate school in education is required in addition to a bachelor’s degree. Most teachers have a master’s degree. Teachers can be certified for K-8. Most middle schools prefer teachers who are specialized in either language and history or science and math as students usually split their day between two teachers except for electives. High school teachers are specialized in subject area. All teachers take numerous tests, go through continuous professional development, are evaluated constantly, and are expected to be up to date on the latest standards-based practices. A typical teaching day in California starts at 7:00 and officially ends at 3:30, but most teachers coach or advise after school activities as well. Maintaining discipline is a huge problem in American schools. Pay is terrible. Burnout is high. Wonder why?

      2. Pay is even worse in France! But I wonder if I would burn out more quickly in the USA. The nice things about France is that they just kind of let you get on with it. Pros and cons everywhere!

    5. At least 5 years of college to get certified to teach in California. Most teachers have a Master’s degree. While it is possible to get a credential to teach K-8, in practice, that multiple subjects credential is generally only used for K-6. Middle school teachers are usually specialized in science and math, or literature and history, unless they are elective teachers. High school teachers are certified in the particular subject they teach. In addition, teachers are required to pass numerous tests and do professional development courses on a continual basis.

      1. Yep! There’s a lot of prep / training involved in the US, especially focused on pedagogy. I feel like teachers in France are experts on their topics but there is a lack of pedagogical training at the university level (although this is changing)

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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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