Concerns about the impacts and effectiveness of French Immersion programs aren’t new. As Ayesha Barmania wrote in “La Vie Bilingue: French immersion programs in Canada through the ages” school boards have been dealing with the same problems with French Immersion for almost forty years.
Seven years ago Kristin Rushowy wrote about how French Immersion schools in Oakville (Halton District School Board, HDSB) were “driving students out of their neighbourhood in search of an English program“. Rushowy revisited the issue in 2014 and found the same issues were now cropping up in Burlington (also HDSB).
I began writing about French Immersion on this blog in February of 2013, and then later that year in The Globe and Mail. Shortly after my piece was published in The Globe and Mail I was interviewed by a Vancouver radio station about French Immersion.
In 2015 I was interviewed for “Just say ‘non’: The problem with French immersion“. It was, in a way, a follow-up to “8 things I wish I’d known about French immersion” where parent and writer Emma Waverman wrote about her frustrations with French Immersion. Particularly compelling is Waverman’s insight that the French Immersion curriculum is often boring and outdated, using lots of rote learning. Waverman also mentioned that it’s challenging for many parents to support FI learning at home when they don’t speak the language.
This year, The Globe and Mail’s Caroline Alphonso applied a much needed critical perspective to French Immersion programs in Canadian schools. Alphonso’s investigative articles kicked off a month of meaningful public debate about the implications of the French Immersion program for public education in Canada.
Alphonso’s “The Shrinking English Classroom” in March was followed closely by Kelly Egan’s “How French immersion swallowed Ottawa’s English public school board“. Both pieces explored the impact that the uncontrolled growth of French Immersion programs is having on the education of all students.
Egan wondered whether the growth of French Immersion would lead to English becoming a “speciality program” in the English Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB). Worryingly, Pino Buffone, the OCDSB’s superintendent of curriculum responded “That’s possible, depending on the interests of our parents and guardians.” English a marginal program in an English language school board. Hmmm…
In February The OCDSB made changes to address some of the problems they were experiencing with French Immersion. Starting in September 2016, all KG classes will be French Immersion (50% French, 50 % English) and math in French Immersion classes (grade 1-3) will be taught English. Why did they decide to make these changes?
OCDSB trustee Donna Blackburn explained:
“I think the piece around equity was very important to me, that we have lower uptakes in the French immersion program for certain groups of students. People coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, English language learners, students with disabilities, and male students … take early French immersion and middle French immersion at lower rates than the rest of the population.”
Even in Ottawa, Canada’s most bilingual city, French Immersion classes aren’t reflective of the school population. If Ottawa is struggling to make French Immersion work, what hope is there for the rest of Canada?
Shortly after the OCDSB decision I was invited to discuss my thoughts about some of the problems with French Immersion on the CBC Radio show The 180 .
In late May Alphonso wrote that HDSB trustees were considering delaying students entry into French Immersion until Grade 2, and increasing the amount of French language instruction from 50% to 100%. Alphonso’s “Ontario schools struggle to keep students in French immersion” reported that half of elementary French Immersion students drop out of the program before they enter high school.
Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee followed this up a few days later with his column “French immersion could do with a dose of reality.” Gee called on school boards to evaluate whether French Immersion is actually working:
“But the whole program needs a good hard look. Enrolment in immersion is soaring. School boards are struggling to meet the demand. It’s a good time to examine whether it is working as it should.”
Margaret Wente agreed that there are many problems with French Immersion.
The next day I did a similar interview with Wei Chen on the CBC show Ontario Morning.
Finally Cross Country Canada hosted a national call in show to the discuss the question: “Has French immersion for school children failed to live up to its promise?”
The concerns raised about French Immersion programs over these last few months are:
- French Immersion is negatively affecting the quality of education offered to non-FI students.
- French Immersion classrooms don’t reflect the diversity of Canadian society. French Immersion students are more likely to be richer, better educated, girls, native English speakers, non-immigrant, white and less likely to have special education needs.
- The rate of attrition from French Immersion programs is unacceptably high.
- There aren’t enough qualified French Immersion teachers and resources to offer a high quality program.
- French Immersion isn’t very effective at teaching students how to be fluent in French (i.e. many have stated the goal of FI is to produce bilingual citizens).
There was really only one substantive mainstream reply to this maelstrom of criticism, and it didn’t really come from the French Immersion “community”. Graham Fraser, The Commissioner of Official Languages, wrote in The Globe and Mail “Of course French immersion is not perfect“. In this piece, Mr, Fraser basically agrees that, yes, there are problems with French Immersion, but argues that the benefits outweigh them. Not exactly a stunning endorsement.
The largest advocacy group for French Immersion, Canadian Parents for French, kept mostly to the fringes of the discussion and continued their grass-roots lobbying of school board trustees. This make s sense, because, ultimately, their goal isn’t to ensure we have a healthy, functioning public education system, but rather to make sure that, no matter the cost, French Immersion, in it’s current form, will endure.
It now falls to our elected officials, the school board trustees and Members of Provincial Parliament to step forward and begin an evaluation of French Immersion. Until that happens, they are avoiding their responsibility to ensure that all students have the an education that meets their needs.