So after all that, what do we know?
As you know, I've been pretty quiet since 2010 on the French Immersion issue. That's because I had my say when I was Education Minister, and I thought it was best that the debate happen with other voices. Plus, frankly, there are many other issues.
Now that the decision has been made, I'm going to dedicate three blog posts this week to the issue. Not in debating it, but hopefully adding a couple of dimensions to the public debate from someone who got a crash course in it when that report hit my desk in 2008.
Later, I will look at where it fits in the broader language debate, and what issues the government will have to look at in the transition back to Grade 1. This post will look at what we know after ten years worth of students starting EFI in Grade 3, and what we don't know yet. I thought it might be helpful because the government hasn't really explained the thinking behind the change – what they thought wasn't working, what they hope to achieve. I think we are in a post-persuasion era in politics, where our ministers minimize appearances so as not to antagonize us with arguments. Still, there is a void in reviewing facts, and as much as anyone I was interested in what we found out.
ISSUE ONE: PARTICPATION IN EFI
One issue is the availability of immersion programming. If too few people have access to immersion, then it becomes a source of tension and inequality. These numbers surprised me – with Grade 1 immersion, there was a consistent rate of about 29-31% of anglophone students taking EFI. That's been steadily growing, hitting a high of 42% of students taking the new Grade 3 immersion programme.
Why? Well, literacy experts did tell us that they thought that many students were struggling in unequal classrooms – since very few students with special needs or from poor families took EFI, we were basically skimming off the top third of learners and leaving behind non-immersion classes where a very high percentage of students had learning challenges. The theory was that leaving classes unstreamed until Grade 3 would help more learners get individual help and be more comfortable taking EFI in Grade 3.
Of course, this has a spiral effect – the more marginal learners choose EFI, the more numbers go up, and with higher numbers comes more communities where the number of students taking immersion is high enough to offer EFI. So this may not just be individuals – we may be seeing more communities get Grade 3 EFI than got Grade 1. This will be a statistic worth tracking when we change back.
ISSUE 2: Sticking with EFI
The biggest surprise was here. Before, we always saw some big declines as students struggle in EFI and drop into the non-immersion stream. There are some reasons for this. While many argue persuasively that struggles in literacy can be dealt with just as well in the immersion setting, many parents respond to struggles by removing the child from EFI. This isn't totally irrational – there are few trained intervention workers in EFI, and unilingual parents feel sidelined from helping at home if instruction isn't in English.
As we can see, the old Grade 1 programme lost about 16% of students after two years, and about 21% of kids by Grade 5. The new programme, starting in Grade 3, had that attrition rate down to 8.93% in the last measured year, 2015.
Why? Assuming students leave EFI if they struggle, it may be that giving teachers two unstreamed years to work with students made them more ready to learn a second language, or just more confident in general. I'd love to learn more about why this is happening from experts.
So we can say that delaying the entry point to Grade 3 meant more students taking EFI and staying with it. Of course, that leads us to the big question….
ISSUE 3: FRENCH LANGUAGE ACQUiSITION
This was the big tradeoff. The thinking in waiting to Grade 3 was that we could get more students learning to read and write their first language and thus ready to learn, and this would compensate for the delay in starting immersion. There were smart people who were skeptical. Because the first Grade 3 immersion class hasn't been tested yet, we simply don't know how their French skills stacked up to their Grade 1-starting peers.
You can debate whether or not government should change without testing how the current system was working. I'm sticking with facts, and we just don't know. But of course, over time, we will have ten cohorts of Grade 3 immersion students and we will know.
ISSUE 4: Teacher Support
You know this one. When the change was made, an NBTA survey showed 67% of teachers supported the move to Grade 3. Then-President Brent Shaw explained that, in deference to the strong contrary sentiment among EFI teachers, the Association stayed publicly neutral. And we all know that the NBTA has not been neutral this year – the Teachers’ Association supported staying at Grade 3 having been the ones to implement it for eight years.
ISSUE 5: Impact on English Literacy
The biggest reason for the change was that eliminating streaming might help our low literacy rates. In a system where up to 40% of kids enter school with learning challenges and 98% of them don't take EFI, that meant non-immersion classes where over half the room struggled.
This still is misunderstood, which you can blame on the minister who was explaining it. People asked why we thought waiting to Grade 3 would help improve the results of learning French. We thought it would help most with English, because struggling learners wouldn't get lost in classrooms where teachers had too many students with high needs.
So, I had a look at the Grade 2 literacy results before and after. And, the results were interesting but unclear. Sorry about the self-serving table. I'm not a detached observer, but the numbers are the Department’s and not mine.
So what do we get from this? First of all, Bernard Lord was underrated – big improvements happened under the Quality Learning Agenda. I'm even happier we kept his testing regime instead of tearing it up to be partisan.
On EFI? It's inconclusive. Supporters of the Grade 3 point can indeed note that the best literacy score in NB history was the first class to not be streamed. There is a jump there.
Supporters of the Grade 1 point will note that things have gone down again to where they were back in the days of Grade 1 EFI and early streaming. Now, there are a lot of other changes – government also began cutting in 2011 and has been cutting since, and other things like literacy mentors and teacher innovation funds were specifically cut. You could argue that not streaming helped and is still making it better than it would be, but programme cuts are bringing the rate down. Of course, you could also argue that in 2008 there were good programmes and more money, and these “good Kelly” programmes caused the rise, not the “bad Kelly” change to the EFI entry point. Or maybe kids learn better when education ministers are over 6’4”. (Doubt it).
We will likely know more by tracking these after the change. That will tell us a lot more about what caused the rise from 2007-10. Governments haven't been reporting these with as much fanfare, so I hope citizens and journalists will ask.
Obviously, I have a dog in this fight, and I've tried to avoid argument here. Like all of you, I want the system to work, and that is most likely when we start by acknowledging the facts we know and the ones we need to find out. I've hoped every day that the decision of 2008 served kids well, at least as many as possible. And I hope the new policy does, too. This is too important to worry about ego. Let's all try to get it right.