According to Statistics Canada, for the first time in 50 years the number of Canadians speaking both official languages has dropped. Part of the reason may be that fewer students are studying French as a Second Language (FSL) in school. The number of primary and high-school students outside Quebec studying FSL has declined 24 per cent since 1990. However, a closer look shows that reduced interest in learning FSL is restricted to regular 'Core French' programs: Contrary to the overall numbers, enrolment in French Immersion programs is booming.
French Immersion became popular after the Royal Commission on Bilingualism in 1969, and by the mid-1970s programs had popped up all across Canada. That first wave of French Immersion students are now parents themselves and are seeking French Immersion classes for their children. Since 2006, the demand for places in French Immersion programs has increased by 12 per cent.
It's not just the children of those first French Immersion students that are fuelling this growth. Parents choose French Immersion for a variety of reasons. Some believe it improves memory and brain development, while others hope it will lead to employment success. Canadian Parents for French report that Canadians who are bilingual in English and French have lower unemployment and average 10 per cent higher take home pay .
However it's unclear whether French Immersion offers any real academic advantages to students. Dr. J. Douglas Willms, Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick, reported in Policy Options magazine, that only 10 per cent of French Immersion students achieve proficiency in French by graduation, and more than 20 per cent of students enrolled in kindergarten "drop out" by grade 5. Overall, reading scores for French Immersion students are marginally higher according to the 2000 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, but no one has determined whether that's simply due to the streaming of high-performing students that French Immersion programs facilitate.
French Immersion classrooms don't reflect the diversity found in most Canadian schools. They are populated with more students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, contain fewer boys and fewer special education students. Dr. Willms found that almost 60 per cent of those enrolled in French Immersion come from families in the highest socioeconomic groups but only 9 per cent from the lowest. Statistics Canada's report French Immersion 30 Year Later also confirmed that "students in French immersion programs tend to come from better off families than non-immersion students" and found that 60 per cent of French Immersion students are girls. The Canada Council on Learning reported that "...special-education services are less often available within French-immersion programs" and attrition rates for French Immersion programs are "particularly high among students with learning disabilities."
This streaming has lead some critics to suggest that French Immersion programs are less about educational benefits and more about providing school choice in Canadian public schools. They allege that parents enroll their children in French Immersion to ensure that they're placed in classrooms with students from higher socioeconomic groups and with teachers that aren't distracted by higher needs students.
If true, it's elitism in a fundamental institution for creating a fair and equitable society, but allows parents to claim it's about giving their child another language and supporting the vision of a bilingual Canada. What's wrong with parents wanting the best for their children? Why not allow parents to choose whatever programs meet the needs of their children? The negative consequences of French Immersion programs for English track students are significant.
Children from families with high socioeconomic status do well academically no matter what classrooms they learn in. But when students from well-off families leave neighbourhood schools to attend French Immersion, the remaining students' learning suffers. All students learn best in mixed ability classrooms with a wide variety of students from various backgrounds. French Immersion removes high-performing students and concentrates them in separate schools or classes.
The demand for French Immersion programs is increasingly influencing education policy and marginalizing students in English track classes. As overall enrollment declines, school boards worry that parents will transfer students to competing systems or to private schools, so they accommodate and support parents who demand French Immersion. In British Columbia pro-French Immersion parents are requesting changes to education funding to allow for more French Immersion places. In Ontario, the Halton District School Board is considering "redirecting" English track students from their neighbourhood schools to create single track French Immersion schools for students who are bused in.
These developments should concern us all. Public education is an investment in our collective future. Supporting a French Immersion program that limits the educational potential of students is short sighted. Our education system must be organized to allow for the maximal growth of all students.
The Finnish education system, recognized as the best in the world by Pearson's latest rankings, is organized around excellence and equity. All students receive the same comprehensive education program, delivered in neighbourhood schools, until sixteen years of age. There's no streaming of students into special programs of any kind.
We need to reconsider a French Immersion program that concentrates students into segregated classes and schools. Educational elitism has no place in our modern public education system. If French Immersion instruction provides the benefits its advocates say, then let's make it available to all our students, in their neighbourhood schools.
Andrew Campbell is a teacher at Major Ballachey Public School in Brantford, Ont., an educator for over 20 years and the father of three sons.
Special to The Globe and Mail