The level of French in mathematics has collapsed. It is a national misfortune and a danger to our prosperity because, in the context of the third industrial revolution, this mathematical underdevelopment could become an economic and social underdevelopment. France has long been the country of mathematics: the one where teaching was qualitative and egalitarian, and which won an impressive number of Fields medals (the equivalent of the Nobel Prize). This period, unfortunately, is over.
The latest Timss survey, an international ranking that focuses on science education in general and math in particular, is catastrophic for our country. In terms of the CM1 level, France occupies the penultimate position in the ranking, ahead of Chile, far behind Slovakia, Croatia or Bulgaria. 15% of students do not even have basic knowledge. In terms of 4th grade, our country is the last in Europe, while we were among the best in the 90s. In 25 years, 4th graders have lost on average the level of a class (it is in say, today they are the level of 5 of 1995). Studies conducted by National Education show that the level is also falling by the decile of the best performing students. What is often called “teacher effect” by education specialists is often questioned. In other words, the National Education has difficulty in attracting a sufficient number of teachers who are perfectly comfortable with the discipline. Low wages, working conditions but also the fact that school teachers often come from literary training are the main elements in question.
Not only is the level low, but the number of mathematicians is melting. A few days ago the APHEC (Association of Teachers of Economic and Business Preparatory Classes) issued a new alert, which is concerned about the 9% drop in students in the economic and business preparatory classes. That our young people are partially moving away from the “prepas” is not a problem in itself. It is the analysis of the main cause that must be understood: the drying up of the number of first and last year students after a teaching dedicated to mathematics. Indeed, the reform of the BAC took mathematics out of the common core. Instead of having, as Luc Ferry proposed for example, a great literary current (with science) and a great scientific current (with letters and history), we have composed a patchwork that is quite difficult to read and that seems to be incapable. of to raise the general level.
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This subject affects not only students and their parents but all citizens. In fact, one of the main challenges for France in the coming years will be to catch up with its lag in the production of innovations. However, as economists such as Eric Chaney and Xavier Jaravel point out, there is a link between a country’s level of mathematics and its economic performance. This link is materialized by the capacity for radical innovation and the quality of the interactions between fundamental research and applied scientific research.
Achieving the technological frontier in sectors such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology or low-carbon energy must be the subject of a priority policy. This is the correct idea on paper for the France 2030 plan, presented by President Macron a few weeks ago. This plan is good in the background (selects a dozen very innovative sectors) and is good in terms of its organization, very oriented to the needs of companies. The amount indicated, 30 billion euros in 5 years, may seem modest for what is at stake, but private contributions should allow it to be multiplied by two or three.
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The obstacle that will be raised quickly will not be the economic means but the lack of skills. For example, it is a great idea to want to build a clean hydrogen sector in France. Our nuclear knowledge gives us a comparative advantage in doing so. But we will not have a radically innovative hydrogen sector without very high-level research, both in science and mathematics. Wanting to isolate applied research (in physics) from fundamental research (in mathematics) is a game of the mind. In real life, everything is intertwined. It is, therefore, for our future that we must make the teaching of mathematics a great national cause. It is a necessity for the future economy of our country and there is no doubt that a large number of parents, who are also voters, will support this project.
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