Friday, March 28, 2008

French immersion, Special Education and Elitism

Try again, Kelly Lamrock. The latest line being spun by New Brunswick's Education Minister is that early French immersion needs to be cut in order to allow the province to devote more resources to children with special education needs, who are heavilly concentrated in the English-only stream.

Once again, the minister is muddled on cause and effect, and proposing a half-baked solution. He is certainly correct that children with special education needs are concentrated in the English-only stream, rather than in French immersion. But his explanation for why this situation exists is that Immersion is a program for the elite, and that children with special needs are streamed out of the program. The reality is somewhat different. Having spoken with French immersion and FSL teachers in New Brunswick, I know that the bigger problem is that the New Brunswick Department of Education has concentrated its special education specialists in the English-only program, and doesn't assign them, by and large, to French immersion schools. Teachers in the French immersion schools are therefore deprived of the resources to help address the needs of these children.

Studies of French immersion education, meanwhile, have determined that children with special needs can thrive in an immersion environment, if they are given comparable supports to those students in the English-only program. If Lamrock is truly committed to dealing with the apparent streaming of special needs students out of French immersion, he would find a way to dedicate more resources to special needs children in the immersion stream, so their parents would not have to switch them out. One way of making this possible, incidentally, would be through the federal grants provided to all provinces under the Official Languages in Education Program, which provides support for the additional costs associated with second language instruction and minority language education. New Brunswick could make a strong case for the financial costs of addressing these special needs in the immersion stream. Let's hope that someone in the province starts thinking creatively and logically about how to solve the very real problems in the education system, rather than adopting a slash-and-burn policy that could destroy the progress that has been made in the last four decades.

Labels: , , ,

Recommend this Post

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"My job isn't to make people of doctorates feel good" - Kelly Lamrock

This quote, from New Brunswick's education minister in today's Globe and Mail seems to confirm my worst fears about what is driving the decision to can early French immersion in New Brunswick. While Lamrock goes on to say that his job is to "look at reports, all the information, and make a decision on what's best for all kids. That's what I've done," his anti-intellectual bias seems pretty clear from his recent statements.

If Lamrock were indeed looking at "all the information" he'd see that there is a strong consensus in favour of early immersion as a better route to language fluency than late immersion, and certainly very little support for a complete absence of second language instruction prior to grade 5. He would also see that almost every study done of English-language competencies of French immersion students shows that these students perform as well, if not better, than their counter-parts in the English-only stream once they reach Grade 4 (English is usually not introduced as a school subject in early immersion until after the first two years). So, much as opponents of immersion and bilingualism may rail against the supposed detrimental effects that immersion has on first language competencies, their grievances simply aren't borne out by the research!

And one more thing - Mr. Lamrock is wrong. His job is to make people with doctorates feel good. Otherwise, New Brunswick's universities and economy will continue to deteriorate. His government will have a hard time maintaining a stable university system if educated parents are increasingly fleeing the province in droves. It is hard enough to retain university-educated New Brunswickers. His decision is going to make things worse.

Labels: , ,

Recommend this Post

Sunday, March 23, 2008

French Immersion in New Brunswick: Lessons from the Past

I don't often post directly about my own research and publications, but recent events in New Brunswick, coupled with an upcoming book release, seem to make this post appropriate.

Currently, Kelly Lamrock, New Brunswick's education minister, is in the process of attempting to eliminate core French and French immersion for grades 1-4. It is deeply upsetting to see the province that once championed bilingualism now acting in such a strange fashion, contrary to the wishes of parents, and against the advice of education experts.

It wasn't always this way in the province. In the next week or so, Fernwood Publishing will be releasing a collection of essays co-edited by Marie Hammond-Callaghan and myself about social movements in Canada. My own contribution to the collection is an article entitled "Mad at Hatfield's Tea Party: Federalism and the Fight for French Immersion in Sackville, New Brunswick, 1973-1982". While I was teaching at Mount Allison University, I had occasion to conduct some research into the history of French immersion in New Brunswick. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, parents in New Brunswick were actively trying to expand the French immersion program, generally with the support of Richard Hatfield's government.

The program grew in popularity to the point where demand far outstripped class space. Indeed by 1980, the number of applicants for grade one immersion in Sackville, New Brunswick was twice that of the number of available spaces in the single class. Faced with the prospect of two dozen children not being allowed entrance into the program, parents in the community launched a three-pronged lobby effort aimed at the school board, the provincial government, and the federal government in order to expand the French immersion program. Ultimately, the Hatfield government decided to revise its education program to mandate the creation of French immersion classes where sufficient demand existed.

Unfortunately, back in the early 1980s, it was the local school boards that were reluctant to expand immersion program offerings, while the federal government was wholeheartedly in favour of promoting official languages, and the provincial government was generally sympathetic. Parents are facing an uphill battle in the current climate, as it is the provincial government which has financial control and curriculum-setting powers, and yet seems unwilling to listen to the advice of pedagogical experts, or even the parents who support this form of education for their children. I understand that parents and advocacy groups intend to fight this decision, and I hope that they are ultimately successful in reversing this ill-advised policy.

Labels: , ,

Recommend this Post

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lord report on official languages

Bernard Lord's report on official languages was released today. At first blush, the big recommendation seems to be urging Ottawa to contribute $1 billion over 5 years to promoting official languages, which represents a substantial increase over the past 5-year plan. I am eager to see the full report, as someone who contributed to the regional forums. I will post more on this as I work through the details.

If you'll permit me one snide remark though, I'm glad that someone from New Brunswick still seems committed to official languages.

1. It's remarkable to see how many of the issues raised at my regional forum seem to have been repeated elsewhere in Canada.

2. The focus on the challenges faced by Quebec's anglophone minority is quite interesting - particularly with regards to the "imperfect" bilingualism of young Quebec anglophones, which far outstrips that of their counterparts in the rest of Canada, and yet is a bar to employment in their home province.

3. There is a strong focus on immigrant integtation, and a desire to attract francophone immigrants to other provinces.

4. I like that the theme of Canada developing strength as a leader in "language industries" and "language technologies" was picked up. This really impressed me in my regional forum.

5. Interesting quote: "One of the issues most often mentioned during these consultations has been the need to send a clear message to Canadians about the importance of linguistic duality. Many feel that a discourse based on resistance and the defence of language and culture should be avoided, and that actions should instead be focused on revitalizing linguistic duality and identity, and promoting openness toward other cultures and ways of life. By doing so, the Government would be fostering the development of closer ties between minority anglophone and francophone communities, and between minority communities and the surround majority, particularly in the areas of culture, language and education.

This strikes me as very sound reasoning, and it will be interesting to see what strategies are developed to support this direction.

Labels: ,

Recommend this Post

Friday, March 14, 2008

French immersion and Core French in New Brunswick to be slashed

I'm shocked over the full extent of cuts to French-as-a-second-language instruction announced in New Brunswick today. Not only is the province doing away with its early immersion programs that commenced in Grade 1 (which had been hinted at earlier), but it's also slashing core French-as-a-second-language as well, delaying any introduction to the French language until Grade 5. Understandably, the official opposition and parents groups such as Canadian Parents for French are outraged. Canadian Parents for French New Brunswick has some very interesting and troubling observations about the report that led to this decision here.

I am gobsmacked by this decision. Virtually all of the studies that I've read on second-language acquisition stress the idea that it is best to start children as early as possible on their second language. But it appears that someone has managed to put a study on Education Minister Kelly Lamrock's desk that justifies his decision. I can't help but wonder if this is a cost-cutting measure disguised as a pedagogic decision. Itinerant FSL specialists who teach the core French courses represent an additional cost for school boards, who will now only have to pay for the regular teachers to give instruction in art and phys-ed. French immersion requires small class sizes, which again, can be expensive.

The stated rationale for the decision - that 91% of students who began French immersion had dropped out by the end of high school - doesn't necessarily strike me as a good reason to switch from early immersion to late immersion that starts in Grade 6. Rather, it suggests that there are more systemic problems with the manner in which the curriculum is structured. Indeed, one could just as easily make the case that large numbers of students drop math and science once they fulfill their high school requirements, and yet we aren't seeing proposals to remedy this situation by starting students in intensive math at the Grade 5 level.

There is something rotten in the province of New Brunswick, and it smacks of double-speak. Eliminating early exposure to the French language is highly unlikely to produce a province in which 70% of high school graduates speak fluent French. Quebec, after years of prohibiting English-as-a-second-language classes for francophone students prior to Grade 4, has finally returned to a system of starting second language classes in Grade 1. Why, one must ask, is New Brunswick heading in the other direction?

Update: It wasn't always like this in New Brunswick. For a bit of history on how the New Brunswick government once viewed French immersion, I've added this post.

Labels: , , ,

Recommend this Post

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Confidential Election Documents from the NDP - or - Please help the NDP to replace its dot-matrix printers

It appears that the advertizing campaigns of the next federal election will feature a "cheap-off" between the major parties as they attempt to provide the least slick campaign materials. Perhaps this will be how they demonstrate how "authentic" and "close to the people" they are. Certainly the miserable photostats that Diane Ablonczy's office keeps sending to my door are in that vein - a nice echo of the low-tech handicam television ads the Conservative party has been running.

The NDP appears to be trying to do them one better - their fundraising letter comes in an envelope with bright orange printing that reads "CONFIDENTIAL ELECTION DOCUMENTS ENCLOSED INTENDED FOR THE EYES OF THE ADDRESSEE ONLY", taking a page from the Publisher's Sweepstakes Clearinghouse, no doubt. This week's gimmick is to provide internal polling information as a "Confidential Dispatch - NDP Election-readiness Report" which is printed in all caps in the font of an old dot-matrix printer - complete with perforated edges with holes for the printer tracks.

I'm not certain what message this is intended to convey. Perhaps "Please vote for us so we can move out of the technological stone age"? While I'm currently rather upset with the Liberal party, I would really like to have confidence that the party I do vote for is at least somewhat modern and savvy. These gimmicks just further alienate me.

Labels: , ,

Recommend this Post

Monday, March 10, 2008

Disastrous policy? Who cares. Possible past-its-due-date scandal? Let's beat it to death!

Am I the only Canadian who really doesn't care much what Brian Mulroney might or might not have done with Karl-Heinz Schreiber? Am I the only person who thinks that most Canadians might not think this has much to do with the current Conservative-Alliance-Reform administration? Am I naive to think that the truth of the so-called "Cadman affair" will never be known, especially since he is no longer alive to tell his side of the story?

And even if the answer to those three questions is "yes", am I also wrong to think that perhaps the collective activity of the three opposition parties and the media would be better spent on engaging in a much more detailed critique of the policies that are being enacted by the current government as North America flirts with the onset of a recession, rather than hoping that one of the piddling events I referred to above might blow up into an election-worthy scandal?

(Clearly my frustration with the current state of Parliament has reached a tipping point this evening.)

Labels: , ,

Recommend this Post

Voter Apathy in the House of Commons? or MIA: One Official Opposition

You know, I took some solace two years ago from the fact that Canadian voters had decided to hold Stephen Harper's Conservatives to a minority government. Little did I know at the time that it would turn out to be an effective majority government. Tonight, eight out of every nine Liberal MPs happened to miss a non-confidence motion instigated by the NDP on the issue of climate change. Whether or not this was the particular motion to bring the government down on is an issue for debate. But by now there have been dozens of different issues over the past two years that the Liberals have either abstained completely on, or only provided token "no" votes, even though the policies in question went against the stated position of the Liberal party. Certainly at least one of those should have been reason enough for the party to actually vote for what they claim represents the best interests of Canadians. While over the past year I have found some of the NDP's rhetoric attacking the Liberals for their unwillingness to stand against the government to be rather shrill, at a certain point, the evidence in favour of their case becomes overwhelming, and I can no longer give the Liberals the benefit of the doubt.

Frankly, it's a betrayal of all those voters who marked their ballot for the Liberals to have so many MPs not perform such a vital part of their jobs. Every election, I berate my students to go and cast a ballot - doing my little part to increase voter turnout in the 18-25 cohort. I have told my students that they have no right to complain about what the government is doing if they don't bother to vote in the election. I'm not sure what to tell a student who went to vote for the Liberals, only to then find out that the MP they helped to elect isn't willing to vote for what they believe in - or even vote at all. If the government falls because of a position taken by MPs, and Canadian voters don't agree with the positions the MPs took in Parliament, then what right do those MPs have to continue to represent those voters? I can't wait to see the current crop of Liberal MPs engaged in "Get out the Vote" or some Canadian equivalent to "Rock the Vote". The sheer hypocrisy of the exercise would undoubtedly instigate the best Rick Mercer Rant ever.

Opposition MPs should be busy explaining to voters why they disagree with government policy, and trying to convince voters that they would provide a better alternative. Right now, the Liberal alternative looks like a promise to never introduce, criticize, vote on or otherwise alter current policies. The Chretien Liberal government might have been criticized for lacking a major overarching vision, but this is taking things a bit far!

Labels: , , ,

Recommend this Post

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Is Pauline Marois running to be the next Liberal premier of Quebec?

I've decided that I have a certain fondness for Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois. She seems to be a moderate in her party, she acknowledges that bilingualism might be an asset for job advancement, and now she wants to free herself of the obligation to run an election campaign that would require her to hold a referendum on sovereignty association if she won.

Instead, Marois would like Quebec to "go to the limits of what can be done within the existing system", and perhaps strengthen language laws and promote nationalism in the Quebec history curriculum. Funny, that sounds to me like what Quebec's premiers have been doing ever since the days of Jean Lesage in the 1960s. Federalism, contrary to what separatist leaders have long claimed, is a remarkably flexible political system, and Quebec has a lot of power at its disposal under the existing terms of the Constitution. I'm going to be very curious to see - if she succeeds in convincing her own party's militants - how she plans on distinguishing her agenda from Jean Charest's!

Labels: , ,

Recommend this Post