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Archive for the ‘French Immersion’ Category

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The proposed plan to change French-language education by eliminating French Immersion in New Brunswick’s Anglophone schools is facing a firestorm of resistance.  An initial mid-January 2023 live-streamed media conference announcing ‘public consultations’ was cut-short after 29 minutes. Then tempers and emotions flared up at the first meeting of the four scheduled ‘public consultations’ which hardened into a wall of opposition from January 17 to 25, 2023 in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton.

Tampering with French Immersion in New Brunswick and elsewhere is a perilous undertaking in K-12 education. It now appears that “touching the third rail” in that province may claim its latest victims.

N.B.’s French Immersion advocacy group, Canadian Parents for French, led by Chris Collins, not only mobilized parents and teachers, but succeeded in disrupting the planned ‘consultation’ management process. It was exposed as a rather ineffective attempt to apply the Delphi Technique strategy of seating in circles, designed to contain and diffuse the dissent.

As a strategy for managing ‘public consultations,’ popularly known as the “World Café,” it essentially crashed and burned. “Manufacturing consent” can and does backfire, especially when utilized in thinly-veiled fashion to ‘ram through’ school reforms or facilitate school facilities changes such as school closures.

Organizers in New Brunswick were totally unprepared for the crowd, unable to answer fundamental questions, and a harried-looking Minister went on the defensive, first threatening to “dismiss” the unruly crowd, then conceding that, if not enough French teachers could be found, it would be started in grade 1 and delayed at the kindergarten level. By the end of the consultations, he was now insisting it was “not cast in stone.”

N.B. Education Minister Bill Hogan has been dealt a bad hand. Appointed in October 2022 to succeed Dominic Cardy, a confident, fluently-bilingual public performer, he finds himself fronting a massively unpopular French language education initiative which is opposed by as many as three out of four New Brunswickers. What’s worse is that a rushed implementation is planned for September 2023 and the initial 22-odd Language Learning Opportunities (LLO) pilot programs were never properly assessed in terms of their effectiveness in improving the fluency and proficiency of students.

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Hogan and Deputy Minister John McLaughlin survived the initial skewering on January 17 at the Gowan Brae Golf and Country Club, but the Minister was essentially mobbed at subsequent public meetings. Crowds arrived early, challenged the “world cafe’ format and took to the microphone to denounce the plan.

The Minister and his senior staff were left scrambling under the glare of extensive media coverage. All the signs point to either a full retreat or an impending implementation disaster. After two years of planning and almost two dozen pilot projects, how did to come apart so fast?

The sacking of Cardy deprived Premier Blaine Higgs of his most effective and persuasive communicator and the Department never recovered.  Without Cardy fronting the project, the remaining trust dissolved among French-speaking New Brunswickers as well as the province’s most articulate Anglophone bilingualism advocates, French immersion parents and graduates.

Political skeletons sometimes get released from their closets at the most inopportune times. Few remembered Blaine Higgs’ 1989 Confederation of Regions (CORNB) leadership campaign pledge to eliminate immersion until it resurfaced again in a politically-damaging October 2022 CBC News NB commentary.  From that point on, the fix was in on the high-risk policy proposal.

Education Minister Hogan and his senior officials have broken all the rules in the textbook on how to implement successful education reforms.  It’s all neatly synthesized in one of my favourite sources, David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s 1995 modern classic, Tinkering Toward Utopia. It begins by taking stock of previous initiatives and learning from the past.

In the case of New Brunswick and French immersion, that means asking whether any other Canadian province has ever succeeded in eliminating the program and learning from past mistakes. The prime example would be former Minister Kelly Lamrock’s politically bruising 2008 attempt to delay the entry point to grade 6, then grade 3, eventually abandoned in the face of fierce opposition. Then, as now, it was all based upon the claim that the province was, according to Maclean’s Magazine “failing miserably at graduating bilingual students.”

Education reform initiatives proceed, in stages, from “policy talk” to “policy action” to “implementation.” In the education sector, changes falter mostly during implementation. The key reasons are: short timelines, lack of leadership capacity, or insufficient human or resource support to make it work. Implementation is much slower and more complex and governments tend to move on to other priorities. That explains why evaluation of initiatives, including data-gathering, falls far too often by the wayside.

Overcoming the gravitational pull of the status quo is not easy and, in the words of American education psychologist Robert Evans, most initially embrace “change” with as much enthusiasm as they do “changing a baby.” Inspiring and skillful leadership is required to “overcome the initial sense of loss” and convey a sense of renewed purpose going forward.

Introducing an upgraded universal French language program in place of French immersion is unlikely to work. With an election ahead in the fall of 2024, it all looks to be based upon ‘election cycles’ rather than ‘policy change cycles.’ Even if the change in French language program gets authorized, it will be far too rushed in its implementation, half-baked in conception, and impossible to staff, given the dire shortage of French teachers with the requisite competencies.

Public engagement is quite distinct from ‘public consultation’ and thrives under the right conditions and requires an open approach and a genuine commitment to breaking the mold. Being open, transparent, accountable and responsive does require unique, well calibrated skills. In the education leadership field, it often involves unlearning ingrained practices and habits. Finding a common cause, sizing-up the conditions, leading with questions rather than answers, and meeting groups where they are all critical ingredients.

New Brunswick’s disastrous public consultation taught us a fundamental lesson about engaging citizens and building support for reforms. Canadian ‘public engagement’ specialist Don Lenihan (Middle Ground Engagement, Ottawa) now calls it “deliberative public engagement.”  It may work in New Brunswick if the provincial government realizes that it’s time to start again, from ground zero, to find an acceptable solution to raising the numbers of bilingual graduates from New Brunswick’s Anglophone schools.

Why is French Immersion the “third rail” in Canadian education politics?  What sparked the New Brunswick government to tempt fate by proposing its replacement with a universal upgraded core French program? Why did the “Delphi Technique” attract attention and ultimately provoke a backlash? Will the setback completely stall further reform efforts? Is there a better way of finding a constructive path forward?

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“Data my ass” is a term of derision that will live on in infamy in New Brunswick education. Uttered by Premier Blaine Higgs in early October 2022, and directed at Anglophone Deputy Minister of Education George Daley, it was seized upon by former Education Minister Dominic Cardy as a clear indication of two things: the premier’s distain for ‘evidence-based’ decision-making and the dismissal of expert advice proffered by a senior civil servant.

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That closed door meeting with the Minister and his senior staff proved to be the last straw in a strained and testy relationship. Soon after, Minister Cardy was dropped from cabinet and a few weeks later, on November 9, the object of the premier’s ire followed the Minister out the door.

Pragmatic politicians like New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs focus on the numbers – in public opinion polls and on the latest provincial student assessment tests. Immediate and reactive political responses drive decision-making.  Politicians and far too many education policy-makers, as Canadian education genius Bernard Shapiro once remarked, “jump over the evidence” in making decisions.  That’s relevant in this particular situation.

Educational changes in New Brunswick and across North America come in distinct cycles, often repeated over time.  That may come as quite a revelation to policy-makers from outside education. A surprising number of ambitious and upwardly mobile educators also get taken in.  It’s called ‘riding the wave’ to the next rung on the educational career ladder.

Serious students of school reform, familiar with the research, particularly David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s 1995 American classic Tinkering Toward Utopia, know that supposedly new ideas and innovations tend to be rebranded and recycled, leaving the status quo unchanged.  In the plain-spoken language of New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”

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In the case the New Brunswick school system, big changes come in little bites.  It took N.B.’s former Auditor General Kim MacPherson to point this out back in January 2019, before the pandemic threw us completely off-course. Back then, a fellow named George Daley, then president of the New Brunswick Teachers Association (NBTA), heartily agreed that “many changes” were being made to the system “too often” and “affecting its stability.”

“We’ve had 37 major changes in 35 years in New Brunswick education,” Daley told CTV News Atlantic.  Teachers had, he noted, raised that issue time-and-time again with a succession of governments no matter what their political stripe. “Political parties,” he added, “use us (teachers and students) as a football and opposition parties use us as a way to poke holes in government.” In short, the system is “falling apart” when you are in opposition, but just fine when you are in government.

Such popular analyses tend to muddy the waters.  “Major changes” upon close examination are usually “course correction” initiatives. They also lump-together the three distinct phases of the policy process: (1) policy talk – identifying and framing critical issues; (2) policy action – strategies and innovations to affect change; and (3) policy implementation – making the changes happen in practice in the schools.

Given the fact that it takes 3 to 5 years to bring about enduring system reform, most of the proposed changes either falter or simply peter-out in implementation. That’s particularly true when changes initiated by one education minister are handed-off to their successors, politicians who in many cases, either waiver in their commitment or have their own agendas.

One thing is clear – former Education Minister Cardy was not only cerebral in personal style, but also, to a remarkable degree, committed to evidence-based analysis and ‘following the data.’ It was his personal strength and, in that sense, he was an ‘un-politician.’ What Higgs, the pragmatist saw, after four years, was initiative-overload and what is known as ‘paralysis by analysis.’

Two of the province’s most ‘wicked problems’ were priorities for Higgs when he appointed Cardy to cabinet four years ago: reversing the decline in literacy, starting in elementary schools; and addressing the ineffectiveness of an Anglophone sector French immersion program where, at the end of Grade 12, only 10 per cent of all students achieved the expected language proficiency. While that figure remains low, Canadian Parents for French NB put more stock in the levels of oral proficiency of those in Grade 12 in the FSL program (See 2021-22 data).

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Whatever one thinks of Cardy’s public persona, his grasp of what it takes to initiate real change was essentially sound. The pandemic changed everything, turning school systems upside down, derailing every major initiative, inflicting learning losses, and aggravating inequities, especially among poor and disadvantaged children.  Some allowances for the learning recovery challenge and readjusting implementation timelines makes common sense.

When phasing-out French immersion became Higgs PC government policy, it was on the understanding that it would take time to develop an effective, properly staffed and resourced alternative in the form of a more intensive French as a Second Language program for all Anglophone students. Notwithstanding the pandemic upheaval, the Premier simply lost patience and refused to budge on a September 2023 phase-in implementation timetable.

Converting a French immersion system into and intensive universal FSL program model, grade-by-grade is a massive undertaking, and the Department is best positioned to determine the optimal implementation timeline. Bungling implementation is far more likely when it’s rushed and that’s likely to be the real lesson of the education turnover.

A dismissive quip like ‘data my ass’ speaks volumes about government priorities.  Election cycles trump policy implementation planning cycles. Ignoring or brushing aside research evidence may be expedient, but will likely prove to be short-sighted in the long-run.  Rushing policy changes like abandoning French immersion in New Brunswick may well add to the list of initiatives eventually cast aside and filed under “flawed in implementation.”

Why do education policy-makers “jump over the evidence” in making critical decisions like establishing implementation timetables? Which weighs heavier in the balance – opinion polling or policy implementation forecasts? What proportion of provincial or state education policy reforms actually get implemented? What happens to policies en route to implementation?

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New Brunswick’s French immersion program, currently serving fewer than half of the province’s Anglophone students, is under review once again.  The latest report, produced by John McLaughlin and Yvette Flinn, in tandem, and released February 2, 2022, proposes that it be replaced by an upgraded core French language program offered to all students. It has, predictably, exposed the language fault line never far below the surface in Canada’s only officially bilingual province.

Judging from the initial reaction, bridging the “two solitudes” through early language immersion in schools is still a dream beyond reach. Ongoing debate over bilingualism, especially in schools, consumes a lot of time and energy, for one good reason – it’s fundamental to the unique regional character of the province. Strangely enough, finding common ground is made doubly difficult by the provincial administrative structure itself, maintaining linguistic separation in the provision of services.

After three policy pivots on different entry points for French Immersion since former Premier Shawn Graham’s 2008 overhaul of the program, a “two-tiered system” continues to adversely affect the majority of Anglophone students. Most New Brunswickers would agree with McLaughlin’s recent pronouncement: “It is time for this exhausting and unconstructive cycle to end.”  Whether dismantling French Immersion is the answer is very much in question.

Watching the debate rear its head again, the searing insights of Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 classic, Two Solitudes, came to mind. While written about Quebec and mostly during the height Second World War conscription crisis, that novel put a finger on the psychological and cultural separation between Anglophone and Francophone which, in some ways, haunts us still.  “Two old races and religions meet here and live their separate legends, side by side,” MacLennan wrote, referring to Anglo Montreal and rural French-speaking countryside villages. “If this sprawling continent has a heart, here it is. Its pulse throbs out along the rivers and railroads; slow, reluctant and rarely simple, a double beat, a self-moved reciprocation.”

Government reports never rise to such poetic elegance, especially in a more straight-forward and less florid provincial culture. That’s a shame because culture and language inspire passion and ingenuity as well as laying bare underlying divisions. Reconciling those linguistic tensions is, after all, what makes both Quebec and New Brunswick unique or, put another way, ‘not provinces like the others.’

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Contemporary New Brunswick, in spite of a succession of policies fostering bilingualism, remains, in the words of the report, “a bilingual province in name only.” Only 33.9 per cent of New Brunswickers considered themselves bilingual, according to the 2016 Canadian Census. While 73.2 per cent of francophones reported that they spoke both languages, that was the case for only 15.7 per cent of anglophones. That’s not a ringing endorsement of provincial core language programs in K-12 schools.

With a little imagination, we can still see fleeting glimpses of Hugh MacLennan’s Protestant Anglo Montreal in the provincial capital of Fredericton and of the French-Canadian village of Saint Marc-des-Erables in Madawaska. Industrializing villages and towns may not spark the resistance found in the classic novel, but it’s not far fetched to spot contemporary examples of fictional characters like Ontario businessman Huntley McQueen and the odd Paul Tallard, at home in both languages, but trying to reconcile the tensions between French Canadian and English identities.

Over the past two years, the Blaine Higgs government’s proposal to change the French Immersion program in the province has sparked robust debate in both languages.  Blunt statements by People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin that French Immersion was a “failed program” were met with stony silence from Education Minister Dominic Cardy on Global News.

Simply touching French Immersion was enough to send its passionate advocates in the local branch of Canadian Parents for French (CPF NB) into panic mode. Introducing pilot programs in more than a dozen school drawing upon “best, evidence-based practice” in providing enhanced core French suggested that under Minister Cardy the ‘fix was in’ on the likely alternative. That explains why Green Party leader David Coon recently provided a stout defense of French Immersion programs.

Coming on the heels of a provincial review of the Official Languages Act, required every 10-years, the McLaughlin-Flinn report dovetails with proposed plans to create a government department dedicated to advancing the two official languages. It did lift the veil on the stubborn “challenges,” including “confusion over what it means to be bilingual,” the net effect of “intergenerational linguistic tensions,” and how better performing students are siphoned away from mainstream Anglophone schools.

Government reports don’t make a dent when it comes to rectifying entrenched problems. Back in January 2020, Minister Cardy flagged them on CTV Atlantic. A large number of New Brunswick Anglophones lacked access to French Immersion and there was a shortage of French language teachers. “We’ve got a problem with geography,” he said, in that “you’re more likely to access French Immersion in the cities than the countryside [and] we’ve got a problem with teaching capacity.” It’s going to take some time to successfully address such obstacles.

Everyone agrees that French Immersion fades as a favoured option in high school, reflected in sharply reduced graduation numbers. Shrinking numbers in Grades 11 and 12 are a problem that needs to be addressed, according to Dorothy White of CPF New Brunswick.

Developing student fluency in two or more languages is possible, as demonstrated in Quebec and many European nations.  There’s a rather draconian element of compulsion in Quebec where French is the official language buttressed by language laws limiting the use of English in the public sector. In the case of Europe, students are more immersed in a multi-language universe where they can easily travel to visit places nearby where different languages are spoken in the streets.

One constructive proposal in the latest report is to embrace the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, to assess and identify students’ levels of proficiency. Establishing six evidence-based levels of language fluency would help, but the greatest advantage may lie in acquiring teaching resources geared to seeing more students master conversational French and far more at level C2, approaching native fluency.

Former Deputy Minister of Education John McLaughlin, the report’s co-author, is right in recommending a gradual approach to advancing French instruction so as the minimize the potential backlash.  “Set the table properly, get people on board and then create a movement that nobody will want to stop” sounds like it was ripped out of a superintendent’s playbook for school change.

Passion and poetry are more likely to inspire such a movement. At the risk of sounding passionate about promoting French in an Anglophone world, might I suggest going back to the original conception of “two solitudes,” coined by Rainer Maria Rilke and popularized in MacLennan’s novel?  “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” Simply put, crossing over and marrying someone from the other side does wonders for bilingualism. Look around and you will see examples of this generational solution.

*Reprinted from The Telegraph-Journal, February 11, 2022.

What can be done to advance bilingualism in Canada’s only officially bilingual province?  Is French Immersion still central to that overarching goal?  What’s standing in the way of graduating more students fluent in French in New Brunswick?  Is it better to improve French Immersion or to greatly enhance core French programs in all Anglophone schools?

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One of Canada’s most prized educational innovations, French immersion programs for Anglophone children, continues to generate fierce debate in various parts of the country.  Since its inception in 1965 in a small school in the Montreal suburb of St. Lambert, QC,, it has spread right across Canada, actively promoted by Canadian Parents for French (CPF), and exceedingly popular among affluent, upwardly-mobile parents seeking every advantage for their children. The French Immersion Dream, espoused by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was that the program would succeed in producing a new generation of more fluently bilingual Canadians.

Great progress has been made in integrating French immersion into provincial school systems, but the Dream remains as elusive as ever. While the 2016 Canadian census showed an overall increase in the national bilingualism rate, from 17.5% in 2011 to 17.9% in 2016, the proportion was significantly lower among Canadians whose mother tongue is English (9.2%) or another language (11.7%). Perhaps most telling of all, French immersion is floundering in Canada’s only “officially bilingual province,” New  Brunswick, right next door to largely French-speaking Quebec.  

Accessing the opportunity to enrol in French immersion remains a challenge. Some 79% of bilingual Anglophones surveyed in a 2016 survey reported that they learned French in elementary or high school. They also identified the lack of access to French as a Second Language (FSL) courses as a continuing impediment to learning a second official language. One of the most critical contributing factors is the shortage of teachers with the French language proficiency to deliver the programs, particularly in French immersion, where the requirements are much higher than in the reguar stream.

The problems with French immersion in New Brunswick demonstrate, in microcosm, some of the challenges faced by education authorities everywhere outside of Quebec.  While hailed as Canada’s “only officially bilingual province,” making that a reality through changes in education has proven much easier said than done. A year ago, N.B. Auditor General Kim MacPherson produced the latest evidence that French immersion was falling far short of its primary objective of producing more fluently bilingual graduates.

Finding the optimal French Immersion program in the Anglophone school sector has proven elusive to a succession of governments. Three times since 2008 major changes have been introduced in the provincial program, shifting the entry point from Grade 1 to 3 and back again.  In 2015-16, an Intensive/Post-Intensive French program was started in Grades 4 -12.  Current Education Minister Dominic Cardy is so concerned about the problem that he has waded, once again, into what has proven to be a political minefield, arousing language passions on all sides.

N.B. Auditor General MacPherson delivered a clinical analysis of the sorry state of French immersion in Anglophone school districts. That’s significant because French immersion, in 2016-17, enrolled some 40 per cent of all students in the Anglophone sector.

French immersion was far from its fundamental goal of producing a functionally bilingual generation. Just 10 per cent of the 1,624 anglophone students who entered French immersion in Grade 1 back in 2005, the AG reported, actually achieved the N.B. Education Department’s proficiency target of “advanced or better” upon Grade 12 graduation. Some two-thirds had dropped out of French immersion before graduation. Of those who did not drop out of the program, a disappointing 40 per cent met the expected standard.

The N.B. Department of Education’s official “Everyone at their best” French as a Second Language (FSL) slide show strikes an optimistic tone and gives no indication whatsoever that French immersion is floundering in the province. “Grade 1 entry to FI was successfully introduced in September 2017 and will be the only early entry point in September 2020,” it proclaims.

MacPherson was sharply critical of the latest Grade 1 entry point implementation. “Because of rushed implementation,” she found, “school districts could not recruit enough qualified teachers to meet the implementation timeline.“ Teachers lacking the requisite “language proficiency” were hired, she reported, and “significant resources were directed to implementation, and this impacted student performance across the sector.”

The AG’s report also broke an education sector taboo. Some 90 per cent of N.B. students on personalized leaning plans – serving students with identified learning difficulties – were in the English stream, MacPherson reported, making it “very difficult to teach” in those classes. That confirmed what the weight of research elsewhere has shown: French immersion effectively skims-off most of the academically able students.

What can be done to change the trajectory and produce more anglophone students capable of conversing and working in French in that province — and perhaps elsewhere?  Education Minister Cardy is going to launch pilot projects to test alternatives in FSL education.  It may well ultimately involve scaling back on the province-wide commitment to single-track French immersion.

Single-track French immersion is not the only way to enhance and advance French as a Second Language (FSL) programming, and, in every jurisdiction, it tends to peter-out in the final grades of high school. It rarely even reaches students from more economically disadvantaged communities.

Parent demands for French immersion for their children became so high in some Canadian urban metropolitan school districts that it threatened to crowd out regular program schools. Some more successful Ontario school districts, such as Halton District School Board, for example, responded by offering double-track French immersion and multi-track programs with advanced hybrid French language options, utilizing elements of FI. Meeting those demands continues to be a challenge in Halton District and in Peel Region, west of Metropolitan Toronto.

Some of the proposed N.B. pilot schools should be modelling and testing the dual track and multi-track models combining French immersion for the most disciplined fully-committed students, Extended Core French for those seeking enrichment, and Core French for those struggling to read or to survive the daily rigours of school.

Starting with Grade 1 in September 2020, there is an opportunity to pilot double-track and multi-track FSL programs. It makes good sense to look to Montreal, Quebec, for English schools that have higher success rates in producing students with bilingual graduation certificates. Extended or Expanded Core French (wherein students take two or three of the six core subjects in French, in addition to a French class over the whole year) is working in some Montreal English language schools and might well prove popular in the province. If nothing else, it has all but eliminated the extraordinarily high student attrition problem affecting most single-track FI models everywhere.

Shifting French immersion entry points back and forth in New Brunswick has done little to inspire confidence in politicians or pliable provincial education officials. It has bred cynicism and strengthened the influence of those advocating leaving everything alone in French language programs. Fixing the problem carries political risks.

Most education initiatives falter because of poor or uneven implementation and the September 2020 timeline looks too rushed. Whatever Minister Cardy and his Department do, let’s hope they follow the Auditor General’s wisest advice. Education strategies, the AG reminded us, should be based upon “expert research, in-depth needs assessment and the best practices” found in other provinces and international jurisdictions. Put more simply, do your preparatory homework and take the time to get it right.

What are the prime impediments to implementing French as a Second Language (FSL) programs like French immersion in Anglophone Canadian schools?  How important is the milieu in which French language learning is actually taking place?  How has the shortage of French teachers with the requisite proficiency compounded the difficulties? Are there viable alternatives to single-track French immersion that might prove more successful in the long run? 

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