1 France is often singled out for the inequality of its education system, among the most unequal in the developed countries. One of the many factors that may explain the magnitude of these inequalities is access to educational resources. And foremost among these resources are teachers—decisive figures in a child’s future—which this book clearly and edifyingly demonstrates. Presenting her research based on a novel dataset, Asma Benhenda shows how the French education system reinforces the difficulties facing students from disadvantaged social backgrounds: their teachers are less experienced and less qualified; and in the schools they attend, rates of teacher turnover and absenteeism are significantly higher.
2 It is widely agreed in the social science literature that the most experienced teachers are better equipped to help their students progress. It would therefore seem natural for the pupils who face the greatest difficulties to be taught by ‘good’ teachers. But what is a ‘good’ teacher? How can the quality of a teacher be measured? Traditionally, in France a good teacher was thought to be one who embodies the authority and values of the Republic. The modern definition instead emphasizes skills (disciplinary and pedagogical) and the ability to enable students to progress or, in more economic terms, to increase their ‘human capital’. So-called value-added models, aimed at measuring the increase in knowledge that can be attributed to the teacher, emerged in the 1970s, mainly in the United States with the work of Hanushek. Using school grades as a measure of human capital, these models compare how a student’s marks actually change from one year to another to how they would have changed had the student been assigned to the ‘average’ teacher. Accordingly, then, a ‘good’ teacher is one whose students progress faster than the average. But it is easy to recognize the limitations of this exercise, which reduces the teacher’s role to the optimization of academic performance, neglecting the acquisition of non-cognitive skills, an equally important part of students’ development.
3 A good teacher is also one in good physical and mental health. Drawing on the limited body of available administrative data, mainly on short- and long-term sick leave, Benhenda offers an initial diagnosis of health of the teaching profession. In doing so, she puts to rest the widespread notion that absenteeism is more common among teachers than in other occupations. What these analyses reveal instead, however, is that other characteristics being equal, teachers in disadvantaged schools, where teaching conditions are more difficult, are also more often absent than teachers in other schools. This damages their pupils’ academic performance and reinforces their pre-existing difficulties.
4 Difficulties in school are often combined with social inequalities. In Chapter 3, Benhenda shows how the unequal distribution of educational resources between schools contributes to reinforcing these issues rather than mitigating them. Using never before studied administrative data covering a period of more than 10 years (2004–2015), she draws an alarming conclusion: inequalities in access to experienced teachers are disproportionately concentrated in the most disadvantaged schools. The teachers of highly advantaged students have 50% more experience than those of other students (an average of 5 additional years) and stay 60% longer in the same school. These students are also 70% less likely to have a teacher working on a temporary contract, rather than one who has successfully passed the competitive national CAPES or agrégation exam to obtain a permanent teaching position. The time frame of the widening of these inequalities that Benhenda describes coincides with the general review of public policies implemented in 2007 on the initiative of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Its flagship measure, the non-replacement of 1 out of 2 civil servants upon retirement, resulted in a 10% decrease in the number of teachers, even though the student population fell by only 4% in the same period. This shortage of teachers has led to large-scale recourse to overtime and contract staff, as their proportion of total teaching hours tripled.
5 But existing public policies could solve these problems, given appropriate means. Chapter 4 presents several possible avenues for improvement: rethinking initial and continuing teacher training, notably by expanding the role of practical experience and pedagogical support; increasing teachers’ pay to make the profession more attractive; and even reforming the job allocation system, which systematically gives priority to the most experienced teachers in deciding who will work where.