Brows furrowed around our breakfast table last fall when my son, in Grade 3 French immersion, struggled to add two single-digit numbers. Venturing a little deeper into the realm of very basic math, I found little evidence to support his report card's claim that he was "progressing well."
While facing a conundrum familiar to French immersion parents – is my son not understanding math or the language in which it's being taught? – his homework began occasioning frequent meltdowns. So we decided to look for a tutor. We didn't have to look far. In our midtown Toronto neighbourhood, we have three tutoring storefronts within walking distance. And for good reason: My son walked into the local Kumon centre with some apprehension – only to discover that, in his words, "half the school is here!"
Of course it was not actually half the school. An informal survey of fellow parents suggested that about a third of my son's Grade 3 peers get some form of tutoring, which corresponds with the Canadian Council on Learning's 2007 finding that 33 per cent of Canadian parents pay for after-school help. Experts say that the tutoring industry in Canada, estimated to be worth more than $1-billion annually, has grown as much as 500 per cent in some Canadian cities since the 1970s.
It's part of a global trend, and there are many reasons for it. Working parents, already scrambling to make dinner, are hard-pressed to help with their kids' homework – especially when, as in our case, it's "discovery math" in French. But more importantly, as a generation, we feel obliged to gird our kids for the cutthroat labour market that awaits them. As Canada's PISA ranking slides and standardized math scores across the country plummet, the tutoring business licks its chops. The manager of our local Kumon centre began his pitch with the claim that Canadian students are "two years" behind their global peers. Which peers, I asked? Asia.
Parental insecurity goes a long way to explain the popularity of specialized programs such as French immersion, which saw a 41-per-cent increase in enrolment across Canada between 2004 and 2014. Learning French is all very nice, but really what we're after is a more enriching, challenging, ambitious learning environment – what some consider the "private" system within the public.
Rather than assuaging parents, however, French immersion gives rise to more worries – that our kids' English may be falling behind or that the French instruction is not up to snuff – as we read reports that the demand for teachers has outstripped the supply and that instructional standards are falling. Meanwhile, credentialed critics question the entire premise of the immersion program in an anglophone context.
These concerns are not unfounded. The bilingual brows in our household furrow regularly as grammar, spelling and semantic errors are picked out of homework assignments. Our family matriarch, who happens to have degrees in Canadian history and French-English translation, nearly choked on her toast recently while reading a social-studies worksheet naming "la fourrure et l'exploitation hydranlique" – the fur trade and hydranlic (sic) exploitation – as the main industries in today's Hudson Bay Lowlands.
We have reason to question whether French immersion, designed to foster patriotism and bilingualism, is fulfilling its mandate and whether it truly is suited to all kids, as its champions insist.
Compensating for the program's deficiencies with private tutoring is a strange fix, as is stuffing our kids full of after-school learning to nurse our own insecurities. Canadian primary-school kids already receive 919 hours of compulsory instruction each year, well above the OECD average of 794. And the evidence does not suggest that more instructional hours translate to more learning – to the contrary.
Last week, on an unseasonably warm afternoon, as my son's friends were kicking around a soccer ball on the school playground, I dragged him away to Kumon. It seemed totally wrong. We quit and drilled the times tables on the walk home.