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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like you, I share your concern that a discussion about the elementary school programs could cause a schism in our town that we certainly do not need at this time. I remain hopeful that the School Committee can lead us through a discussion of the facts and issues with an eye toward strengthening the elementary education of all of our children.

I do want to offer a somewhat different perspective than yours, however. We chose the English program for both of our children and they are now at Pierce. While I had some concerns during their elementary years that there were some problems inherent in maintaining two programs (most notably social challenges and the lack of academic challenge for bright kids in the English program), the program generally served them well and I wouldn't change our decision. I do think, however, that a GREAT deal has happened in the past few years to cause a much wider divide between the two programs. And I don't think any of us whose children are no longer in the elementary schools can evaluate that as clearly as those who are currently there. Your data is five and six years old. A lot has happened in our town during those intervening years. Current data would show other issues.

My biggest concern, and one which no one seems willing to address, is that currently the racial make up of the two programs is so dramatically different that it appears we are allowing implicit segregation in our schools. I know that may be inflammatory, but I think we need to start talking about it. If you were to walk through the Tucker and the Glover (as I have done within the past year), you would be struck by the few kids of color in French classes and the few white children in the English classes. This can't be what we want for Milton. And we all need to recognize it for what it is and work to more fully integrate our children.

I am encouraged that our School Committee has recognized the value of evaluating our elementary programs and am hopeful that, with some changes, we can come out of the process feeling that we are meeting the needs of ALL of our children.

And I think we would all help the conversation if we could remember that it's much easier to discuss any issue when your own child(ren) are not directly affected. Those whose opinions are being expressed most vociferously are those whose child(ren) are in elementary school. For the rest of us, it's a lot easier to discuss this potentially volatile issue with less emotion.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

I'm glad we share the same hope for a positive outcome from this discussion.

I'm well aware of the issues being voiced today, especially those which so many are quite reticent about clearly defining so that people can either understand them or judge their merit.

Please enlighten me concerning the lack of challenge in the English program versus the French program? How does it manifest itself? In other words, what objective data do we have demonstrating this? Is this lack of challenge a view shared by any of the educators in the school system? These are important questions because we ought to make every attempt to separate facts from feelings, as far as we can.

While the current parents of the elementary students are closer to the situation, it does not follow that they alone are best able to evaluate the issues. In the first place they do not agree, and in the second place they are more susceptible to an emotional reaction as you yourself noted. When a good set of facts has been determined there is no impediment to all interested people making an evaluation, most importantly the School Committee. And the set of people equally entitled to make such an evaluation is large. This is an important issue for the school system and for the town, with implications for years down the road, long after the current elementary students have moved on.

Characterizing the class size data as "old" ignores the point I made. This year's relative class size does not matter, since class size changes from year to year. So long as there is a sound and adhered to methodology for limiting class size, neither program should be permanently penalized. And if the current policy does not safeguard against this, we should change it to do so.

I think it regrettable that we should use words like "segregation", even when modified. Segregation is a policy of imposed separation based on race. Nothing of the sort is going on here. Now anyone interested in the Milton schools knows that we have had a growing influx of students of color from various geographies. Most enter the schools beyond a point at which they could possibly benefit from an immersion program. For students who are residents at the time of enrollment in school we can do a better job of making sure they are not failing to select French because of unfounded concerns. We can recruit and encourage and work harder to allay concerns that might not be real. This is the proper response to this issue. But what is the solution for the significant influx after Grade I? Do we eliminate French Immersion because of a trend, perhaps short term, which substantially causes a racial imbalance between the programs? If not, do you have another solution to offer? Because you see, in the end, we have to find solutions that satisfy all involved.

5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


There seems to be some commonality with respect to your concerns on Full Day Kindergarten (Families with limited resources who won't participate in FDK will cause educational delays.) and my concerns with French Immersion (Children in the English program are not passing MCAS at rates equal to their peers in French classrooms; therefore, those needing more help actually receive less because of larger classroom sizes with higher levels of non-performing students.).

Your own words on FDK capture the "French Immersion Debate" so well: "It would also create an educational problem down the road for the schools, as additional scarce resources would need to be pinpointed for remediation... We need to be thinking about how we can keep this from becoming a two-tiered educational system over an extended period of time."

So we have more in common that you may believe.

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Phil,
I too am concerned about the future of our elementary schools. I am also an English parent. My children have had (to date) wonderful educators who care about them and their classmates.

What you and others do not understand is that many of us feel that there is a real lack of understanding of the English curricula by the French Immersion parents. They do not understand that when many of us chose English, we did so BECAUSE we wanted our child to have Spanish four times a week, and we were told that our child WOULD have Spanish four times a week. There are first-grade parents who have been lied to by the school department. Their children NEVER received Spanish this year and won't get it again next year, as Spanish is being cut again. It is the idea that it is OK that "specials", such as Spanish, art and music -- and even recess -- are disposable for the "English" kids. The kids even get it -- and how can we not advocate for our own?
Phil, the issue comes down to equity. French, Spanish. They ARE foreign languages. It IS a form of enrichment -- no matter how it is taught. These children, for the most part, still speak English when the bell rings at the end of the day. I have no gripe with French Immersion, but I do have a problem when my child is deemed unworthy of enrichment, but another child is not. The schism is caused by the school department. One needs to ask why is this? What could the department do to make sure that all children are treated the same and given a variety of opportunities to suit a variety of children? Until all children -- ALL children -- are given REAL opportunities to be enriched and engaged, you cannot expect parents to sit idly by and not say anything.
I am sorry that you think that I, as well as others, should show "restraint" -- but in all honesty, would YOU if it were YOUR child? I should sit by and watch while REAL "slights and inequities" occur for my children? What lesson do I teach my children by doing this?

I won't even go into your arguments, but will say this. You need more current data. The problem, Phil, is that MPS has changed dramatically in the past five years. In that time, we have gone from a handful of English Language Learners to more than 60 such students. Where are these 60 children? All but TWO are in the English program -- this, according to our own assistant superintdenent. Please, as you talk about outrageous accusations and unsubstanciated data, please use information that is current and relevant. It would make it seem as though you were taking sides. You wouldn't want that, would you? What would your English-program child think of that?

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


What "objective data" do you have with respect to: "Most enter the schools beyond a point at which they could possibly benefit from an immersion program."? First grade classes do not bear this assertion out.

As a community, "choice" cannot be a banner behind which an unintended consequence of segregation plays out. It doesn't pass the "smell test".

5:46 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Unfortunately your entire thesis rests on an unproven assumption.

That being that the English program is responsible for the differences you note. Are you claiming those who aren't passing would do so if they were in French Immersion?

There are many other variables which account for differences in outcome. That students who have full day kindergarten are more prepared than those who don't, even across all the subgroups that are known to be indicators of performance, is simply a fact. Your analogy fails to account for known variables in educational outcomes. It confuses correlation with causation.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

I don't mind people making anonymous comments, but it would make it easier for me to direct a reply if people at least used some form of identifier in their posts.

I'm very sympathetic to the parents who have lost FLES and would support measures to restore it to the curriculum, including an override. Otherwise, I would ask you what you would cut to find the funds to restore the FLES program?

But it is simply not the case that the programs are the same just because of FLES. They are not. They are different. Adding a language course to an English program is not an Immersion program just because it's a language. The French students learn the same curriculum as the English students. They learn another language, which seems to be what you mean by "enrichment", as a byproduct. This kind of "enrichment" is only possible with an immersion program. I plan on writing more about this.

As for your point about English language learners, I'm well aware of it and addressed it in a response to someone else. What would you like to do about this?

The information I've used is current and relevant. I've only written one of two posts on the subject, and the issues I dealt with are voiced every day in this discussion.

6:13 PM  
Anonymous phil k said...

Appreciate your blog on the FI program. I also had one kid in it and one kid in the English program. I'm happy with it and don't like the anti sentiment or the disinformation. But I have always has a gripe, which, I suppose, goes to the elitism concern. My understanding is that a French immersion program was adopted because of the ready availability of a curriculum. But if a District feels it important to offer an immersion approach, this should not be the central criteria for the selection of the language. Rather, the language that is most relevant and usable given the local, regional, and national demographics should control. Spanish is the natural choice.

I suppose the cow is out of the barn on this, and, as I said, I am generally supportive. But I wish I had a choice of a Spanish immersion program.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...


I'm not sure what the rationale was for selecting French. I think there are various reasons for selecting a language to study, some of which involve criteria different from national or regional criteria.

The beauty of an Immersion program is that any of the Romance languages can be used with the added benefit of providing a substantial leg up on picking up the others.

Would more Milton parents select Spanish Immersion who now eschew French? I don't know.

6:23 PM  
Anonymous phil k said...

The rationale has been explained to me as there was a French curriculum available. You are right about the effect of learning any foreign language, but it still holds that what is chosen, it seems to me, should be the language that will be most useful.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Well, that raises the question of how one defines useful.

Some people think it should be Chinese because of their size and rising power. Others say Spanish for obvious reasons. French is spoken on multiple continents, remains the language of International organizations, is an official language in 31 nations, including 21 African nations,and is the third most spoken language in the United States.

There is significant benefits from either French or Spanish.

9:21 PM  
Anonymous crackedup said...


Thank you for providing a forum for all who wish to be heard on this issue. I'm a parent of FI kids who hates the reductions that have taken place in the FLES program. I would much rather spend my energy lobbying the administration to restore the FLES cuts than to bicker with other parents over whether the French teachers use the photocopy machines more often than the English teachers (believe me, I've heard that complaint!) We all made our choices, sometimes agonizing choices, about what program would be best for our children and I'm troubled that others feel it's okay to tear down my choice because of their gripe with administrative decisions. We're all parents and all want the best education for EVERY student. I would gladly stand on a corner with a sign saying "Restore FLES," but the way things are going, the anti-immersion stuff might end up alienating a good portion of the parents who might otherwise support the objectives of the FLES parents. Can't we all just get along?

2:28 PM  
Anonymous K- said...

Ok, here is my take--

I have two kids one French & one in English. We made the right choice for each kid and have been very happy with each program. Furthermore, I've had several opportunities to observe in both programs at different grade levels at Tucker. So, I feel like I have one person's current perspective.

The French program is terrific. It's unique and serves to draw people to our school system who are looking for that type of an immersion experience. From the college students I know, they feel like their knowledge of a French helped them succeed in many ways and ignited their interest in learning languages and in world cultures. Why would we give up on a program that serves its students so well.

There are, however, some specific issues that need to be addressed:
1) the English classes need to absorb virtually all the new students enrolled in the district between first and fifth grades. All need to shift curriculum (since we don't have a state wide curriculum, instead we have benchmarks & curriculum frameworks, but local districts choose how they will deliver education) and some come from districts that are not as rigorous
2) there is a greater number of students with special education needs and with more significant special education needs in the English program (when I was given numbers from a school committee member recently there was a dramatic difference)
3) student in the English program have significantly less reading and writing instruction because of FLES.
4) the test scores do differ between the two groups (with French students typically out performing the English students).

Here are my suggestions--
A) let's tell it like is and recognize that the curriculums are different. French immersion kids come out fluent in French. FLES does not provide a comparable experience.
B) We have a model in the district for supporting classrooms with higher numbers of special education students. It is the integrated program with smaller class sizes. Let's do the same thing for English (although we can't go as small). The English classes should have fewer students to allow the teachers to address the students varying learning needs (both the students with special education needs and the brighter students). Heterogeneous groups require lower student teacher ratios.
C) Eliminate FLES and allow the teachers to focus on the curriculum frameworks. BUT put something good in its place. Provide an enriched science or math alternative. This would allow the teachers to stay within the curriculum frameworks and provide the child who excels at something other than languages to have a viable enrichment choice. There is excellent research on the value of enriched science and math education in elementary school.

I think those three simple things could make a huge difference.

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mother of 1 says
I appreciate this discusion and think everyone has made some excellent points. There are some unique challenges to Milton's education because of the French program but given that 50% of parents choose it, I don't feel we can through out the baby with the bath water. I like the idea of adding enrichment in other subjects like science or math. I support bringing the FLES program back to 4 times a week. All of these ideas cost money and it looks like the budget for next year does even provide level funding What are out options?

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand that the parents that put there childern in the FI Program would be angry that there children are losing out on things, however many people that live in this town are paying high taxes for, French? are you serious.. talk about a poor choice. Spanish, and Asian language I can understand, but French? what a waste of time and money. I would never put my child through that, chances are most of the children will be able to impress people that they speak a second language. But thats just about all that it will do for them. Do your children a favor, take them out of the program, save them money for the town or put it to better use... French???? are you serious?

9:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why full french immersion? Why not a french tutor. How are the French students test scores in the sciences and maths? What happens if a child finds it is too difficult in the FI program after 1 or 2 years? Won't this set them back in English as well? Where can I find data on the MCAS scores for FI students? Also colleges FI students have been accepted into? We love Milton, the wondeful families, the proximity to Boston, Blue HIlls, etc. We hope to stay but it appears to be only good for FI students, any child with special needs should look for a public school elsewhere? That is how I seem to understand it? The English program is mostly boys??

10:05 PM  
Anonymous FI graduate said...

Don't knock the program for choosing French.....learning a second language fluently is amazing no matter what the what if spanish seems more useful...I would never discourage people from enrolling their children in FI. Milton is a PUBLIC school system...and having your child become fluent in a second language at a public school is amazing.

And as for the test scores..the FI group is always higher.....ALWAYS! The same is true for math and science. Learning a second language at an early age expands our brain capacity. Just look at any graduating class at Milton High in the past 12 years and you'll see that nearly all of the top students are FI kids. As far as I'm concerned any parent would be a complete idiot not to take advantage of this opportunity.

1:48 AM  

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