Monday, February 11, 2008

French Immersion

The recent celebration of the foreign language program in the Milton Schools, coincident with the 20th anniversary of the French Immersion program, occurred at a time of growing attacks on that very program.

We’ve been told that FI is elitist; more expensive than the English program; has better books and supplies; has smaller classes; provides an early exposure to foreign languages denied to students in the English program; has never been evaluated; and produces superior academic achievement because it’s more “enriched” and has fewer students with special needs. I’m sure this list is not exhaustive. As the emotions of opponents have grown, so have the claims. And frankly, they tend to get more and more outrageous. A recent blog commentary even concluded that French Immersion doesn’t work!

This proliferation of increasingly dubious assertions has potentially negative consequences. The piling on of perceived slights and inequities suggests an agenda to destroy the immersion program. Unrestrained and unanswered, it risks a counter action by the many supporters of FI, who have to-date exercised admirable restraint. The feared “schism” could then occur. On a more practical level, a grab bag of issues threatens to bury some possibly legitimate concerns that with goodwill could be addressed.

Let’s look at some of the issues.


It is a struggle to take seriously a charge of elitism against a program whose members are self-selected on the basis of freedom of choice. In ways the discussion should end right there. No barriers of any kind are placed on enrollment. After all, immersion programs function on the same principles with which all human beings learn their native language. With the possible exception of a sub-set of students with special needs (the research is sketchy) there is no reason why any student can’t succeed in FI.

More Expensive

There has never been any evidence presented that would support this continued assertion. You can teach the core curriculum in French or you can teach it in English. Nothing in the structure of an immersion program necessitates additional costs. Studies done in Canada demonstrate that in most cases immersion is the equivalent cost or less of other programs once it is up and running. Exceptions occur when complex transportation issues arise. Ironically, many who make this claim support a grades 1-6 FLES program which indisputably results in the English program costing more.

Class Size

Class size has always been a major concern of mine, both as a parent and as a Warrant Committee member. I have a child graduate from both the English and French programs. The years they attended the Milton Public Schools constitute the first 16 years of French Immersion. Most of those years the French classes were larger, but occasionally the English classes were larger. Whatever the current state, the fact is relative class size changes from year to year.

A quick search of yellowing Warrant Committee files yielded relative class size data for both programs. For comparison purposes consider that across 4 elementary schools and 5 grades we have 20 grades offering both programs. I have data for 2002 and 2003. Here’s a recap.


Grades in which French classes were larger------------------------11

Grades in which English classes were larger------------------------6

Grades with essentially equal class sizes----------------------------3


Grades in which French classes were larger----------------------12

Grades in which English classes were larger----------------------5

Grades with essentially equal class sizes--------------------------3

The point has been made that enrollment in the English program tends to increase over time because the French program does not accept new students after grade 1, causing all new students to be placed in English. Unfortunately, this fact about “program” size has been misinterpreted as equating to “class” size. It could result in larger class sizes and it could result in smaller class sizes due to the manner in which the number of classes in a grade are determined.

If there are two second grade English classes at Collicot with 21 students each, 6 new students would result in two classes of 24 students. However, if these same two classes had 24 students to begin with, six new students would trigger either the creation of a third class or an effort to transfer a couple of students to another school to keep classes within School Committee guidelines or administration standards. A loss of students in either program can also produce different results.

More on other issues very soon.

An excellent online resource for the study of foreign languages, with information about Immersion and FLES programs, can be found at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota.

Sustainable Milton Solar Challenge

Sustainable Milton has accepted a Mass Energy Challenge to help the New England Wind Fund. If 300 families from Milton donate $100 or $5 per month for a year to the Wind Fund, Milton will receive a 4 kilowatt solar installation for a town building. Your donation will support increased use of two important alternative energy sources. Although the final deadline for this challenge is April 30, a significant incentive has been offered those who contribute by this Friday, February 15 –the chance to win a one week vacation in Hawaii, with odds the lottery could never offer.

Information about the challenge can be found here: