Tuesday, March 25, 2008

French Immersion II

My first article on FI resulted in quite a few responses –some publicly as blog comments, the majority private emails.

A number of responses from those who view FI as a problem claimed I was out of touch with current issues. That the issues which motivate their concerns are different, and of recent vintage, from what I enumerated. Leaving aside the fact that I noted I hadn’t yet addressed all the topics, this claim rather quickly runs up against hard reality. Each of these “outdated” accusations against FI has been repeated in letters to the Times (Milton version), on a blog, and in emails to me. They continue to be part of a cacophony of complaints of varying degrees of legitimacy.

Before addressing some of these other topics, a word about language immersion. It’s occurred to me over the last months from comments made by many people, even supporters of FI, that Immersion is not understood. For example, here’s a provocative statement for you: French Immersion is not a language subject. Sound crazy? It’s completely true. An immersion program is a content based method of instruction in which core curriculum content is taught in the target language instead of in English. The focus of the classes in FI is identical to English classes. The goal is to learn the same basic elementary school skills in language, math, science and social science. The foreign language is simply the language of instruction.

The language is learned as a by-product of content instruction. Immersion is aptly named. It’s like being immersed in water as a means of learning to swim, with protections and proven methods to guide the student to success. The student focuses on deciphering the content of the teacher’s verbal presentation and written instruction. Gradually competence and confidence are gained. When English is introduced after a couple of years, all the content and basic literacy learned in French are transferred to English.

So when I hear comments such as, “maybe the money spent could be better invested somewhere else”, or that “during this budget season, everything including French Immersion is on the table”, I’m confronting statements emanating from a lack of understanding about the program. Putting French Immersion “on the table” makes no more sense than saying we’re putting English on the table. Educationally, Immersion is a world class investment. For the same dollar spent in English, students learn the same basic curricula while acquiring a fundamental level of understanding of a foreign language unobtainable by any other method of language instruction.

So what are the “current” concerns?

1. The FI program has fewer students of color and fewer boys. Consequently, the English program has a very high percentage of boys and a much higher percentage of African American students.

2. The FI Immersion has far fewer special needs students.

3. The FLES program has been cut, a move viewed as unfair to the English program.

The racial and gender disparities in the make up of the two programs exist, although they are sometimes exaggerated. It occurs, but for rare exceptions, as a consequence of choices made by parents of the students. For this reason alone, outlandish charges of segregation ought to be dismissed.

For the record, here are the approximate three year averages reported by Principal John Drottar’s evaluation team to the School Committee.


French---------------Girls 57%--------Boys 43%

English--------------Girls 43%--------Boys 57%


French---------------White 85%-------Non-white 15%

English--------------White 70%-------Non-white 30%




Class Size



Two possible implications of this free choice result deserve attention. Do the differences in the makeup of the two programs detract from the educational quality of the English program, as apparently many FI opponents believe? And, irrespective of the answer to that question, wouldn’t it be better for the overall social education of students to have a better mix in both programs?

Let’s begin with some basics. Both programs spend the same amount of instructional time across language arts, math, science and social studies. I won’t deal here with whether the FLES classes constitute a full exposure to the core curriculum. Both programs use the same math curriculum, including the same textbooks. Both programs use the same science kits, with the French teachers providing necessary translations. The social studies program is also virtually identical. So both programs focus on the same content. The difference rests with the method of transmission. The French program transmits content through the French language, the English program through the English language. The only inevitable difference in educational outcome is the superior foreign language skills of those in FI.

Now I don’t expect anyone would seriously argue that the small differences in class size or gender composition create a poorer learning environment for English students. Class size changes from year to year and we’ve gone through periods when both programs have had larger classes. Yes, these are averages and there are statistical outliers, the odd class here or there with a substantial number of students. But that can be dealt with, and ways to do so are already being discussed. While the gender disparities are noticeable, there is no reason that even larger differences would detract from educational quality. As it is, there are a substantial number of boys in FI and girls in English.

I won’t even discuss, for what I hope are obvious reasons, the purely theoretical implication that the number of students of color in a classroom could impact educational quality.

Which brings us to special needs. The SPED compositions of 5% in French and 24% in English need some adjustment. Students in the French program are evaluated later than those in English, creating a slight undercount. In English, some of the SPED students receive instruction outside the standard classes. Even after making slight adjustments for these factors, the current classroom mix is troubling. We should look carefully at any instructional issues this might present, for both student populations.

And then there is FLES. Many parents are outraged about the cuts to this program. None that I have heard has offered other cuts they would make to fund it. Some kind of equivalency between FLES and FI has been suggested, with some even claiming that cuts to FLES should be accompanied by cuts to FI. No such equivalency exists. The FI program is a complete academic program which does everything the English program does and more. It teaches the core curriculum. It is a program of choice. FLES is a language course. It is a required subject for all English students whether they and their parents want it or not. Time devoted to it is taken from time on the core curriculum. It represents an additional cost to the system.

Having said that, I support its continued funding. The importance of foreign language ability grows and we need to offer options for obtaining it. We all need to remember, however, that its funding means cuts system-wide to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars These are likely to come from teachers and non core subjects.

It would be desirable to have a good mix of students in both programs. We could encourage this result if we knew more about the reasons for parental choices. Why do some parents put their sons in English and their daughters in French? Why are parents of students of color and students with special needs more likely to choose English? Answers will create possibilities for eliminating some of the perceptions of risk that may underlie decisions on program choice. Here are some things we should consider doing.

1. We need to do some research. Not a survey sent home to parents, but qualitative research with either in-depth interviews or focus groups permitting the kind of exploration that will uncover more than surface motivations.

2. Public information and education about the Immersion program needs to be greatly improved. Some residents, especially those who have recently moved to town, are unaware of it. Many residents still think of it as a language program. The town of Holliston has offered a FI program for almost a decade longer than Milton. You can find information about it on their school website. Parents of pre-school children need to be educated about the program so that they have an informed choice about possibilities for their child.

3. Rather than maintain a separation of the two tracks unnecessarily, they should be mixed as soon as the Immersion students begin to have certain subjects in English. Principal Drottar’s review team has recommended this.

4. We need to make sure that our capability to service students with special needs in the FI program is every bit as good as in the English program. Access should not be affected by lack of services, or its perception, for the majority of special needs students.

The French Immersion program is not going anywhere. Any attempt to dismantle it would create a backlash with substantial consequences for the town and for support of education in Milton. It would be senseless to harm a program of such value, both educational and financial. The most troubling aspect of the attack waged against it is the complete lack of proposed solutions or changes to address legitimate concerns. The impression quite understandably left is of an agenda to eliminate FI. We need to focus on the issue of inadequate funding, which is a real threat to the educational quality of all programs in the Milton schools. It’s time to move on.