The real reason we send our kids to French immersion

Dan Gardner
The Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Keep out the slow kids. Keep out the troubled kids. Keep out the poor and the crippled. Only admit the bright, well-behaved, hard-working kids from prosperous homes.

That's the ideal classroom we want our kids in. Thanks to French immersion, we've figured out how to get it.

Oh, we'll never say so out loud. But let's be frank.

Everyone knows why French immersion is so popular among ambitious parents who drive high-end SUVs, serve on school committees and draft detailed plans for getting their children into Harvard. Immersion is the elite stream.

In the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, more children start French immersion in Grade 1 than the English program. But in Grade 2, the numbers flip. In each successive grade, the gap gets a little wider as kids trickle from French immersion to the English program.

The rude word for this process is "culling." Immersion is tough.

Slow kids are culled. Troubled kids. Poor kids who come to school with empty stomachs. Disabled kids who need teaching assistants. All the kids who could drag the class down and annoy the ambitious parents of future Harvard alumni.

Forget national unity. Making kids bilingual for the good of the country is as dead as Trudeau.

Job prospects? That's the reason most parents give when researchers ask why they choose immersion, but I think that's what we say in polite company. Chinese or Spanish would look much better on the résumés of future corporate executives.

A neighbour recently agonized over where to place her son in Grade 1. She wanted to put him in French immersion but she worried the boy wouldn't advance as quickly in core subjects. So she settled on the English program and went into the local school to have a look around.

The special ed teacher introduced herself immediately. Why wouldn't she? Here is an engaged parent from a good neighbourhood who has decided her son will not start school in French immersion. Clearly, something's wrong with the child.

There has been polite silence about this -- a silence broken by J. Douglas Willms, the Canada Research Chair in Human Development at the University of New Brunswick.

In the current issue of Policy Options magazine, Willms dissects the data on early French immersion in New Brunswick and shows conclusively that immersion is segregating students.

Willms found that while 17 per cent of children in the English program "are in special education plans for the whole school year," that figure drops to seven per cent in French immersion.

That is just the beginning. Boys are modestly underrepresented in French immersion because boys are more likely to have trouble with reading. A typical class of 20 has nine boys.

There is also "some segregation according to ability." In each of five developmental criteria, Willms finds, "children enrolled in EFI have significantly higher scores."

Meanwhile, "the proportion of vulnerable children in (core English) classes is more than twice that in EFI."

After grouping schoolchildren into five socioeconomic bands -- based on their parents' income, education and occupation -- Willms found enrolment in French immersion was heavily biased toward the top end.

"In contrast, those in the lowest socioeconomic group are about half as likely to enroll in EFI. Well over half of all children enrolled in EFI are from the two wealthiest socioeconomic groups."

This is a stunning level of segregation, "comparable to or larger than the divide between non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans in the U.S.," Willms writes.

Not only is this unjust, Willms notes. It's bad for kids. "When children with lower ability or children from lower socioeconomic groups are concentrated in particular schools or classes, they tend to perform worse than when they are in mixed ability classes."

This basic truth is behind a move in the U.S. toward integrating schools by socioeconomic class. "Many countries that practice early streaming are attempting to overhaul their school system to delay streaming until the later stages of secondary school," Willms writes.

But in Canada, we prefer not to discuss what French immersion is doing to schools.

Entre nous, ambitious parents are just fine with keeping the lesser kids out of their child's classroom.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008