NB fails miserably at graduating bilingual students

Government considers canning early French immersion

The New Brunswick government will consult with the public before acting on a controversial new report that recommends eliminating one of the cornerstones of bilingual education — early French immersion.

Education Minister Kelly Lamrock said Wednesday he likes what he sees in the report, which calls for a major overhaul of French second-language programs, including just one immersion option beginning in Grade 6. Lamrock said that as Canada’s only officially bilingual province, New Brunswick has an obligation to lead the way in developing more effective programs to ensure as many children as possible are bilingual.

The Liberal government says it wants 70 per cent of students to be bilingual by 2012. At the moment, only a fraction of graduating students have proficiency in French.

“If we are to be leaders in bilingual education, then it is incumbent upon us to choose programs that the evidence shows make people bilingual,” Lamrock said. “I like the idea of teaching it (French) to everybody to the best of our ability.”

The report’s authors, Patricia Lee and Jim Croll, say the current system for French second-language education is a failure. In the basic core program, where most New Brunswick students are educated, only 28 of 55,000 students reached the provincial standard of intermediate, oral proficiency in French last year — a rate of .68 per cent.

Croll said that works out to a staggering cost of $367,000 per child. “Clearly, the core program is not doing very well,” he said. Croll and Lee also found major fault with the early immersion program, in which children are taught exclusively in French beginning in kindergarten or Grade 1.

Many educators believe it is best to start children in a second language at a very young age, and a number of New Brunswick parents have fought hard to maintain the early immersion option. But Croll said research shows that of the roughly 1,500 kids who started in early immersion in 1995, 91 per cent dropped out of the program by the time they reached high school. He said the cost of early immersion works out to about $33,500 per child.

“I have no issue with early immersion,” he said. “It may be the Cadillac of French language programs. But if 91 per cent of the children in the program are not reaching the provincial attainment level, one might question whether it is suitable for all children in New Brunswick.”

Croll said the late immersion option has a much higher rate of success with over 17 per cent of its graduates meeting the proficiency test, although the test is a lower standard than it is for early immersion students. He said late immersion is more acceptable to students.

Croll and Lee are recommending intensive French for all students beginning in Grade 5. Once the students are in Grade 6, they would have the option of going into immersion or continuing in the core program. The report says that French instruction in the core program should be enriched and should continue until Grade 12.

Walter Lee, spokesman for the lobby group Canadian Parents for French, is highly critical of the report. “New Brunswick would be throwing the baby out with the bath water if it follows these recommendations,” Lee told reporters in Fredericton after the report was released. “They would be replacing the Cadillac of French language programs with an untried, untested program that is designed to produce lower results.”

Lamrock would not give a deadline for making any decisions.

-with a report from CP