Does Choice in Education Divide our Children by Class?

            An opinion piece in Chatelaine by a young mother discussed choosing a good school for her child; she was talking about public school not a private, fee-charging school.  She acknowledged that the school board restricted children to their neighbourhood schools but she had found a loophole that would allow her to send her child to a better school – better as she defined it.  Better, by her definition was a school with 33% ESL students rather than 75% ESL (largely Chinese) students.  There was a spate of emails following the article from indignant women accusing her of racism, dotted with a few agreeing with her perspective. (School daze: The troublesome quest for the “better” school By Katrina Onstad  First published in Chatelaine’s April 2007 issue.

© Rogers Publishing Ltd.)

The truth is that the author is in the majority of parents in wanting to place her child in a school with a minimum of ESL and lower socio-economic status (formerly known as poor, now referred to as lower SES) students.  The difference between the author and her fellow parents is that she spoke her mind: middle and upper class parents feel entitled to have their children educated with their peers.  In order to do so, they study the rules of the game and find the loopholes.  There are three, but only two that are entirely in the parents’ hands.  The author planned to use the one of finding day care within the boundaries of the chosen school.  An expensive variation of this is either buying a small pied-a-terre or moving altogether into the right neighbourhood to provide the address in the school’s cachement area. Some neighbourhoods are actually overpriced because the popular opinion is that the local school is a good one.

 The second, where the program exists and the child qualifies, is placing the child in a class for the academically gifted.  This usually requires an intelligence level in the 98th percentile and high educational scores although the exact requirements may vary from school board to board.

The third is placing your child in French Immersion.  French Immersion is theoretically open and possible for every child but few ESL students end up in the program.  ESL stands for English as a Second Language; the Ontario Ministry of Education has changed that designation to ELL, English Language Learners.  This puzzles me as I thought all students are English language learners.  But I digress. The current belief is that ESL students will benefit from early French Immersion programs (programs staring in kindergarten or grade one) and this is supported to some extent by the literature. ESL students arriving in the middle or intermediate grades may have their hands full adjusting to a new country and new language.

Immersion is supposed to be accessible for students of all levels of ability, but the truth is that students with learning disabilities (students with learning disabilities have, by definition average to above average ability) or low ability usually find it too difficult and their parents are persuaded to move them into the regular English classes.  Teachers regularly recommend that some students not be placed in French Immersion because they can foresee the problems but the choice is the parents’.  Often a student having difficulty drops out to the English class later; he will be behind in English and, if he has a language disability, he is doubly hampered.  French Immersion may start out as a program for every child but it does not end up that way.  The result is a stream, as the author’s friend so aptly puts it, which is the equivalent of a private school in a public system and a stream for the rest of the world

That is not to say, however, that French Immersion is a better education.  First, there is always a shortage of materials in French.  Secondly, FI teachers are always the last to get workshops in the latest teaching techniques or ministry expectations, unless they attend them in English.

Thirdly, there is a shortage of French teachers due to French Immersion so non-native speakers are hired, often before completing their B. Ed.  They may have a good academic knowledge of French but their spoken French often lacks the idiom, accent and rhythms of any native speaker.  English teachers, on the other hand, often run the gauntlet of supply teaching for at least a year or longer before they are offered a job.  That is not to say that teachers in French Immersion are poorer – many are excellent – just that they are often hired untried, whereas most English teachers’ abilities are well known and tested before they are hired permanently.  At the end of the year when teachers may elect to change schools and programs, the list of open full time positions in our local board may run to about 80% French.  Sometimes, boards will put restrictions on teachers switching from French teaching positions to English because it is so difficult to fill the French positions.

Finally, students spend less time working on English language grammar, vocabulary, spelling and knowledge of literature.  In addition, there are some language transfers from French to English and a number from English to French.  These students do not have English teachers with particular training in identifying these transfers and correcting them.  They do, however, spend their day hanging out with middle and upper class children.

The regular English classes become the catchall for ESL students who did not enrol as primary students, students with learning disabilities, low ability, emotional problems, dislike of languages and low socio-economic status (poor).  By the intermediate years of grade seven and eight, these classes are more heavily weighted with children needing more attention at a time when they are least interested in school.  These classes are often large; one teacher reported a class of 34.  Teaching them is difficult and exhausting because of their varied needs.  Ordinary students slip between the cracks.

With good reason most administrations look the other way when it comes to regular English classes.  Should it be admitted that these classes are heavily loaded by students with extra educational needs, they would have to do something.  With a limited budget and the budget is admittedly limited it would mean, perhaps, cutting the French Immersion program and who wants to bell that political cat?  It would certainly mean insisting to their superiors that these children are underserved; if the truth was followed with an expectation of action, administrators at any level might find that there would be repercussions to their careers.

There is little political support for the students in the English classes.  Parents who have newly immigrated to this country and lower SES parents have less knowledge of how the system works and less political clout; unless a school board is more heavily swayed by what is pedagogically sound than what is politically expedient, these children will continue to wade in the leftovers from FI. Even under current circumstances of limited money, neither French Immersion nor the regular English stream are providing the best possible education for our students.

In the meantime we have effectively streamed our students according to class and then shut our eyes to it.  We have done what the Americans did through funding schools district by district, what the South Africans did by apartheid and what Britain did with its system of public (private) schools.  We have done it under the flag of biculturalism but with the covert intent of separating children from each other by class.  We know better and we should do better.

In other posts, I will address the question of the effectiveness of French Immersion in teaching French, whether it costs too much, what a program for gifted children should be and the politics of parents, teachers, school boards, children and public perception.  Your thoughts are welcome.

 As a postscript, I must commend our prime minister who sends his children to the local schools.  One of them is enrolled in a school I have heard referred to as an “inner city” school; parents have anxiously inquired if it was rough because it is a school of thoroughly mixed SES, races, faiths, cultures and abilities.  The answer is no.  It is a school where friendships are made across all these classes and violence is less than in some “better” schools.

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2 responses to “Does Choice in Education Divide our Children by Class?

  1. That is a very interesting argument, lots to think about.

    I am looking forward to the next edition.

    Class issues are very interesting when it comes to education, something that really bears looking into.

    Shall we ever learn not to care for none beyond our own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world? 😉

  2. Very interesting. I’ll add you to my blog favourites.

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