In deep water, or how one teacher’s testimony illuminates data

In January of this year, a group of students, some from the Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires (including myself), and some from the Institut Pasteur, organized a three-day data hackathon, “HackEduData”, hoping to dig through PISA data in order to find new correlations explaining France’s relatively dreary results.

No miracles or brilliant discoveries, but more a learning experience that confronted us with the difficulties in interpreting open data and grasping sense from the vast numbers.

During the hackathon

This article was written shortly afterwards but got stuck on the shelves for the usual reasons.

Today’s news is a good reason to finally publish it, after the back-to-back announcements of, first, the in-depth analysis of the French school system edited by the OECD and second, the sweeping changes — “reformes” — announced by the new French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, only a few days before classes start.

The first reactions to the “new program” only confirm the thrust of what I wrote in February.

Sunday morning, we received a public school teacher who came by hazard.

Her testimony has little “statistical” validity, but nevertheless highlights some of the contradictions and correlations between a perceived situation and what the data reveals about teacher education and professional trajectories. The image conveyed is less that of a public institution incapable of adapting to new needs but rather of an institution constantly shaken by political and economic priorities far removed from its stated objectives. These external priorities in turn influenced many of Maria’s (the name has been changed) choices and how she perceives herself as a teacher.

Maria is a teacher in a lower secondary school (ISCED 2) or “collège.” After completing her master program at the EHESS, she finished her teacher entry exams in 2010. Reforms under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency had already begun to modify teachers statutes (decree 29 July 2009).

The decree set minimum employment requirements, where a Master’s diploma became obligatory. The high entry level reduced by almost half the number of school-teacher candidates, from 35,000 in 2009 to 18,000 in 2010. Most notably for Maria, the part-time internship once required was suppressed. She therefore entered her professional career with no practical classroom experience and joined a collective, “Stagiaire Impossible”, that sought to overturn the recent reforms.

She began her career in a suburban lower secondary school in the northern Paris suburbs. Lower secondary schools in France are noted for the difficulties that they face, and in particular when the school is in an underprivileged neighborhood. Inexperienced teachers were then, as still now, confronted with inextricable situations. Roger and Ruelland (2009) documented some of the difficulties facing teachers: “Sometimes I’m as indifferent as they are. The main objective is that they are not standing on the tables, that the class goes by. But it’s really sad, you know, because you lose all ambition”.

Other recent studies correlate work stress as a significant problem, to which elementary school teachers are more exposed than high-level managers. Jégo and Guillo (2016) point to factors such as job intensity, emotional implication, lack of administrative support and low levels of communication between teachers which explain teaching as a solitary job. The OECD 2013 TALIS report confirms these findings and considers that French teachers have a high knowledge level but low autonomy and equally weak peer relations.

Following the presidential elections in 2012 and the political shift from right to left, Vincent Peillon, Education Minister, reinstated part-time internships in 2013 (9 hours in class, 9 hours in internship), created a new teacher Master teacher diploma but without providing additional finance to the Universities teaching the new Master.

In the meantime, Maria changed schools, switching from one suburb to another, where she still is today. In 2014, she joined a teacher’s union affiliated with the national trade union Force Ouvrière.

An internal mailing list between teachers where they shared their problems and ideas accidentally became public in 2016, and brought to the forefront the difficulties of school administrators. The accidental publication created a conflict with their principal who, according to Maria, suffering from “burnout,” overreacted. After a long battle, the teachers won their main request to have not one but two administrators to cover the workload.

For Maria, school principals are in an unsupportable position. Recent reforms allowing more decentralized pedagogical choices mean increased workloads for local school Principals, adding tasks for which they have no training.

The reforms have other consequences, however, concerning teacher careers. Career advancement is based both on seniority (70%) and teacher evaluations (30%), but these evaluations are henceforth limited to four evaluations over the course of their career. Teachers are thus left on their own, from Maria’s viewpoint, and with the added stress of surmounting critical “painpoints” which will condition their careers.

Maria finished by offering a few ideas about what needs to be changed:

  • Stop placing new and inexperienced teachers in difficult and underprivileged schools that demand the best qualified teachers in order to surmount the handicaps that students face;
  • Create independent platforms allowing teachers to share their knowledge and class programs. Independence is the key word, which for Maria means platforms that offer both professional guarantees and hierarchical independence;
  • Ensure proper IT maintenance, meaning that digital tools remain functional rather than breaking down constantly;
  • More surprisingly, allow classes to follow through free from the constraint of school buzzers. Constant rotations reduce both effective class time and confidence between students and teachers.

If time had allowed, she could have gone further. What her testimony points out is that, paradoxically, although data by itself (the object of our Hackathon) is insufficient to fully understand the underlying phenomena, first-hand reports bring us full circle back to the data which correlate her testimony and feed our understanding.

The other, and most important conclusion, is that much more attention should be paid to underlying political and administrative structures rather than the constant focus on teachers per se. In other words, focus not only on how, but why, for whom and to what ends we teach.

Endnotes :

“Compare Your Country — PISA 2015.” Accessed February 12, 2017.

OECD/Bartillat. « L’enquête OCDE-PISA », s. d. doi:

Collas, Aurélie. « Ecole : les nouveautés de la rentrée ». Le, 29 août 2017.

« Laurence De Cock : “Une réforme de l’école ne se pense pas d’en haut mais d’en bas” | Bondy Blog ». Consulté le 29 août 2017.

“Le Bilan de Sarkozy Sur L’éducation : Le Grand Malaise.” L’Obs. Accessed January 29, 2017.

Jeanne-Claire Fumet. “Stagiaire Impossible : La voix d’un mécontentement profond.” Accessed February 12, 2017.

Jean-Luc Roger, and Danielle Ruelland. “Le «Travail Sur Le Travail» Un instrument d’action personnel et collectif pour les professionnels de L’Education National.” Centre de Recherche sur le Travail et le Développement (CRTD) EA 4132, September 2009.

Sylvaine Jégo, and Clément Guillo. “Les enseignants face aux risques psychosociaux : comparaison des enseignants avec certains cadres du privé et de la fonction publique en 2013.” ÉDUCATION & FORMATIONS, no. 92 (December 2016).

“TALIS — Enquête Internationale Sur L’enseignement et L’apprentissage — OCDE.” Accessed February 12, 2017.

François Jarraud. “L’école française moins professionnelle car plus hiérarchique.” Accessed February 12, 2017.

François Jarraud. “Métier enseignant : une révolution dans l’évaluation ?” Accessed February 12, 2017.