Category Archives: English as a Second Language

Once More Into the Blog, Dear Readers

The Remains of the Dock

Events have rendered me unwilling to think about education and despairing of teachers in Ontario ever being treated as more than technicians in the near future.  I have not written about education for many months now, but the little girl next door is leaving her Montessori school to start grade one at our local school.   My niece is half way through high school and two young cousins are returning to the francophone primary school.  We talk about school:  what their parents like; what works for the children; the inequities; the little miracles wrought by their teachers; the rules, ridiculous and important; the children’s biases and prejudices.  For the most part both the parents and children recognise that compromises have to be made in what is essentially still an industrial model of education but sometimes I hear frustration in their voices.

I am surrounded by teachers, too.  Primary, Montessori, kindergarten to grade 8 French, high school language, supply, university psychology, adult ESL teacher trainers, graduate supervisors.  They all have their delights and concerns as they return to the classroom.  Sometimes one or two will honour me by turning over a problem with me or asking my advice and I get some insight into their particular corners of the teaching profession.

All of us see things which don’t make sense, which hinder teachers in their teaching, students in their learning and parents in their support of both.  So inevitably I want to write again to point out the illogical, the wasteful and the effective events taking place in our schools.  I want to talk about what does work, especially the simple easy techniques.

I have been looking over the many thoughtful comments I have received from readers.  Please keep them coming; even when I disagree with you, they provoke me to think and consider other possibilities.  Writing in a vacuum is a dangerous thing as the writer may begin to believe everything she writes.

Watch this space for more about equity for the learning disabled, sense in teaching second languages and reflections on morality.  I hope to eventually have some comments to make on university teaching, too.  One might say that teaching is a new discovery in all university faculties, except, perhaps the education faculties.  And I am not too sure about them!

Rebuilding the Dock


Inclusive Education in Practice

Those Parents Have Not Complained

Would you want your child to be in a grade seven class of thirty if twenty-five of those students had been identified as having special needs.  Would you want your child in that class if she had been identified as having special needs?  Would you want her in it if her first language were not English?  Would you want her in it if she were a regular, ordinary student?  No matter which way you look at it, a class with these demographics isn’t good for any student and yet …

A colleague of mine recently observed that in one intermediate school, the two grade seven regular English classes were predominantly special education students.  By predominantly, I mean that roughly twenty-five out of twenty-eight or twenty-nine in one class and half the students in the other class were identified or about to be identified as students with special needs.  By students with special needs I mean are students with learning disabilities or behavioral problems.  Gifted students are probably not included.

What Kind of Special Needs and What Kind of Support?

The students in these two classes receive some support through a special education teacher joining their class on a regular basis, usually for Language Arts and math.  This teacher provides support to more than the grade seven classes; in fact she probably provides support for all the grade seven and eight classes, so she cannot be available quarter time, much less full time, to support special needs students in any class.  For many students, the time allotted for support may be sufficient, for others it won’t be.

Each child identified has been identified as having a particular need; this is why they are called special needs children.  In the twenty-five may be students with ADD, ADHD, psychological and behavioral problems, physical learning disabilities and gifted students. [for informal definitions see below]  Not only does one size not fit all, but each child has an appropriately individualized program the teacher is required to follow.

Imagine a teacher teaching a class where twenty-five students need special education support.  Yes, when there are two of you (the classroom teacher and the special education support teacher) it isn’t so daunting, but there are thirty students.  The classroom teacher has responsibility for the five regular students as well as the rest.  Try to imagine what this class would be like.

Now try to imagine what it is like when the subject teacher is alone, trying to teach geography, complete with graphs – or history, with the need to read non-fiction.  Where will the support be then?  How will students respond?  Will they be able to learn in a class of that size with so many other students competing for help?

What is the Model for this Style of Class?   Education for All

The school cited states that these children’s needs are met following the inclusive model set out by the 2006 Expert Panel report on Special Education, Education for All.  For my comments, summaries and charts derived from Education for All, go to the tag or category marked Education for All on this site.  The point of the document was that by following the concept developed by the architectural community of universal design, almost all students can be taught in an inclusive classroom.

The point of the inclusive classroom is to integrate children with exceptional needs into classrooms of regular children.  Instead, in this example, regular kids are being integrated into classrooms of exceptional children.  Only those students who are gifted are exempted from being integrated with regular students or having regular students integrated with them.

Profile of Grade Seven Section of the School

This particular school states that it has a “Junior/Intermediate system LD class for students who have been identified with severe learning disabilities.”  This would account for the larger percentage of identified students in the regular classes. In this school there are six grade seven classes, a normal sort of number for a middle school.  You are probably wondering why there are so many identified students (teacher talk for students with special needs) in the two classes.

Of the six classes in this grade seven cohort only two  have students with learning difficulties integrated into their class.  Some of you may doing the math:  If one assumes that each class has thirty students and there are twenty-five identified students in one class and half of another class is identified i.e. fifteen, students, that makes forty students out of one hundred and eighty (6 classes X 30 students) who have learning difficulties of some sort or another.  (Not speaking English does not count as a learning disability although it does disqualify you from being gifted.)

Forty students distributed through six classes would thin them out a bit and make for more inclusive classrooms.  There would be about six or seven special needs students in each class.  Obviously they would have to be distributed with regard to their particular needs, the talents and qualifications of the classroom teachers and the profile of each class.   More special needs teachers would be required but it would put an end to the ghettoization of the regular English classes.  But wait a bit … out of the six grade seven classes in this school only two are eligible to receive special needs children.

Why are only Two out of the Six Grade Seven Classes Inclusive?

French Immersion and Special Education Support

First there are three French Immersion classes.  Students can’t expect special education support in Ontario’s FI classes. There are no special education teachers certified to teach in French and therefore there is no support or, more accurately: there is no support provided for FI and therefore there are no special education teachers certified to teach in French.  For other reasons, please see my post: French Immersion: Is It Accessible to All Students? I am sure the school boards will say there is no money for it.  To find out where the money isn’t going, see my post: Is French Immersion a Money Maker for School Boards?

Students with learning disabilities and their parents are likely to be told by their grade six teachers or principals that these educators will not support the child going into French Immersion.  This is counter to the principle that ANY child can succeed as well in FI as they could in the regular program IF they have the same level of support as they would in the regular program.  As I have pointed out before, in most boards across the country, support for special needs students in French Immersion is not provided.  French Immersion students succeed, move into the regular program or their parents pay for tutoring.  If you are a fan of social Darwinism, French Immersion is an excellent place to see it in play.

The Academically Gifted Already Have Special Education Support

(and a class ceiling of 25)

The fourth class of the six is the academically gifted class.  Two or three students in the gifted class may have learning disabilities or behavioral problems, but as long as their primary exceptionality is giftedness, they are eligible for the class.  These students traditionally do not get any support outside the class since the assumption is that as the teacher is a specialist in special education, she will undoubtedly know how to handle other exceptionalities.  She does her own support for any special needs children or learns very quickly.  Did I mention that these classes are capped at twenty-five students?

I have pointed out in earlier posts Gifted and “Education for All” and Commentary on “Education for All” that although the inclusive classroom is mandated as the default placement for all special needs students, somehow administrators processing the gifted have missed the memo.  Please see Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005.

What is Inclusive about the Inclusive Classroom?

So, when we take four classes away from the six enrolled, there are only two left to become inclusive classrooms.  Someone please tell me what or who is being included here?

I am not sure what it says about the children, their parents, their community, their school or their teachers.  What it does say about our school system is that appearance of being politically correct or following the latest educational wave is more important than pedagogy that works. One has to question the thinking of administrators who allow system classes if the children are going to be integrated into regular classrooms.  When they do the math, isn’t it obvious that what will happen is essentially reverse integration i.e. the integration of regular students into classrooms of identified students among whom are children with “severe” learning disabilities”?

Below is the section of the Ontario Education Act that deals specifically with the maximum number of students who may be in any Special Education Class, including the gifted classes.  The ceiling ranges from six to twenty-five.  The unlucky souls integrated into the inclusive classrooms under the flags of equity and political correctness are in classes exceeding the twenty-five.  In fact, regular intermediate classes have almost always been larger than twenty-five in spite of the fact that even twenty years ago teachers and administrators knew that these classes were heavily larded with students with special needs, behavioral issues or carrying the extra load of learning English as a second language.

Those Parents Have Not Complained

That these identified students, some with severe learning disabilities, are being taught in classes larger than allowed for the gifted is a disgrace.  It is more than a disgrace.  If you analysed the makeup of race, gender, socio-economic class and religion, you would find it very different from those in French Immersion or Gifted classes at the Intermediate level.  It is discriminatory.  It is laziness and cowardice on the part of administrators who prefer to do the politically expedient thing rather than the pedagogically sound.

Why is nothing done about it?  As a principal once said to me in a similar context:  “Those parents have not complained.”  And that, gentle reader, is the essence of how many, if not most, educational decisions are made.

[DEFINITIONS (education students, a caveat – these are informal definitions!):

ADD = attention deficit disorder: a learning difficulty where a child or adult is unable to select one thing to pay attention to.  One parent calls it shiny object syndrome, in that the child may really want to focus on homework but is distracted by his own thoughts “I wonder if Fred is going to be away tomorrow”, objects such as a blunt pencil he decides needs sharpening or people he wants to watch or speak to.  These are all shiny i.e. distracting objects.

ADHD = attention deficit hyperactive disorder: a similar learning difficulty as ADD with the added complication of a need to move frequently, sometimes constantly.  Now the child is not only a distraction to himself but to others.

Diagnosis of both disorders is through checklists completed by people who see the child the most.  There is some controversy about giving drugs such as Ritalin to these children.  My own observation is that children who really suffer from these disorders are greatly relieved by the effect of the drugs.  Many specialists in special education feel that the new focus provided by a drug should be used to teach strategies to deal with ADD or ADHD so there is a chance of the child being able to cope without the drugs.

Depending on the expert these difficulties may be classed as behavioral or learning disorders; it really doesn’t matter so long as the problem is identified accurately and treated properly.  With consistent help these children can learn ways to deal with their disorder and improve their behavior if it has created behavioral problems.  They do not have to be out of control but they do need sympathetic help to learn appropriate techniques.

Whatever strategy is used, a psychologist and pediatrician must be consulted to discuss the pros and cons of the approaches.  In Ontario, the approach to using drugs is conservative and carefully tested.  No teacher should suggest using drugs but they are within their purview to advise that a parent should consider discussing the possibility of ADD or ADHD with a specialist such as an educational psychologist.  Teachers see hundreds of children in the course of their careers and often become good informal diagnosticians based on their experience.  Their suggestion to pursue certain concerns is usually well founded.

Psychological and behavioral problems can vary from diagnosed and treated illnesses to students regularly misbehaving in class to the point of disrupting lessons or work. What falls under the mandate of the health system and what is the concern of the school system varies depending on budgets and governments.  In the best of possible worlds schools and mental health workers co-ordinate their efforts in the interests of the children but for the moment, the schools seem to be taking responsibility for sicker children than twenty years ago.

Children with physical disabilities who need physical help usually have an educational assistant to help with things like lifting, toileting and physiotherapy.  For the most part, they fit into regular school life with little difficulty once the necessary architectural adaptations have been made.

Students with learning disabilities, by definition, are of average or above average intelligence.  They may have difficulties such as dyslexia (difficulty with reading), dysgraphia (difficulty writing by hand) or dyspraxia (poor motor skills)]

[More Comments

This example is not unique in demonstrating system indifference to regular intermediate students; see my post, “Education for All” and the Myth of Universal Design where I refer to an intermediate classroom of 34 students in another school in another year.  Again it was a class of regular students studying in English.  In that case I don’t know how many were special needs students or how many students were learning English as second language.

One or two classes in a school system or a province are not proof of systemic problems. However, they are an example of what can happen and has happened when every child’s education is not a priority.

The problem is probably less severe in the primary grades before students are siphoned off into the gifted program and when only some students are segregated in the French Immersion program.  In the primary grades there will be a smaller learning gap between regular students and those lagging developmentally or with learning disabilities.  As the children grow, however, the gap in learning grows until some students will fall as much as two grades or more behind.  A regular grade seven teacher will inevitably be facing a class with some students working at levels as low as grade five or even lower.  There may also be English as Second Language students whose math may be at a grade seven level or above but are not yet able to read, write or speak fluently in English].

Education Act

R.R.O. 1990, REGULATION 298

Consolidation Period: From May 31, 2009 to the e-Laws currency date.

Last amendment: O. Reg. 206/09.


31. The maximum enrolment in a special education class shall depend upon the extent of the exceptionalities of the pupils in the class and the special education services that are available to the teacher, but in no case shall the enrolment in a self-contained class exceed,

(a) in a class for pupils who are emotionally disturbed or socially maladjusted, for pupils who have severe learning disabilities, or for pupils who are younger than compulsory school age and have impaired hearing, eight pupils;

(b) in a class for pupils who are blind, for pupils who are deaf, for pupils who have developmental disabilities, or for pupils with speech and language disorders, ten pupils;

(c) in a class for pupils who are hard of hearing, for pupils with limited vision, or for pupils with orthopaedic or other physical handicaps, twelve pupils;

(d) in a class for pupils who have mild intellectual disabilities, twelve pupils in the primary division and sixteen pupils in the junior and intermediate divisions;

(e) in an elementary school class for pupils who are gifted,

(i) twenty pupils, if the class consists only of pupils in the primary division,

(ii) twenty-three pupils, if the class includes at least one pupil in the primary division and at least one pupil in the junior division or intermediate division, and

(iii) twenty-five pupils, if the class consists only of pupils in the junior division or intermediate division;

(f) in a class for aphasic or autistic pupils, or for pupils with multiple handicaps for whom no one handicap is dominant, six pupils; and

(g) on and after the 1st day of September, 1982, in a class for exceptional pupils consisting of pupils with different exceptionalities, sixteen pupils. R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 298, s. 31; O. Reg. 191/04, s. 10; O. Reg. 29/08, s. 4; O. Reg. 297/08, s. 1.

See also:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

Next Posts:

Why this is Everyone’s Problem

Other Models, Better but Not Necessarily the Best

Should Elementary Teachers Work Longer Hours for Less Pay than Secondary Teachers?

A Reply to Olivier’s Comment on

Have You Ever Wondered Why Your Child’s Elementary Teacher Looks So Tired?

If we were merely imparters of random knowledge from aging textbooks, Olivier, I might find your argument interesting; after all even you could drill children in exercises until they had memorised facts.  The difference is that we prepare the students who will go into high school to learn more difficult subject matter.  We equip them with the tools to learn:  not just reading and writing and arithmetic, but also thought and imagination and questions.

Ages & Stages

Elementary teaching requires an understanding of the stage that the child is at for example between the ages of two and seven a child believes that a tall glass holds more water than a short glass regardless of their diameters.  Thirteen year olds, on the other hand, go through a stage that lasts roughly a year in which they cannot process facts using the scientific method; in other words, once they have a theory, they have great difficulty accepting facts that disprove the theory. A teacher who is unaware of the pedagogical and psychological realities of the stages their students are in is going to have great difficulty teaching most subject material and especially any subject material which requires the children to do more than just memorise facts.

Critical Thinking: Not Just for High School Teachers

In fact, the Ontario Ministry for Education and Training requires that every subject from Grade One up be taught and assessed with a critical and creative thinking component as well as a knowledge and skill component.  This makes sense, Olivier, when you realise that each discipline has its own way of thinking about the world.  A scientist creates a hypothesis, a well-designed experiment to test the hypothesis (and anyone who has done this will tell you that experimental design is not simple), observes the results and draws conclusions from the results.  On the other hand, an historian can’t do experiments to demonstrate truths about historical events; facts such as writing, artefacts and drawings are collected and the historian considers what conclusions can be most logically drawn from the evidence.

I could go on to discuss the other subjects we teach, but I am sure you see my point.  The historian must, even more than the scientist, consider the biases of every one involved in contributing to the conclusions. Elementary teachers must understand and train their students in the kind of thinking experts do in each discipline.  Facts can be found in books, videos and sometimes on the Internet but thinking about it cannot.

To teach thinking we use tools that aren’t always found in textbooks.  You would not recognise an elementary math class today because students will often be using manipulatives to learn such things as algebra.  We don’t just get them to memorise equations, we let them discover why they work, why they are helpful and why the rules of solving equations matter.

[For an fascinating and in depth discussion of thinking in different disciplines see  World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence by Stephen C. Pepper]

Curriculum Updates

It is not obvious where you live.  The Math and Language Arts curriculum I am referring to is the one in Ontario, Canada; it was written in 2005 and 2006 respectively.  It was supplemented with marking exemplars in math, reading and writing.  Recent curriculum is no guarantee of good curriculum but it does demonstrate that the powers-that-be are paying attention.

Textbooks:  Not for Every Grade or Every Subject and Never Enough for French Immersion

The Trillium List is a list of textbooks approved by the ministry for use in the schools.  Although there are textbooks approved for almost every subject in every grade, the reality is, as one teacher wrote to me today, that there are seldom texts used for math in grade one and two.  Subjects such as science and social studies in the primary grades do not have textbooks although there may be some teacher guides.  These subjects are taught through hands on, carefully planned activities.  And I have yet to see a text beyond an anthology for Language Arts for any elementary grade.  If that sounds like enough, I should remind my readers that students in Language Arts learn grammar, spelling, composition (for a variety of audiences), participation in group discussions, public speaking, reading non-fiction, reading for information, to skim or scan and much more.  French Immersion teachers have access to fewer texts than those teaching in English (see Does Choice in Education Divide our Children by Class?) and find themselves frequently translating materials for their students.

Elementary Teachers as Diagnosticians

You are right in one sense, Olivier, we do teach children first.  Their well-being and safety is our first mandated concern but it requires an expertise beyond a normal caregiver’s. Elementary school is where a lot of diagnostic work happens.  If by the end of grade eight a learning disability or behavioural problem has not been diagnosed, it is not likely to happen in high school, no matter what the severity.  I speak from both experience and observation.  Elementary school teachers use their knowledge of child development, the subjects they teach, their observational skills and finely honed abilities in multi-tasking to spot anomalies in student performance and investigate further.  Should the child be diagnosed with a disability or any other kind of problem, it will be the teacher who carries out any suggested accommodations or modifications.  She will also be the one who will continue to adjust the delivery of the curriculum to allow the child to learn it.

And Creative & Critical Thinkers

Notice I say adjust the delivery of the curriculum, not adjust the curriculum.  Most children with learning disabilities are perfectly capable of learning the same material as their classmates.  All they require is the ingenuity of their teacher in finding an alternate way of for them to learn or demonstrate their understanding of the topic.  I should not really use the word “all” as sometimes this is quite a challenge and requires considerable negotiation with student, parents and experts and experimenting with methods until one is found that is effective.

Teaching Many in One Class, One Curriculum (Have You Ever Seen a One Man Band)

The elementary classroom includes students of a wide range of abilities.  There may be a range as much as two grades below and two grades above intellectually.  Some students may be barely functional in English.  Some may have emotional and behavioural problems that require professional help, but may or may not be receiving it.  We teach in a public school system and therefore we teach every child.  Currently the default placement for any child with special needs is the regular classroom, so that is where most of them are being taught.  The teacher has a curriculum to teach AND she must consider the nature of her students’ abilities as she plans how to deliver it.  This is not usually the case for high school teachers.

For more information about the administrivia that a teacher deals with, I refer you to Rethinking “Education for All” Charts: Does Paperwork Improve Teaching? I have not outlined the rest of a teacher’s duties such as supervision and meetings.  I will finish this incomplete summary with one additional expectation of all elementary teachers:  no matter how weary, how sore, how ill she is, she smiles, speaks softly and puts the kids first.

For Even More Information about Elementary Teachers’ Working Conditions:

My astonishment is no longer that people believe that elementary teachers should be on a different pay scale from high school teachers but, meaning no disrespect to my secondary colleagues, that people aren’t agitating to have elementary teachers paid a great deal more to work fewer hours.  Could it be that young children are considered women’s work and women’s work is not accorded much value?  If men dominated elementary school teaching would the job still be valued less?  Do we pay pediatricians less than urologists on the grounds that they deal with young children?  Are people who make cribs paid less than those who make beds?

A Modest Proposal

Given that you think people who teach from a textbook that their students could probably read and learn from themselves should be paid less than high school teachers, Olivier, I have a modest proposal.  University professors should have their salaries divided such that the part that represents the proportion of time spent teaching courses be reduced to less than that of an elementary teacher (as they don’t have to diagnose learning difficulties or supervise playgrounds).  After all, if the high school teachers have done THEIR job, university students should be perfectly capable of reading the texts and learning the course work themselves.  And we all know that either a computer or teaching assistants do their marking.

And a Chuckle

A few years ago I saw an amusing analysis of the comment that elementary teachers were just glorified babysitters.  I don’t know if this is the same one, but it comes to the same conclusion:

Ok- to the people that say teachers are babysitters- and we know that during the school year the teachers probably see the children more than their own parents…soooooooooo if teachers are babysitters….then teachers should be paid as babysitters…back when I was 12 (oh…say 23 years ago) I charged $5.00 per child per hour, and I am sure the price has gone up, but you know what… let’s pay these babysitters $5.00 per child per hour, for every day they have the children. No holiday pay, nothing like that. There’s 180 school days, right? 7 hours in a school day (we won’t let the teacher get paid for her lunch). A teacher has…let’s say 20 children. Holy crap- that’s $126K a year!!! Yeah!!! Please please please pay teachers as babysitters.

Why Study a Second Language – and in Particular – Why Study French?

      For my American readers I should explain that I am a Canadian by adoption and especially proud of the bilingual, multicultural nature of our country.  I believe these facets have encouraged an attitude of tolerance and courtesy in Canada.  It isn’t perfect, but it is a heartening tendency in a world too often intolerant and xenophobic.  As a Canadian I do have a bias on this topic.

            First, as someone who will never be bilingual, but can read, write, listen and speak with modest success in my second language, French, I have observed, as others have, that speaking another language creates another mindset.  It is hard to explain to someone who is monolingual, but it is as if a lightly coloured cellophane overlay of another culture has been settled on your own personality.  Part of it is the style of the language, part the vocabulary, part the literature you read in acquiring the language and part a certain “je ne sais quoi”.  Seeing the world and engaging with it from another perspective is always an experience to be valued.

            The years when we were living in France the most bilingual of our children came to us and proposed that we speak French at home.  It opened a window into how immigrant parents in our country must feel as their children relinquish the language of their roots.  We were shocked by his dismissal of the language we loved.

Fortunately, we knew we were returning to Canada.  As a second language teacher, I knew the importance of maintaining the mother tongue as well; we pointed out to him that speaking English at home and French in school and the village gave him the advantage of knowing two languages. People who spoke two or three different languages peppered our village so our family was relatively normal for that small corner of France.  That was enough for him.

            French has allowed me more understanding of my fellow citizens in Quebec and the francophones of our other provinces.  The difference in vocabulary and accent between France and Quebec has given me more insight than any political writing about the relationship between these two francophone groups. 

            It has also given me a slight competitive edge when I was trying to find a job in a tight market.  Knowing our second language and being willing to use it was an asset.

            There are claims that learning a second language improves cognitive skills and not just verbal skills; there is some research to support the claim.  It is certainly true that learning a second language, particularly one from a similar language group, does expand vocabulary.  I suspect that when we ask our brains to take on a new direction and a challenging task and persist in it over a period of time, there are skills gained beside the obvious ones needed to go in the new direction.  Perhaps they are related to the ability to look at things differently, take risks and persist in spite of perceived failures.  Who knows?

            So a second language may enhance the learner’s cognitive skills in other areas, give them a competitive edge in the job market, give them insight into another’s perspectives and allow them to communicate with other human beings.  What’s not to like?

            The only question that remains for me is what is the most effective way to teach children French in English Canada?  I will address this in another post where I will start by addressing the question:  what do we hope to achieve by teaching French to our children?  What is our goal?  When they graduate with a high school certificate what do we expect them to be able to do in French?

            Let me know if you have answers or comments on those questions.


For further reading on these topics:

1. The Effect of Second Language Learning on Test Scores, Intelligence and Achievement: An Annotated Bibliography  Prepared By Elizabeth L. Webb, Program Specialist for Foreign Languages and International Education Georgia Department of Education

2. Studies Supporting Increased Academic Achievement, bibliography assembled by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages

Please note that the quality of the sources in these bibliographies may vary greatly.  Magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens and PTA are not peer reviewed, nor are the articles necessarily written by experts.  Most of the articles in the first bibliography are at least ten years old; that being said, some are by respected researchers in this field.

Finally, one has to question how researchers determined academic achievement or intelligence. It could simply mean that the students do better at taking tests.

2. The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

© Sheila Diane Scaiff and Teachers Outside the Box, 2008. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sheila Diane Scaiff and Teachers Outside the Box with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




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.