Debate tactics, theoretical musings and taking risks

by Andre Levesque

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Continued from Andre Leveque's post on March 23, 2008.


Ever wonder how a seasoned debater would try to defend the proposed changes to French Second Language education in New Brunswick.  Look no further than our Minister of Education, Kelly Lamrock.  It’s true. In high school Mr. Lamrock won a number of national debating competitions, and the evidence for this is not hard to find.  For instance, Mr. Lamrock has, on at least two occasions, changed the premise upon which he recommends eliminating Early French Immersion.  This represents debate tactic number one.  When the Croll and Lee report was first released, the reasons for eliminating EFI were high attrition, poor achievement of French proficiency results, high cost of the program, and lower literacy scores of Core students as a result of streaming.  The statistics used in the report were quickly shown to be biased, misleading and inaccurate.  A review and recalculation of the statistics has led to alternate conclusions.  Attrition in high school is equivalent between Late and Early Immersion, the highest French proficiency scores are attained by Early Immersion students, Early Immersion is actually more cost effective than Late Immersion, and literacy scores of EFI and Core students are essentially equivalent in grades 2 and 4.  Mr. Lamrock quickly altered the premise for his objection to EFI, stating subsequently that EFI actually teaches French very well, but that under the present model of FSL instruction, only 20% of all students are receiving quality French education.   Why then would you want to eliminate the only program that you are now admitting is working well?  In a recent article appearing in the Times & Transcript on March 21/08 (Change is best route to a bilingual New Brunswick), Mr. Lamrock has once again altered the focal point on this issue.  The article represents a personal consideration of the merits of simply increasing more resources versus improving structure (adopting a universal way to teach French) as a means to remedy FSL woes.  Which do you think Mr. Lamrock demonstrates is most reasonable?  Unfortunately, the entire exercise represents a false premise as few people, if any, would subscribe exclusively to either solution.  Regardless, Mr. Lamrock invokes additional examples of debate tactics to solidify his position.


A second debate tactic would be to advance your own theory to provide additional support for your argument.  Mr. Lamrock writes “just as a good foundation in French helps one learn English, a good foundation in English accelerates the subsequent learning in French.  If a child doesn't get a foundation in one language at an early age, they are likely to always struggle in their first language (and really reduce their chances of learning a second)”.  These statements fly in the face of all the literature published on this topic.  The research performed by FSL experts implies nothing about having a “good foundation” in one language before learning another.  Additionally, the concept of a “good foundation” is vague, undefined and not measurable.  Rather, the benefits arise from being exposed to both languages at an early age, and the earlier the better.  Instruction in French in a school environment while living in a primarily English community ensures that the skills acquired in learning one language are immediately transferable to learning a second.   The research also demonstrates that graduates of EFI perform at an equal level in English to their monolingual counterparts, indicating no ill effects of EFI on first language skills.  On this point, Mr. Lamrock has consistently ignored the research done by FSL experts.  Sadly, Mr. Lamrock’s statement is entirely theoretical and not supported by any peer reviewed literature.  It is proposed, nonetheless, to support his recommendation that learning French should only begin in grade 5 once students have acquired a “good foundation” in English. 


A third debate tactic would be to claim to be able to solve the issue that is most influential with the audience or public as a means to gain support for your position.  Lamrock writesThe best way to combat streaming is to have a structure without streams”.  The conclusion is that under Lamrock’s new FSL education structure, class environments will improve dramatically without EFI and there will be an end to streaming.  Let’s examine this more closely.  It can be easily calculated that if both the EFI and Core Programs are combined, the number of exceptional (special needs) students will only decline from approximately 5 students per class to 4 students per class.  As for having “a structure without streams”, what do you think will happen when students are forced to choose between the Late French Immersion and Post Intensive French Programs in grade 6?  You guessed it, streaming of struggling and special needs students into the Post Intensive French Program.  Classroom environments will barely improve and you will still have streaming.  Both these facts have been pointed out to Mr. Lamrock but he refuses to address these important points.  This brings me to debate tactic number four, avoid responding to a good point.


Debate tactic number five involves exaggerating the conclusions based on the available data.  Lamrock writes “After all, 91 per cent of kids in late Immersion score Intermediate or above on tests, with most being Intermediate Plus”.  A review of the Oral French Proficiency results from 1999-2006 indicates that between 37-48% of students in Late French Immersion attain Intermediate Plus.  Since when does 37-48% represent “most” students?  On a similar note, Mr. Lamrock previously wrote that 85% of EFI students reach a French proficiency level of Intermediate.  The correct percentage is 99.5%, with 85% reaching Intermediate Plus.


Like a lawyer defending a guilty client, Mr. Lamrock continues to defend a report that is guilty of being biased and inaccurate.  Unfortunately, it means that the future education of New Brunswick children rests with the skillful use of debate tactics and the theoretical musings of our education minister.  Talk about taking risks.


by Andre Levesque