Amanda Ripley

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Are French Kids Smart?

6th Mar 2012 posted in Parenting

The new book Bringing Up Bebe has got affluent American parents all in a tizzy—again. Why aren’t our kids parfait, aussi?

Good question. I lived in France for a while, and anecdotally speaking, it did seem like French parents were less likely to indulge their children in some ways. My French friends put their children to bed at 7:30 pm and had a civilized dinner with their husbands. (Except for the ones who didn’t, of course.)

I suspect that France is a more pleasant place to parent in 1,000 different ways, as my New America colleague Brigid Schulte explained in the Washington Post recently, notably the subsidized childcare, generous parental leave policies and universal health care.

But putting that aside, I have another question: Are French kids smart? Does all that chic parenting translate into kids who know how to think critically and solve real problems?

The evidence suggests…. Non, pas exactement.

Here is how French 15-year-olds perform on the PISA, which is an international test of critical thinking skills, administered to half a million kids every 3 years by the OECD:

Reading: France ranked 15th in reading in 2009, which is a teeny bit worse than our own kids performed (we ranked 12th), but about average for the developed world.

Science: France ranked 20th in Science in 2009, which is again just slightly worse than our own kids (17th)—and about average for the develop world.

Math: France ranked 18th in Math in 2009, about average for the developed world. That’s the only subject in which their teenagers outperformed our teenagers on the PISA. American kids came in 26th, below average for the developed world.

In other words, French kids do OK on international tests of critical thinking in math, reading and science. But given their low rates of child poverty, they ain’t breaking any records.

What about privileged French kids? The ones Bringing Up Bebe is, truth be told, most focused on?

As with our own rich kids, the picture is mixed. The top-quartile of French kids—the ones with the most material advantages based on PISA’s index of economic, social and cultural status—outperform our own rich kids in science and math (even though they are not as rich as our rich kids).

Still, our rich kids do a bit better than their rich kids in reading. (This is a pattern which holds up around the world. American kids do better in reading than math or science at every income level. Too bad future income is predicted by math skills…)

This suggests that all of our schools, even our rich, suburban schools, are underperforming in math and science. Or else our parents are underperforming math and science… I’d argue that both are true.

Anyway, the point is, France is not doing wildly better than we are—for its rich or poor kids—when it comes to learning.

Low-income American kids AND French kids perform significantly worse than their high-income peers, which is less true in countries like Finland, Korea and Canada. Both the US and France have a problem with disparities in education outcomes, even though France has far less child poverty and far more generous social welfare benefits. Another reminder that a great education system requires more than anti-poverty programs. Beaucoup more.