French Immersion in New Brunswick must be retained

I taught high school for 28 years and spent 4 years as a sitting MLA in the New Brunswick Legislature. Throughout those 32 years, I was driven by a naïve idealism initially (the new teacher who was going to change the lives of his charges) that was transformed over the years to a desperate desire to find some way of influencing changes that might help salvage a system that had, in my estimation, done nothing but deteriorate during the time I worked in it.

I met with the Premier of the day, the minister of Education and numerous officials within the department in order to lay out as thoroughly as I could why I, as an educator, believed our system was broken and getting worse. I was listened to politely, I submitted proposals and summations of my thoughts and observations and, from that point on, heard nothing. Disappointed? Ordinarily, I’m pretty good with adjectives but I can’t seem to find one that quite captures my feelings at these multiple, tacit dismissals.

Through all my time in the legislature, only one person was willing to listen to my concerns carefully and thoughtfully. In fact, he seemed to share some of my concerns even if he couldn’t always articulate exactly what they were. He encouraged me to get a group of teachers together who could meet with him informally in order to talk things over. And we did just that. We met in my office and those assembled came prepared with written submissions that were presented and discussed. For me (and I hope for all involved) it was gratifying. 

At the same time, I was made aware yet again of how complex the problem truly was. Competing visions of education – what, in fact, “education” even means – didn’t even necessarily intersect. I am of what might be deemed a “traditional” bent. I see education as the obtaining and retention of fundamental knowledge that can serve as a solid base for developing critical thinking, specific skills and/or areas of interest/expertise, and an awareness and understanding of the world. Others value the social elements that might be deemed significant in creating a “better” world, one fairer and more accepting of others regardless of individual aptitude or specific identity. That being said, here isn’t the place to try and rehash such different approaches and understandings.

What we all shared was a conviction that the system as it exists is failing to achieve any goal, whether quantifiable, imaginary or otherwise. Any “goal”, for that matter, can’t even be articulated specifically in most instances. Listening to all of this and evidently interested was then finance minister, now Premier, Blaine Higgs. 

I’m including this background for a reason. Many are criticizing the Premier for his decision to scrap French Immersion in its current form but they are doing so for all the wrong reasons. The rationale for retaining the immersion program, as it is, is a simple one: however haltingly or imperfectly, it works. Put simply, those who enroll in immersion and stay with it through graduation will, in all probability, have a reasonable command of a second language.

Our premier is frustrated that a system such as ours works well only on the margins. Immersion works because it gathers students together with a specific, measurable goal and it evaluates progress toward that goal in quantifiable and observable ways. Compare that to the rest of the system. What teachers cannot speak about clearly and forcefully is how students in the “regular” system are moved forward, year after year, whether fundamental knowledge or skills have been obtained, initiated, mastered or not. Learning and/or acquiring knowledge is secondary – if even considered at all – to the socialization project that has become the core raison d’etre of our schools.

As a sidebar, when the end of a particular school year came around, a staff meeting was held where we were told that we needed to move a greater number of students from Grade 9 to Grade 10. The reason? The incoming Grade 8 students, taken together with the current roster of repeating Grade 9s would mean we would be overwhelmed with Grade 9 students. And yes, additional names were added to the list of those promoted.

Speaking of learning on the margins, what about International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs? As with French Immersion, these are course offerings that have clearly measurable “academic” goals. Students who choose to engage in either are “streamed” away from the universally applied courses so that they may pursue what are, in either case, internationally developed and administered programs of study. And make no mistake, students who participate in IB and AP are very much “streamed”. They have shown themselves to be academically very capable and someone – either a parent, counselor or other – has recommended the IB/AP “stream” to them.

French Immersion similarly benefits from a clear direction, albeit in a more tangential way. French instruction is a large part of the program but the immersive element involves studying “core” subjects in the language one is seeking to learn. Still, the focus on French is clear regardless of the subject being considered. Always in the forefront is the language. And, as indicated earlier, markers exist for measuring how well one is doing in language acquisition.

Our premier and the Department of Education should learn from all three of these examples in our schools. However imperfectly, French Immersion (and AP and IB) produces real and measurable benefits to those who have a desire and the “academic” (I’m employing the parentheses in order to indicate how well I understand that the word itself – and the concept it embodies – is out of favour) ability or simple determination to stick with it.

I am deeply sympathetic to the Premier’s frustration, a frustration that has led him to choose a path that will benefit no one and make an already bad situation worse. I started teaching 40 years ago this year. I have been out of the system for a while now but, from my perspective, I watched decision after decision being made that compromised that system’s ability to address the diverse needs presented by students. All such decisions were, in my estimation, based upon ideological considerations rather than scholastic ones. Perhaps I’ll expand on that in another missive.

French Immersion represents perhaps the school system’s final available option with a clearly defined academic goal. Should our current government follow through with its plan to eliminate French Immersion in its current form and bring everyone under some vaguely defined language acquisition umbrella, students will be the losers. Please, don’t allow frustration with the glacial pace of meaningful and productive change to lead to the elimination of something that, however imperfectly, actually works.

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