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 boredom."
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 (EMA), 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.