The New Brunswick Experience in Doing Right by All the Students

God give me strength to face a fact though it slay me.

Thomas Huxley

            The most difficult lesson for new teachers is that we will never be the right teacher for all our students.  One of the most difficult things to explain to the parent of a student is that the thing you all agree would be best for their child may be a thing you cannot, in good conscience do, because it would not be good for her classmates. 

            These were the kind of issues New Brunswick faced when it took a long hard look at its French Second Language programs and realised that they were expensive, created ghettos and streaming and did not teach French effectively.  I read the Croll Lee Report with a sense of recognition; Ontario is not much different, we just aren’t ready to admit that the emperor has no clothes. 

The report was frank about what wasn’t working in the FSL programs and the perceptions of the people who were directly involved about where the difficulties lay.  As much as I love the academic world, I know that studies cannot be counted on to give us a guarantee that their results can be reproduced under all conditions.  I also know that teaching and learning do not exist in isolation. 

Children have peers and parents.  Teachers have time limits and families and lives outside the classroom.  Parents have prejudices and want what they perceive as best for their children more than they want what is best for a class or a school or school board.  Administrators want to go home in time for dinner and leave behind the bellyful of complaints, justified or unjustified.  Trustees want to do what’s right but they also want to be re-elected.  And I haven’t mentioned money, yet.  Or any serious politics.  In all these push-me, pull-you wants and needs, it is sometimes so hard to remember that education is about educating all our children as successfully as possible.

New Brunswick, God bless it, remembered exactly that.  In this post and posts to come, you may feel that they made mistakes, but they had their eye on the ball.  They were intent on providing an effective education in FSL to all the Anglophone students in the province and intent on doing it in a way that would be cost efficient.  Yes, it was about money, too.  You can’t be accountable to the public without accounting for the cost of the service you are providing.

Before the Reform of the FSL Program

            A bit of background:  New Brunswick has a population of under 800,000 people of whom 51% are urban dwellers and 49% are rural.  The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of education and rural populations is that very few children will be walking to school.  The second thing is that the elementary schools will be small and the secondary schools will draw from large geographical areas.  I’m not an expert, but I frequently drive through rural Ontario from Ottawa to Toronto and through rural Quebec from Ottawa to our cottage.  I see the schools and I see the buses.  At conferences, I talk to the teachers and hear how teaching in rural schools is different from the urban schools of my experience.

            New Brunswick is the province with the second highest proportion of rural population after Prince Edward Island.  I have cycled across PEI and I can vouch for the fact that nothing is very far from anything else in PEI.  The overall rural population in Canada amounts to roughly 20% and in Ontario it is 15%. 

            Educators in New Brunswick not only face unique demographic challenges but N.B.  has also declared itself a bilingual (French and English) province.  As a result, there is a political push to educate Anglophone children to functional fluency in French.

The three streams for FSL students in New Brunswick were: Early French Immersion (starting in Grade 1), Late French Immersion and Core French.  Money was not evenly distributed among these programs: one year of Early Immersion cost 28.69% of funds spent on French as a Second Language in New Brunswick.  Students in EFI made up only 19% of students in the FSL program.  LFI took an even larger per capita chunk of the FSL budget; they constituted 7.7% of FSL students but used 16.6% of the FSL budget.  By now you will have figured out that 71.1% of the students, those in Core French, those with 93.2% of children with special education needs, those who could use some extra help, were allotted 54.75% of the total FSL budget for one year.

These three streams were not the only systems for learning French in New Brunswick.  The count came to 14 different variations of immersion or core.  This included a technique called AIM and one called Intensive French.  Many of these systems would require follow through in subsequent years, so you can imagine how expensive this could get.  Two streams starting in grade 1 and a third splitting the core stream in later elementary school is costly enough.

When the ministry of education for New Brunswick asked “how well are our FSL programs doing in teaching French?” they commissioned Dr. James Croll and Patricia Lee to answer that question by creating a report on the current conditions and making recommendations based on what they learned.    

The short answer to the ministry’s question was appalling.  Statistics were limited and only in recent years has the ministry begun to separate EFI stats from LFI.  Nevertheless, Croll and Lee did find appropriate statistics for the EFI students who started in Grade 1 in 1995 and would have been in Grade 12 in 2006. (Table 37)

Of the 1,469 Early French Immersion students who started in grade one in 1995, only 613 finished the program by going all the way to grade 12.  The standard expected for a student who had been in the immersion program for twelve years was New Brunswick’s oral proficiency of Advanced or above. Advanced is described as:

Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal, and in all informal conversations, on practical, social, and academic or work-related topics. Can describe in detail and narrate accurately. Can discuss abstract topics and ideas as well as events; can support opinions and hypothesize. Accent may be obvious but never interferes with understanding. Control of grammar is good and speech is fluent. Sporadic errors still occur, but they would not distract a native speaker or interfere with communication 

Of the 613 who did not drop out before grade 12, only 554 took the oral proficiency test.  Of those 554 students, 234, or less than 50% of them actually achieved the Advanced target level.  As low as this seems, if you consider dropouts as failing students and most school boards would consider students who dropped out before graduating, failures, then the failure rate is much, much higher. 

Similar results surfaced in the case of Late Immersion and Core French.  Although they were held to lower standards, those who did finish Grade Twelve French were as unlikely to meet their required standards.

Among the other questions the ministry asked itself was whether the standards were appropriate.  It’s a good question.  Why can’t students achieve a good level of oral French after 12 years of study, some of which were full days of French?  And why do so many drop out, no matter what the program?

The Croll Lee report makes good use of anecdotal reports as well.  A few things become clear in the anecdotes. French materials were in short supply throughout the province, presumably because the various programs, regardless of their quality, stretched the resources too thin.  Teachers of French were too often inadequate because either their French was too poor or because they had not been properly trained by the province’s education faculties.  Parents were placing their children in Immersion, especially EFI, not for educational reasons, but to keep their children out of the regular English program; that program had 93.2% of children with special education needs.

If these issues sound familiar to readers of my blog, it is because I have referred to them in my other posts on French Immersion.  The difference is that this is the first ministry or school board I have found that has frankly taken their obligation to education seriously and faced the facts about what was going on in their classrooms.  FSL in New Brunswick sucked and they wanted to fix it for all the students.

As a quick summary, here is a chart of some salient points.  SEPs are the New Brunswick equivalent of Ontario’s IEPs.  In other words a child with an SEP is exceptional and will require some modification or accommodation to their school program.

Equity & FSL in New Brunswick

 

% Of FSL students

% Of FSL $

% Of students with SEPs

EFI

19%

28.69%

6.8%

LFI

7.7%

16.6%

Core

71.1%

54.75%

93.2%

 

In my next post on New Brunswick: listening to everyone, planning for change that works for the whole community.

 

 

 

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6 responses to “The New Brunswick Experience in Doing Right by All the Students

  1. Michael Wilcott

    Wow. You have actually managed to get more facts wrong than the province did when arguing against EFI.

    I’m afraid that I do not have the time to correct your errors; however, I hope you will spend some time to correct your numerous mistakes before you publish another entry.

    Those of us who fought against the elimination of EFI are generally quite reasonable and willing to assist you in your research. If you are actually interested in a factual review of your post let me know, and I will be too happy to oblige.

    • I am grateful to Michael Wilcott for his offer to correct my facts. As I said in my “About”, I write this blog in the hope that others will respond, question and propose new ideas. Our open minds and willingness to learn are the best models for our children.
      I am looking forward to hearing from Mr. Wilcott; in the meantime, I am carefully reviewing the research on Early French Immersion.

  2. From Nat. Assoc. Small Schools: Any new admin. scheme for organisaing education could usefully look at the abundant evidence that small size actually works, even financially, long-term, more enduring performance and less costly failures. Not the issue here but related as most existing small schools are rural and providing the evidence of virtue, though cinsistently under threat,. The Virtual Learning school in Florida shows the rapid chanbges coming to the way we organise education and the two resources that children will still most need whatever the system will be good parents and good teachers. Small-scale provision, cklose to home, in town and country alike is an effective and wholseome way to do that as it also enables the scope to give each group the tools to do the job well.

    Thanks

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree that small schools are effective, and given a choice, I prefer to teach in a small one for some of the reasons you cite. I find that the teachers also regard every student as theirs as they get to know them even if they don’t teach them. It makes problem solving, consistency and a sense of family easier. The point I intend to make in a later post is that it is usually logistically and financially very difficult to provide two distinct academic streams with full and appropriate supports in a small local school. The result is often kids being bused out of their communities or larger schools and often both.

  3. Well, early French Immersion is an option I did not have available to me when I went to school in NB, and now it is not an option to my daughter, who lives in Canada’s only officially bilingual province. I am not a scientist, nor am I a child education expert, but I have strong opinions regarding learning since I have worked in an education environment for close to 20 years. I have access to experts in the field whom I speak to regularly and I interact with my daughter and her friends at many activities throughout the year. I can tell you with great certainty these children I speak of would have benefited from early immersion.

    I will present the same scenario to you as I did to Minister Lamrock during our discussions on this subject, post court case. If every minor hockey player in the province had to have one parent who was willing to coach a minor hockey team, how many children who play hockey now, would have never gotten started? With the now eliminated EFI program a large portion of the problem, so I was told, was the enrollment numbers were too low. Well, each student who wants to enroll in a french immersion program has to have at least one parent who can help with homework. Presently there is a large enough population of parents who are not comfortable with the French language, and therefore their children never get started on an immersion track. Not for the lack of the child’s ability, but because parents are either not interested or are intimidated by a second language. I say take the parents out of the equation, and have all academic second language learning occur in the school, just like a hockey game is played at the rink. Those with parents who want to help their children with second language learning will still help their children, but those parents who are intimidated or not interested, will not hold their children back. I fear that in Grade three many parents will opt out of the immersion program and we will be left with the same issue the EFI program was faced with. If parents are informed that all immersion work will be conducted at school and they are welcome to be a spectator, but do not have to coach their children in the french language learning process, then I expect a larger number of students will enroll in the grade three version of french immersion. This problem was not addressed successfully in my view during the consultation process last summer and as such still needs work.

    Do I want what is best for my daughter, YES. I strongly believe, and you can review the comments above again if necessary, that my suggestion takes into account the interest of all New Brunswick School children and their families.

    The very best way to learn a second language is through immersion, both in and outside of school. I was told this past summer that french speaking New Brunswicker’s “catch” English, rather than learn it academically. I am not sure if that is 100% accurate, but I understand the concept. Because the majority of our day to day tasks such as shopping occur in English, the English language is picked up along the way, by both french and english residents. English speaking New Brunswicker’s do not have the same opportunity to “catch” french as frequently. Perhaps this can be addressed not only in school but also in our communities.

    • Raymond, the truth is that Immersion is a good way of teaching a language to anyone -child or adult – provided sufficient support is available for those who may struggle for a variety of reasons including learning disabilities. It has been said by many of the experts that French Immersion is suitable for any child and they are right. However, they are assuming two things. The first is that the support is available and the second is that teachers with at least near native language ability in French and appropriate training are available for every class. It should not be necessary for a child to be coached by parents at home.
      I speak from long experience, not only as a teacher and a teacher who started out as a second language teacher but also a parent of three children, two of whom learned to speak French when they attended the village school where we lived in France. I also have seen what happens to children with learning disabilities learning a second language. For example, the parent of one in the Ottawa board was firmly told that the principal would not support the child going into Late Immersion because the child had a learning disability. This was in spite of the fact that the child was very nearly bilingual. The real reason, of course, was that there is no provision for support for children in FI in this board.
      I am not pointing a finger at this board in particular; if you read my blog Is French Immersion Accessible … you will see that this is more the norm than otherwise.

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