What American Schools Could Learn From the French School System
Sample School Schedule
Shown above is an example of a typical school schedule of a high school French student. Notice the following:
- School does not start until 8:45. That is a full hour after school starts where I work. What kid wouldn't want some extra time to sleep in?
- School gets out at 4:25. That is very late for us. However, it is much closer to an adult's work schedule, possibly making before/after school care easier and reducing the amount of "fun" activities children can get involved in when there is less adult supervision.
However, the biggest thing I think is interesting is the day-to-day schedule. Even if you can't read what classes they are taking, you can tell from above that the student does not have the same schedule every day. This is similar to a typical university schedule in America, and I for one remember enjoying that aspect of my college experience. Admittedly, this would require high school students to be more prepared and more aware than they currently are, but clearly it is possible, since the French youth are doing it.
Another interesting thing about the weekly schedule in France is that most students have Wednesdays off, or Wednesday afternoons off, but have classes Saturday mornings. I know we are quite attached to our Saturdays, but I think the idea could catch on. It might be nice to have a little (or a large) break in the middle of the week. This would be ideal for students to do things like have doctor/dentist appointments or do a weekly activity like dance or music. It might also be nice for students to have some extra time in the week to get school work done or to work at an after school job. It would be hard to give up sleeping in, though!
Would you give up your Saturday mornings to have Wednesday afternoon (or possibly even the entire day) off?
Typical French Student's Day
You will notice from the schedule at the top that students are given an hour and ten minutes for lunch, compared to half an hour at the high school where I teach. With all this time, students in France typically leave campus - whether it is to go home or go to a nearby restaurant to sit and chat with friends. I believe the benefits of an open campus policy as a regular policy across the United States could be:
- Students would enjoy a break from campus and could accomplish tasks outside of school in addition to eating lunch such as running errands. They would also have the time to work on school work if needed.
- With a longer amount of time, students could rest and enjoy the company of friends, possibly helping them feel rejuvenated and ready to get back to work after lunch.
- Students could take the time to eat slowly which would encourage healthier eating habits.
- With less students in the cafeteria, there would be less students to feed which might mean higher quality food and less time needed for lunch (my high school has 4 lunch periods which are scheduled from 10:47 - 1:08).
- Schools might also save money because there would be less products used to serve food, less to clean up, and fewer people needed to do both.
I understand that allowing students to leave opens up huge liability issues for schools. Many students nowadays do not live within walking distance of their schools so they would either stay nearby or travel together by car. Also, many might wonder if students would actually return to school. Some might not. Some leave anyway despite the fact that the rules do not allow them to. Again, it really comes down to a cultural expectation - it works in France so why couldn't it work here?
Many of my students probably won't like what I'm about to say, but I think it might be a good idea to remove extracurricular activities from the school day.
One somewhat annoying problem at my school is the amount of school students miss for a variety of activities, mostly athletics. Today alone, the softball team and volleyball team were both leaving school an hour early. Next week is Homecoming, and the entire school day will be cut short by an hour on Friday so the students can attend a Pep Rally.
In France, extracurriculars such as athletics, cheer, and clubs are not school affiliated. Therefore, students who wish to participate in these activities would do so outside of school.
Many might disagree with my stance, saying that for some students, athletics might be the only thing keeping them on track to graduate. Several student-athletes in our district are running the border of our high GPA standards for participation and probably would not seek out academic assistance if they didn't need the grades for sports.
I know this is something that would be quite a drastic change for us and I do appreciate how these activities can unite us as a community. However, the question that begs to be asked is: Could we put a priority on academics without hindering students' opportunities to participate in "social" events? French students still participate in clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities but much less so since you'll notice from the school schedule above that most students are in school until around 4pm. And who knows, less time for extracurriculars may be a good thing, forcing students to prioritize what they do. What parent of a teenager does not know the pain of taking their kid from soccer practice to volleyball to piano lessons, sometimes all in one day? Perhaps, our children could benefit from focusing on fewer tasks and doing them well rather than the many they currently do.
- Students choose their classes. In France, students have a lot more choice when it comes to what they are going to study, and they naturally pick things they are more interested in and are more relevant to what they plan on doing in the future.
- In high school, students can choose to focus on material that will lead to a post-secondary education or to focus on an education that allows them to study and prepare for a career after school high.
As a high school teacher, the above statements are basically my dream. Every day I have students in my classroom who would rather not be there, either they would rather not be in my particular class or in school at all. How much better would it be if students were taking more classes they enjoyed rather than trying to meet graduation requirements, or studying towards a career? It seems recently we have been pushing all students toward college when the reality is that some students don't want to go to college - it is a struggle just to get some to graduate high school. How great would it be to find something they are interested in and "track" them in that direction? I'm sure many of them would end up making more than I do with my Masters degree.
Although the French school system has some things going for it, it alone is by no means ideal or perfect.
In the United States, it seems that as time goes by we are slowly taking choices away from our youth in the effort of providing equality to all. We are encouraging them to be different and unique and independent while narrowing down what they are able to do. The freedoms that the French system offers are, in my opinion, its greatest strength and something I would like to see more of here in the United States.