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 Each of these “outdated” accusations against FI has been repeated in letters to the Times (Milton version), on a blog, and in emails to me.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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Town of Holliston has had FI for a decade more than Milton, but the country of CANADA has had it nationwide even longer. Their national parent support group, Canadian Parents for French, has funded substantial research over the years on a variety of topics that would be useful to Milton. Every interested person should learn from Canada's experience and visit their website at: https://cpfont.on.ca/.

- Laurie Macintosh

10:38 AM  
Anonymous crackedup said...


I heard that nearly 60% of the incoming first grade class has chosen FI, with only 40% choosing English. I wonder what this will mean for both programs. If you have to add second or third FI classroom at some schools, that could really disrupt the budget. If English enrollment is shrinking, is it because parents are fed up with the FLES cuts or because they analyzed the data on FI and want those results for their children? This won't be a one-year issue -- those kids are presumably committed for the next 8 years or so. Any thoughts?

10:23 AM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Cracked Up.

If more kids choose FI resulting in an increase of classes for those students, the effect would be the same as if more children choose English, resulting in the need for more English classes. The answer is it is a budget neutral circumstance. You either have to put the kids in one program or the other. Both require classrooms.

5:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Language immersion programs are a great idea. In Canada and Louisiana, immersion in French makes absolute sense. But when Milton decided to have immersion in French, it was clear to most of us why: Suburban snobbery. When we wondered about Spanish immersion, we were told that one big factor was that many more teaching materials were available in French. Too bad Bella English slipped up in her recent Globe article and said that the French teachers were to be admired for overcoming a lack of these same teaching materials.

C'mon. The real reason is that parents don't want their precious snowflakes to be wasted learning the language of the landscaping crew. They's rather imagine Junior in Paris than Tijuana. Forget that Spanish will be many times more useful in the real world than French. We've all heard that tone in a parent's voice when they say "My child is in French Immerison.".

The surprise will come when little Caitlin starts playing with the Haitian kids in Mattapan. You think Mrs. O'Roarke drived through the Square with her windows down so the kids can talk French?

4:31 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Language immersion of any kind is of exceptional educational benefit. And language immersion in a romance language enables a remarkably easy transistion to other languages in that language family.

Your speculations about the motivations of others with respect to specific language could just as easily be turned on you. French is one of the most widely spoken second languages in the world, in locations far removed from Paris. All French speakers are not Parisians, and all Spanish speakers are not landscape employees. But I'm glad you advocate "talking" (sic) French to those who speak it.

As for Bella English's Globe article, I'm afraid you're confused. She was discussing the state of materials for French in relation to English. The facts as they existed at the outset of FI are an entirely different matter. At the time, materials for French immersion were much more readily available than for any other foreign language. Since French Immersion had been widespread in Canada for a couple of decades at that point, it's hardly surprising.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Language immersion is a great idea. I have read a number of articles and studies highlighting a few important points that relate to this program & debate:

1. Language acquisition is best started at an early age.

2. The most effective way to learn a language is through the study of curricular subjects in that language, not necessarily through the study of that language.

I can not really grasp why this debate exists. This is clearly something that sets Milton apart from other towns, does not pose a threat to the education of any child in Milton, and helps in creating global citizens with a broader world view than an Anglo-centric one.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

French Immersion is a wonderful program and Paris is a beautiful city. The issue with Milton's education system is not French immersion but a simple lack of funds. I think a front page add in the Milton Times and all other town blogs and bulletin boards, seeking parental volunteers would be a step in the right direction. I also think the same paper, blogs and bulletin boards, should be used to thank those that due volunteer their time, which in turn would create more involvement by more parents/citizens. I know many parents work full-time/have small children at home, but there are many citizens in town (young and old) who would love to donate their time and skills 24/7 to educating our most valuable resource, our future. Its citizens define a great Town and I for one advocate a call to volunteerism. Milton is a great town and I believe our citizens can rise to the occasion and show everyone why we are the 7th best place to live in the USA.

– Summoner to civic duty

7:55 PM  
Anonymous heyrobertdavis said...

Personally, I'd be thrilled to have my kids in a Spanish immersion program, but I don't seem to recall being offered that choice when our kids started school a couple years ago. That train left the station 20 years ago -- anonymous, where do you suggest we get the money to re-develop the curriculum and replace all the French language teachers? Oh, and by the way, my kids go to Tucker and play with Haitian kids and all kinds of other kids every day. Invoke the class warfare card if you want but it won't fix the budget issues.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Sven said...

We moved to Milton for the close proximity to Boston and the South Shore, the beautiful tree lined streets, Blue Hills and the wonderful families that make this community what it is. That being said I was deeply disappointed to see such a divide between the two programs offered - FI and English. While the French Immersion program may be good for some children and can not see how it is good for the majority? Mandarin, Spanish or even Russian would be a program that would help our children in this ever expanding global economy. However a full immersion is still not good for the majority of the children.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Sven said...

I also do not feel that the FI program is run properly. I have been told that in a few classes there is a sinlge teacher who switches from speaking English for oneone part of the day and the same teacher will speak French the second part of the day. This would be okay for a tutor program but not good for a full immersion program. This can be very confusing for many children and is typically nt recommended for bilingual educators. While the French program attracts many lovely families to our town it equally drives other wonderful families to leave the town. We are going to give the schools one more year and then I think we may be one of those families to sadly leave a town we enjoy but feel may not be the best academic environment for our children especailly with the high taxes Milton residents pay.

10:55 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...


In fact the French Immersion program, like any language program is good for virtually all students. Unfortunately, the divide you've noted is not based on legitimate issues, but frustrations and misunderstanding.
This is created by the very rumors which are you engaging in. Don't reach conclusions based merely on what you've "heard." It is ludicrous to think that the immersion program is not taught according to well known and understood principles.

Equally misguided is the notion that the specific language of immersion has much of anything to do with its value. French is one of the major languages of the world, and like any Romance language, can be the key to learning the others.

French Immersion is one of the academic programs that makes the Milton Public schools a high quality, rigorous educational system --one that recognizes the growing importance of language acquisition and ability.

I hope you don't make a hasty decision to leave a wonderful community and public school system.

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Katie Conboy said...

Dear Phil,

I'm late jumping into this conversation because I just finished up reading the FI blogs when I tuned in today for your new post on Town Meeting.

Your blog posts and some of the comments that followed have made many excellent points. I will add only a few thoughts that have not been expressed.

First, on the elitism issue. So many people say "Why French?" or "Why not Spanish?" You have responded about the benefits of learning any language and commented on the transferability of Romance language skills. This is true, and there's another important point. Spanish may be the second language of the US, but French is the second language of the world.

Go to the UN, and you will see that everything is written first in English and second in French. This is not about elitism--it's about populations and global reach. Look a a map and consider the reach of French across not little Europe, but Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Carribean. We live in a global economy where French is every bit as "useful" as Spanish--if usefulness is what the study of language is about. (I think "usefulness" offers only a partial view of the value of language study.)

Second, I think it's unfortunate that people assume students want to speak French just to impress people and study in Paris. I have three daughters who went through the French program. Because of that experience, they all want to do something with French in college and in life. The oldest will study abroad in Senegal next year--a far cry from Paris. And I know that many of her fellow graduates are heading to Francophone areas outside of Europe. My second daughter will begin College next year, and while she placed into French literature classes, she'll begin elementary Spanish as well. Many of her classmates already did this in High School and graduated with proficiency in a third language.

And in terms of gender, I also had a comment. The College-bound population of the US is about 60% female. So students who go on to higher education should expect to sit in college classes that are far more unbalanced than either the French or the English Program classes in Milton.

Thanks for the good discussion!

12:52 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home