The Croll-Lee Report on FSL in New Brunswick has been justifiably criticised as sloppy and limited in its use of research on methods of teaching FSL. Critics have also pointed out the inaccurate use of figures and tables provided by the New Brunswick Ministry of Education. It was unfortunate that New Brunswick children were so ill served in what was a good cause and for which there was so much solid evidence available.
Before I go further, I want to discuss academic research in the social sciences as it has some bearing on this issue. The social sciences such as education are seen as soft sciences because so little can be proved quantitatively. By quantitative, I mean what can be measured and reproduced given the same situation. For a start, it is impossible to have identical situations where people are concerned. In education, no two teachers are alike and no two classes are alike. No matter how carefully we select for similar age, gender, socio-economic status (i.e. are they upper, middle or lower class) race, faith and ability the classes may be similar but never the same. To do that we have also recognised our own bias, abandoning the myth that researchers operate objectively in studying their subjects
For many people, this is a new way of looking at things. Acknowledging bias in scientists, valuing description and narratives as part of the results of research? This is a different world from the expectation that numbers are the most precise way and therefore the best, least biased way of measuring the world around us. We admit our bias and record it with the narrations or anecdotal evidence. Sometimes, as action researchers, for example, teachers doing research as they work, the bias is very much a part of the research.
Just as quantum physics discovered that under some circumstances observation changes what is observed, so too, observing in the social sciences changes what we observe. I suspect quantum physics may have opened the quantitative thinking world to the potential of qualitative research. This recognition and the awareness of bias have lead the researcher to include herself sometimes in the story of the research.
That being said, there were facts and figures that needed to be included in the Croll-Lee Report. The commissioners did comment that little useful information was available. This is not surprising. Education ministries and school boards do not evaluate results for their programs as a rule. They may do it as a spot check or because anecdotal evidence suggests it is necessary but rarely in an ongoing fashion. Before we become too critical, we have to remember that many ministries across the country have been asked to cut the fat, the deadwood and all positions not relevant to teaching. Researchers and analysts would be among the first to the guillotine.
A reporter in British Columbia, responding to the events in FSL education in New Brunswick asked the B.C. ministry of education how their French Immersion program was doing.
Asked for comparable B.C. figures [to those citing dropout numbers and numbers achieving ministry goals in N.B.], an Education Ministry spokesperson said the government does not have them. “We don’t track early immersion students through to Grade 12,” she said… “I guess tracking French students was something we’ve never done,” she said.
According to Education Ministry policy, the “major goal” for the French immersion program is for students to become bilingual. The ministry is not, however, checking to see how many students meet that goal.
From Does Early French Immersion Work? In BC, high demand. BC hasn’t tracked costs or results, but New Brunswick is pulling the plug. By Andrew MacLeod Published: April 10, 2008, TheTyee.ca
However, the dearth of statistical information should not have stopped the commissioners from making good use of what was available. When I was tearing my hair out trying to get a handle on calculating statistics for a course on research design I took in graduate school, a colleague explained to me that I didn’t have to do my own statistics. Many people hire a statistician to help them plan the taking of data and the analysis afterwards; studying stats was a good idea, as it would give me an understanding of what was involved. It was sufficient that I understood the theory and the kinds of cases in which certain methods were used so I could work knowledgeably with the experts.
Similarly, if time was limited or neither Lee nor Croll were adept at number crunching, they should have employed someone to do it for them. The sad fact is that the few errors I reviewed with the aid of my own number cruncher may have given them the wrong numbers, but if they had done them the right way, they would have had almost as effective evidence for the points they were trying to make.
Another unfortunate error was the lack of explanation of research results into the three major teaching methods they were discussing. Croll and Lee did not need specific expertise in this area; if expertise were needed in all the topics they covered in their review and recommendations, they would have needed experts in teaching FSL, learning disabilities (especially language related ones), school organisation and management, rural and urban schools, language development and teaching L1. That would have just been the beginning.
The purpose in doing graduate work in a subject is to learn to do original research, think logically knowing your own bias and add to the body of knowledge. Most importantly, the student develops expertise to be shared with other people so they don’t have to spend inordinate amounts of time doing their own research or guessing wildly. The student also acquires the skill to read work in other disciplines with a critical eye.
The academic information was available and I have reviewed it in my last post. With the tools at their disposal, they should have been able to do a more thorough and clearer job. Dr. Croll taught at the University of New Brunswick, which had a Faculty of Education and housed the Second Language Research Institute of Canada (L2RIC). I am sure the latter would have been happy to provide appropriate information; they certainly were after the report was published. In fact, Paula Kristmanson presented a paper on Intensive Core French (see April 19 post on 3 options for FSL delivery) at the fourth International Symposium on Bilingualism in 2003. She was then at UNB and is now at L2RIC.
If time had been a problem, they should have asked for more time. If they had a proposal but needed to review it with others who had more specific expertise, then they should have asked for time to do that. In other words, they did not have to be experts, they only needed to know when to consult them.
What did the commissioners get right? They did their best to make sure everyone was heard. I know that one complaint was that there wasn’t enough time for everyone to be heard. I also know that many people pass the large signs in their neighborhoods announcing an application to deviate from the local bylaw in a building application and neglect to stop and read the details. They are often the first people to complain when application is approved, the building is built, the tenants move in and they discover the deviation is going to affect their property. I read through the lists of organisations that were contacted and asked for input; if their members were contacted then, as far as I can tell, every avenue was used to communicate with stakeholders.
The anecdotal evidence the commissioners provide in their report made it clear that there was general and considerable discontent with the way FSL worked in New Brunswick. The issues were not the small irritants of school life; they concerned quality of teaching, availability of resources and equity issues. This was not a problem of a few rotten trees, it was a tangled forest of education where flowers bloomed in a few clearings and much of the undergrowth in the rest was so thick it made progress difficult. The department of education and Croll and Lee were trying to see the forest. That they botched it is regrettable.
For some interesting criticisms of the report go to http://educationinnb.wordpress.com/2008/05/27/a-response-to-minister-lamrocks-justifications-for-his-fsl-plan/#more-195. The author does not give sources for many of his facts and he doesn’t state his credentials for weighing the arguments given by the ministry. However, some of his points are solid. One of the best points he makes is that Croll and Lee recommend starting the FSL program in Grade 5 with Intensive French. He correctly points out that programs where Intensive French has been used at that age have had students who have already had several years of French.
What the commissioners proposed was to start the students study of FSL with Intensive French. This was not something that had been studied although Intensive French and Intensive English at this age had proved successful with learners who had some of the L2. By some I mean a little. Starting L2 learning with IF is an idea that needs to be thrashed out with second language teachers and especially those with experience in Intensive French.
The blogger above inadvertently makes a point on behalf of the ministry when he demonstrates that 20% of New Brunswick students, who are the right age for Early French Immersion, live too far away from an EFI program to make it practical. You will remember from an earlier post that just under 50% of N.B.’s population is rural; one could infer that most of the students who are too far away from EFI are part of that rural population. Perhaps the ministry was aware that two French streams were de facto discriminating against rural students.
The obvious solution to this is to put French Immersion into all schools, but to advocate that is to forget the enormous costs of two streams in five grade schools of 100 to 200 students.
In the end the Croll/Lee report was a disaster because it was intended to correct a number of problems but due to its sloppiness created a political whirlwind which destroyed any chance of seriously reforming FSL in New Brunswick. It became a rallying point for the middle class to push French Immersion rather than a place to start discussions concerning the most effective way to teach French to children.
Does Early French Immersion Work? In BC, high demand. BC hasn’t tracked costs or results, but New Brunswick is pulling the plug. By Andrew MacLeod Published: April 10, 2008, TheTyee.ca