Straight Outta Courneuve

‘One has to have the passion to teach to join the French education system.’ She spoke from experience. ‘The selection examinations are gruelling, the salaries are very lean and novice teacher recruits have practically no say about where they teach.’ France’s teacher placements are decided by a points system; the more of them a teacher has accrued, the greater the choice in schools. Young, single, childless, able-bodied, entry-level teachers start with a minimum of 21 points, which ensures that they wind up at the most challenging establishments in the most notorious neighbourhoods. Hers was in a Parisian suburb called La Courneuve, politely known throughout the country as a banlieue difficle (difficult suburb) or, more commonly, referred to as un quartier chaud (a ‘hot’ neighbourhood).

Among other things, she bemoaned the passivity of the adolescent students: you have to spoon-feed them everything. They are not ready to make the smallest step to learn something, but they all think they will one day be successful sports personalities, movie stars or rap artists – even though their efforts towards these ambitions are limited to just watching movies and sports or listening to rap music. Aren’t there any behavioural ‘nudging’ techniques that could motivate these kids, she implored.

Research has shown that higher expectations about ultimately entering university may lead to higher effort with schoolwork, higher grades and a higher likelihood of securing a university place.  The Courneuve students had what researchers would call an education-independent future identity.[1] When they envision a successful future image of themselves, it does not depend on education. If they were able to readily imagine themselves in a career that does require post-secondary education, an education-dependant identity, they would be motivated to spend more time on schoolwork and achieve more. Behavioural economists would recognise these sentiments as reference-point dependency: people who perform below their reference point perceive the difference as a loss, and are motivated to act in order to close the gap. The issue is, therefore, how to instil this university-bound identity.

Some initiatives that have been tried include conducting adult education in the school during regular school time, university outreach programs, and other salient cues to post-school education. However, one novel approach has the parents opening savings accounts for their children.[2] Of course, these families may not have any meaningful savings, but the account is salient benchmark for the child. Its ownership gives them a sense of control, and it strengthens their sense of belonging to a group ‘that saves.’ Furthermore, children in a savings program are more likely to perceive that saving as a means to overcome the problem of high university fees. For this approach to succeed the account must be in the child’s name and he or she must know about it. Moreover, the growing balance must never be allowed to stagnate, otherwise the saliency of it would simply fade.

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[1] Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969.

[2] Elliotta, W., Choia, E.H., Destin, M., & Kimc, K.H. (2011).  The age old question, which comes first? A simultaneous test of children’s savings and children’s college-bound identity. Centre for Social Development, George Washington University. Working Paper No. 11-04


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