France's ranking in the latest set of results from the 2012 data collection (PISA 2012), which evaluates the knowledge and skills of the world's 15-year-olds, is more catastrophic than ever. PISA is conducted every three years, being the result of an extensive and rigorous set of international surveys, with each PISA survey having a particular focus on one subject area, reading or mathematics. Reading was the main focus in 2009; France was then ranked 22d out of 65, slipping back 5 places in 6 years.
This year PISA focuses on mathematics. And France is moving down a few places again. And, even worse, she is one of the last countries, if not the last, in the bottom decile, that is, our worst students in mathematics, from the most underprivileged backgrounds, are the worst performers of the developed countries.
We can, of course, boast of still having an exceptional school of mathematics, with more Fields Medal (often described as the « mathematician's Nobel Prize ») than any other country, on a par with the USA; we must concede, however, that there is a drop in the average performance of an age group and admit that, contrary to what was believed for a long time, science disciplines are not more effective than humanities disciplines in fighting social exclusion. No doubt because the ways of acquiring mathematical proficiency involve the capacity for abstraction that is complementary to a family environment predisposed to help the child, at a very early age, in acquiring it.
In effect, what happens is we are a country based on rente: money begets money, knowledge begets knowledge. Children from wealthy families stay as such. Children of teachers or engineers are more likely than any other to hold a higher education diploma. And without growth, the position they hold are no longer available for children from other social backgrounds. Particularly for those who do not have the opportunity to belong to a genuinely caring family with a house where they can isolate themselves to study.
Unless this changes, millions of talented individuals we will be lost, and they will leave, frustrated, to go to other countries or underground. France will lose her soul in this. And her future.
As always, a complex problem does not have a unique solution. Multiple approaches should be used at the same time to cope with it. The five major solutions are:
1. Improving housing massively for those from disadvantaged background, as the National Urban Renewal Agency (ANRU) has begun to do, and developing street corner boarding schools for all children in middle schools, and not just for the best or the most disadvantaged students.
2. Really allocating more resources to middle schools with « Zone d'éducation prioritaire » (ZEP), in particular by sending there more beginning teachers and by facilitating their access to new forms of digital education.
3. Guiding young men and women from disadvantaged background as early as in the sixth grade towards general baccalaureates, by building life projects with them, and by discontinuing the injection of belief that the Professional Bac is their best future.
4. Raising the image of the engineering professions, which are at the heart of a country's economic future and which should no longer be offered less pay than those of trade and finance. And therefore, reasserting in priority the value of careers of mathematics and physics teachers, on which the training of future engineers depends.
5. What matters now is that everyone should understand that there is nothing more poetic, more elegant, more harmonious than mathematics, gateway to the world of dreams and creation.
France, country of Descartes, can still win this battle.