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Level of students in math, the challenge of training teachers to raise their heads

What does the Timms study say?

Four years after a previous edition which had sounded the alarm, this study carried out in 2019 shows that our students of CM1 and 4e are stuck at the very end of the ranking in mathematics and science. In CM1, for example, France comes last in the European class in one of the disciplines and penultimate in the OECD in the other.

Another observation is that there are fewer and fewer very good students in our country: only 3% reach the “advanced” level, against 9% on average at European level.

→ READ. A majority of CM2 students who are weak or very weak in maths

The results are hardly better in 4e. “The math level of grade 4 studentse in 2019 is that of 5e in 1995 “, deplores Fabienne Rosenwald, head of the Evaluation, Foresight and Performance Department (Depp). “The strengths of French students lie in the fields of statistics and probability and geometry; weak points in algebra and in the cognitive domain ”, she specifies.

How to bounce back?

Following the Villani-Torossian report of 2018, France chose to change its ways of learning math. The idea is to introduce the four operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) from the first grade using small numbers to understand their meaning. And to take well-identified steps: we start by manipulating objects (concrete step), then verbalize (pictorial step), before moving on to abstraction. A method that has proven itself in Singapore, a country which has, in this new edition, 50% of 4e reaching the advanced level (compared to 2% for us).

→ READ. Mathematics, France is looking towards Singapore

But this presupposes a training effort, which can only bear fruit after years. Particularly in the first degree, where the teachers have mostly had a course in letters or human sciences. In its overhaul of training, the government intends to harmonize practices between the various national higher institutes of teaching and education (Inspé).

“For the initial training of school teachers, it is recommended to devote 50% of the time to fundamentals (French and maths) in future models”, notes Claire Piolti-Lamorthe, member of the board of the Association of mathematics teachers in public education. A time which however remains insufficient in his eyes.

→ INVESTIGATION. School failure, a painful ordeal for parents

The issue of continuing education is also taken seriously. Thus, in 2019, 23% of French students taking the Timms exams had teachers who had not received any training focused on mathematical content, compared to 53% in the previous edition.

What about recruitment?

This is the thorniest problem. “By bringing the training of teachers to bac + 5 in 2010, we have aligned it with that of engineers, except that salaries have remained almost twice lower than theirs”, observes Vivien Joby, president of SNCEEL, an organization of heads of private establishments.

The lack of attractiveness of the teaching professions is found during the competitions. “During the last Maths Capes, there were 1,946 present for 1,185 places, a ratio that has been falling for years and which greatly limits the choice”, sighs Alexis Torchet, national secretary of Sgen-CFDT.

Should we go so far as to pay teachers more in disciplines like math, where teaching sees some of its possible recruits slipping away to join a more profitable business world? It is an idea that was put forward in 2009… by Barack Obama, faced with the same challenge. “Not sure that our system is ripe for such an approach”, reacts a rector. The solution lies more, as we are working with the Grenelle education, he assures, in an increase in salaries at the beginning of a career and in an enhancement of career paths. “


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