THE WORLD'S BEST 5 IDEAS FRANCE How to prime kids for school
By DENISE M. TOPOLNICKI Reporter associate: Baie Netzer

(MONEY Magazine) – While Americans proclaim the social and academic benefits of early-childhood education, the French deliver it: Virtually all children attend preschool, and eight of 10 go to free, government-run institutions. By contrast, fewer than half of American kids attend preschool. Even the federally funded $2.8 billion-a-year Head Start program, which aims to offer children from families below the poverty line solid pre-elementary training, reaches only 34% of the 2.1 million preschoolers whom the federal government aims to serve. President Clinton has proposed to spend $10 billion over the next four years to expand and improve the 1,370 Head Start projects, but before he does so, he might ask First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton about the French preschools she visited on a French-American Foundation study tour in 1989. Unlike Head Start, French preschools are demonstrably effective: A 1983 study by the French National Ministry of Education found that children from families of all socioeconomic levels greatly increased their chances of passing first grade if they attended preschool for the maximum three years. Even boosters of the Head Start program, on the other hand, admit that its effectiveness varies widely from project to project. Yale psychologist Edward Zigler, one of Head Start's founders, estimates that 25% of the projects are "poor in quality." Disturbingly, it costs more than twice as much to enroll a child in Head Start ($3,720 a year) than in a French preschool (about $1,600), according to economist Barbara Bergmann of American University in Washington, D.C., who is writing a book on French child welfare programs. Yet French preschools are open 4 1/2 days a week vs. only 2 1/2 days (actually, five half-days) for Head Start. A typical eight-hour day for a French preschooler like the one profiled opposite includes stories and songs, art, reading- and math-readiness exercises, gymnastics, two to three recesses and a four-course hot lunch (cost: about $4 a day, depending on family income). Only the food isn't top quality; a typical lunch of beef patties, glutinous vegetables and supermarket cheese stops just short of sullying France's reputation as the culinary capital of the world. The key reason why the French schools accomplish more than Head Start, yet spend less, is that the national government hires highly trained teachers who are capable of handling large classes. Says Colette Durand, a preschool inspector in Paris: "We are running pre-elementary schools, not nursery schools. Our teachers are not glorified babysitters; they are educators, like primary and secondary school teachers, and so they are paid on the same scale." Preschool instructors, who are required by the national Ministry of Education to have the equivalent of a master's degree, earn $19,500 to $37,300 a year, whereas Head Start teachers, 85% of whom never graduated from college, earn as little as $9,000. On average, there are 28 kids in a French preschool class, compared with 18 in Head Start. Despite the class size, French teachers, who create lessons within a curriculum established by the Ministry of Education, seem able to command their students' attention. Says Francoise Rollet, director of a preschool in Paris' Montparnasse district: "It would be ideal to have only 20 to 25 students in a class and to employ a teacher's aide as well as a teacher for each group. But educators here are not convinced that such changes are required for academic success." American critics who argue that the French system of larger classes wouldn't work in the U.S. because of the greater ethnic diversity of American schools aren't paying attention to their own country's research. When the U.S. Department of Education studied elementary schools in 1988, it found no clear relationship between class size and student achievement. The cost of Head Start is also driven up by the fact that, like many antipoverty programs that date from the 1960s, it is run to benefit the poor financially and psychologically by giving them jobs in the agencies that aid them. As a result, many Head Start payrolls are padded with positions for students' parents, most of whom have no expertise in early-childhood education. If Congress expanded the Head Start program to cover all 11.2 million three- to five-year-olds in the U.S., it would cost a whopping $41.6 billion a year. But the same number of kids could be educated in French-style preschools for $17.9 billion -- only $8 billion more than President Clinton proposes to spend to educate just the underprivileged.