Is French immersion creating a 2-tiered education system?

Does French immersion create a two-tiered education system in which privileged kids learn French while newcomers and students with learning challenges wind up in English-only programs?

It’s a controversial question the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) is now exploring.

Board staff will spend the summer studying whether “social sorting” is an issue in Ottawa.

“We could have many more immigrants, English-language learners, more special education needs in one program versus another,” said OCDSB trustee Rob Campbell, whose motion directing board staff to examine the issue was recently passed.

“My bottom line is, we’re flying blind. We don’t have this information. Everybody has anecdotes … but let’s set aside the anecdotes … let’s get some actual facts on the table and have some of these important discussions,” he told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning.

Some of your opinions

That conversation generated plenty of comments on Twitter, the majority of which said French immersion does create a segregated system.

But not everyone agreed.

Do away with immersion, academic argues

In New Brunswick, an officially bilingual province that’s been wrestling with how to teach French to students for more than a decade, academic Doug Willms thinks it’d be better to do away with French immersion altogether.

Willms, the former Canada Research Chair in literacy and human development at the University of New Brunswick, now leads a company that does school assessments and surveys.

In the current system, which offers early French immersion, only about four to five per cent of an entire cohort of students are achieving a high level of proficiency in French, he said.

New Brunswick has been wrestling with how to teach French to students for over a decade. 9:51

He thinks French immersion should not be offered. Instead, all students should get some instruction in French until high school, at which time students and parents can decide whether they want to pursue French further and do it on their own.

“How much money should taxpayers have [to pay] to create basically a private school system within the public school system, when only four or five per cent of the children, at the end of the day, achieve advanced skills?” he said.

“If you want your child to learn French, I think they need to fight for an inclusive system, and one that builds up the French skills as they go along, and if they want their child to be even more proficient, have them do extra classes…. It shouldn’t be at the public expense.”

Teachers weigh in

Marie-Pier Demers, who was a student in OCDSB’s French immersion program and now teaches for the French Catholic school board, said French immersion is “essential” for the survival of francophone culture.

“I believe immersion is important, and it should stay, and … when you say words like private system, it’s inflammatory and it makes people jump up,” she said.

“I understand that resources are strained, and I do believe that they should go where they’re needed … but I think if you do away with the whole thing, we’re ruining very important progress that has been made in this society to recognize the French language as an integral part of the founding of Canada.”

Does French immersion lead to social streaming? Two teachers say yes. But have very different views on how to deal with it. 10:48

Rachel Inch works for the OCDSB teaching English-only classes and teaching English to French immersion students. Her own children are in French immersion.

She said special supports for students with high needs are only offered in the English stream, leaving French immersion teachers without help.

“The system as it is right now is a tiered system, 100 per cent…. It does not need to go away, but it definitely needs to be tweaked,” Inch said.

“I think what has to ultimately be done is that support has to be offered in French. If you’re going to allow the students that are having difficulties at school get their support that they deserve, then they should be offered that in French as well.”

What do you think?

Sound off in the comments section below.