The real reason we send our kids to French immersion

By Dan Gardner

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. That's the one we want our kids in. And thanks to French immersion, we've figured out how to get it.

Oh, we'll never say so out loud. We may not even admit it to ourselves. But let's be frank.

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

The good kids are in immersion. The kids with parents like us. The kids we want our children to be around. And no one else.

In the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, more children (2,329 in 2007) start French immersion in Grade One than the English program (2,014). But in Grade Two, 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. Kids who struggle are culled.

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 burden teachers and 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, and ambitious parents don't dream of their children becoming assistant deputy ministers.

Not even in Ottawa.

It's about the streaming. We all know it. We just don't talk about it.

A neighbour in my pleasant, upper-middle-class neighbourhood recently agonized over where to place her son in Grade One. She wanted to put him in French immersion like all the other kids from nice neighbourhoods but she worried the boy wouldn't advance as quickly in core subjects. So she settled on the English program and went into the (very good) local school to have a look around.

The Special Ed teacher introduced herself immediately. Why wouldn't she? Here is an ambitious, 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.

Given the importance of immersion in Ottawa, and the potential consequences of streaming students at the earliest ages, one would think the Ottawa-Carleton board would be deeply concerned. But one would be wrong. The board has no research on immersion and streaming.

Fortunately, the polite silence was recently 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, Mr. Willms dissects the data on early French immersion in New Brunswick and shows conclusively that immersion is segregating students.

Kids with special needs are the first to go. Mr. 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.

But that is just the beginning. "The segregation associated with French immersion is much broader and deeper," Mr. Willms wrote.

Boys are modestly underrepresented in French immersion because boys are more likely to have trouble with reading. In a typical class of 20, Mr. Willms writes, there are 11 girls and nine boys.

There is also "some segregation according to ability." In each of five developmental criteria, Mr. Willms finds, "children enrolled in EFI have significantly higher scores. ... The differences are most pronounced in measures of cognitive and language skills, which are important predictors of academic success."

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

But the most startling of Mr. Willms' discoveries was the class divide. After grouping schoolchildren into five socioeconomic bands -- based on their parents' income, education and occupation -- Mr. Willms found enrolment in French immersion was heavily biased toward the top end. "Compared with children in the middle socioeconomic group, those from the highest socioeconomic group are nearly twice as likely to enroll" in French immersion, he writes. "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. "The divide is comparable to or larger than the divide between non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans in the U.S.," he writes.

Not only is this unjust, Mr. Willms notes. It's bad for kids.

"Children from higher socioeconomic groups tend to do well in any setting," he writes, but not less fortunate 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 -- well-established by research -- is behind a move in the U.S. toward integrating schools by socioeconomic class. And not only there. "Many countries that practice early streaming are attempting to overhaul their school system to delay streaming until the later stages of secondary school," Mr. Willms writes.

But in Canada, we prefer not to discuss what French immersion is doing to schools. It's easier to say nothing.

And, entre nous, ambitious parents are just fine with keeping the lesser kids out of their child's classroom.


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