Monday, May 12, 2008

The Other Side of Education

Citizens for Educational Choice

Citizens for Educational Choice is an umbrella group for a number of local coalitions that have formed across the province since the government initiated drastic changes in the education system on March 14, 2008. Over the past month, CEC has studied the changes and their likely outcomes. The following is the other side of the story associated with five key issues raised by the government.


The government has declared the 'streaming' effect that early French immersion has on core classrooms as the main reason for their changes. They believe that class composition issues are created because the EFI program is naturally biased in its intake of students, yet they have ignored the root causes of these issues. In fact, they are easy explained and point clearly to mismanagement of the EFI program.

The government says that because children from higher socioeconomic groups are more likely to be found in the EFI program, it is a program for "elites." Yet in New Brunswick, as with any province, the average per capita income in urban centres is close to 40 per cent higher than in rural areas. The Department of Education provides the majority of EFI programming in urban areas. This socioeconomic difference is therefore not a result of the EFI program, it is simply a reality based on how and where the Department of Education has offered the program.

The government also blames EFI for the fact that of the 17 per cent of anglophone sector students on special education plans only 7 per cent are in EFI. Again, we simply need to look at where the resources for these children are found to see why this occurs.

The vast majority of funding for exceptional learners is funnelled into the core program. In the 2006-7 school year, after examining hundreds of applications, the Joint Committee on Classroom Composition awarded grants totaling $1,060,800 to English core program classes and just $4,080 to French immersion classes. Obviously, the core program is where these children are placed to get the support they need - it is unavailable in EFI. This has nothing to do with the EFI program itself and everything to do with resource management.

For years, the Department of Education has directed exceptional students and resources specific to them into the core program, and now the government is blaming EFI for a streaming problem that they themselves created. Studies have been calling for increasing inclusiveness in EFI for years. Based on these figures, it appears that the government has not even tried to do this. Without trying something, it's hard to credibly conclude that it won't work.

Unfortunately, the Minister says he cannot correct this disparity due to a lack of bilingual learning specialists to support the immersion program. "They simply don't exist," he claims. But why would bilingual B.Ed. graduates preparing for positions in New Brunswick specialize in the teaching of exceptional students when, for years, the government has failed to hire them?

Again, mismanagement has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We simply need to focus on encouraging bilingual education graduates to become exceptional student specialists. Given that roughly half of all UNB B.Ed. grads are bilingual, we could very quickly be populating EFI with the resources that exceptional students need. This would eliminate one root cause of the imbalanced distribution of exceptional students within the system, and would give children of all abilities an equal opportunity to benefit from early second language training.

Access to early immersion

"The fact is that, today, 60 per cent of the children in New Brunswick do not have access to early immersion." Premier Shawn Graham made this statement, and it is recorded in the Hansard transcript of legislative proceedings for April 3, 2008.

This is simply wrong. The most recent publicly available data required to calculate level of access (2004-05) showed 57.3 per cent of Grade 2 students attended a school with early immersion. Obviously, any child attending a school offering EFI has access to the program. Additionally, in areas with multiple elementary schools, students can choose to enrol in a school that offers EFI rather than the school to which they usually would be assigned if they were entering the core program. Statistically, 20.8 per cent of all children in this situation attend core schools but have access to EFI. Thus, we see that 78.1 per cent of all children have access to EFI. The government needs to remember that not choosing a program does not mean lack of access.

Math, science and literacy

Critical to the government's plan is the promise that under their new system, math, acience and literacy scores will improve. They claim this is due to the fact that classrooms will now contain the "peer leaders" that were previously in the EFI program. However, this claim is not supported by test results in New Brunswick.

In the francophone school system, where there is no immersion and therefore no "streaming", PISA test scores are consistently lower than in the anglophone system. Furthermore, the superior performance of early French immersion students on PISA testing noted throughout the country is only partially explained by socioeconomic and other factors (Allen 2004), suggesting that something else about early second language training enhances performance. Researchers Black (1993) and Bialystok (2001), among others, concluded that second language instruction improves all aspects of a student's academic performance, from creativity to critical thinking.

Although there are no meaningful achievement differences between EFI and core children in grades 2 or 4 (see the data in the recent Croll and Lee report), these differences do appear in later years. This raises the question: if the cognitive stimulation available to children in EFI is lost, where will the strong "peer influence" the government is banking on to improve overall scores in later years come from?

The "new" programming

There is no doubt core French has not worked well in developing bilingual graduates and intensive French has provided students in Grade 5 pilot programs with proficiencies not witnessed in the core program. However, our goal is to produce bilingual graduates.

The intensive French pilot initiated in the province several years ago has yet to graduate any students, so predictions surrounding the long-term success of the program are speculative at best. For the government to even consider a complete rollout of a program that has yet to complete a pilot phase is irresponsible. It is such reckless and rapid shifts in curriculum that have been identified in reports such as the Scraba report (2002) as the major cause for the failings in our system.

Other factors also put the government's 70 per cent intermediate proficiency goal in serious doubt. The post-intensive program in Middle School offers exactly the same amount of French exposure as the old core French program, which the government claims produces proficiency in less than one per cent of graduates.

Also, one of the Croll and Lee report recommendations states, "after Grade 10, students who have chosen to study through late immersion will not be required to study their science and mathematics courses in French and that schools shall have the option of offering science and mathematics courses for late immersion students in either French or English between grades 6 through 10." This suggests massive variation among schools in what late immersion will mean, with students having different opportunities to learn in French depending on where they live. Is this the "universal" French second language program the government claims to be creating?

Cultural and economic implications

Culturally, it took incredible vision years ago for provincial leaders to understand that for anglophone and francophone cultures in our province to live and work together, a respect for each other had to be fostered. Early French immersion has allowed children to not only learn the language but to respect it, along with the culture and the individuals within it. It is the engine that has facilitated our shift toward a truly successful multicultural province.

Economically, the planned changes have already impacted the province negatively. Families are moving to other provinces so their children can enter early immersion next fall. Companies are losing potential employees from out of province who refuse to move where their children will not be able to access early immersion. Immigrants are bypassing the province for other jurisdictions that offer their children an opportunity for early second language education. The unintended consequences of this decision will no doubt be far-reaching, and rarely do so many negative consequences become apparent so soon after a decision has been made.

This government has gone too far too quickly. We appreciate their commitment to improving math, science and literacy outcomes, but none of their changes address the root causes of our poor performance in these areas, relative to other Canadian provinces.

The only responsible thing to do at this point is postpone these changes until proper consultation with all stakeholders can take place, offering an opportunity to properly research and implement changes required to improve our education system.

As Canada's only bilingual province, we must be a leader in innovative educational systems that incorporate the best in language instruction as well as math, science and literacy outcomes. The government does not think we can have it all.

We know we can.

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