France Is 180 Years Ahead of America on Universal Pre-K

An American in Paris crunches the numbers.
Feb. 3 2014 11:52 PM

The Autonomous 3-Year-Old

Universal pre-K is a long tradition in France, and one that American parents might envy.

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I’m happy about this, because French maternelle classes are big—25 to 32 children, often with only one teacher. A strong emphasis is placed on children being autonome, or independent, and 3-year-olds must be able to do many things by themselves: go to the bathroom, put on shoes, carry their lunch tray in the cantine. As an added benefit, though, the teachers sit with the children at lunchtime and teach them how to eat in the traditional French way. A recent lunch menu at my local maternelle, posted on the door outside the building, included a first course of leeks vinaigrette and a dessert of cheese and fruit. “My 3-year-old son knows how to eat pasta with a fork and spoon,” my friend Hannah told me. “I don’t even know how to do that.”

The flip side of this enforced independence is also an explicit teaching of the concept la vie ensemble: learning to live with others. Some of this may be a function of class size, some of it part of a general philosophy that places less emphasis on the individual and their needs. French people are wary of creating l’enfant roi: “A 5-year-old should be aware that he’s in an environment where there are rules that make it possible for us to live together,” Fortier says. “With 30 people in one small room, before you are an outspoken child, you should be able to listen. I have concern for every individual, but I need a group.” By contrast, studies of American preschools (notably by anthropologist Joseph Tobin in Preschool in Three Cultures) show an emphasis on the child as an individual, and on individual choice and self-expression.

In general, I like that kids in France are taught this kind of social awareness, but it can go too far. There’s not a lot of coloring outside the lines in France, both literally and figuratively. This hints at the one area where France seems to struggle: special education. The emphasis is very much toward mainstreaming. A 2005 French law similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act calls for the integration of special-needs children into mainstream education, and a report last year for the French ministry of education shows that this integration is happening, especially for younger children. This is a laudable goal, but hasn’t been met with the budget to provide enough support staff; as a result, kids with mild to moderate learning disabilities (which include Asperger’s and Down syndrome) can be left to fend for themselves in a large class with a single teacher. In her class this year, Fortier has two children she describes as “seriously disabled” and she has no teaching aides or other help. She is conflicted about this. On the one hand, Fortier says, “the kids should know what a disability is, and if you have a disabled child in your class, it can help normalize this for other children.” But, she adds, “if you have 29 other children …” Fortier trails off.

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Though more and more large cities are providing public preschool programs in the U.S., it remains a world of haves and have-nots. According to a 2006 report from the anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, the average cost of part-time preschool in California is more than the cost of a semester at one of the state’s public universities. Tuition for these often part-time programs can top $10,000 a year. Clearly, people who can send their children to a costly preschool can also afford to give them many other advantages. Universal preschool is an economically efficient way to narrow our widening gap between rich and poor, both by getting kids to a level playing field earlier in their lives, and by giving working families some relief from the ever-increasing cost of child care. Though the U.S. will never be able to implement a centralized government plan with the efficiency of the French, this is one area we should try to push forward—with or without lessons in table manners.

Claire Lundberg is a writer, literary scout, and former New Yorker now living in Paris.

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