Saturday, April 26, 2008

No Way He Said This

I rise in defense of Doug Willms. A recent newspaper articles bills Willms Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy and quotes him as saying that EFI (early French immersion), like the programme recently cancelled by the NB government, is bad for kids. What is more, the article indicates that Willms says that parents really should not have much of a choice in how their children are educated. Parental choice in the education of their children is "not like choosing Coke or Pepsi" Willms is quoted as saying.

I strongly suspect Willms is being misquoted. I strongly suspect the arguments this media report claims he is putting forward are far more nuanced and sophisticated than the report indicates because ... well ... they just have to be. Otherwise, they make no sense and an academic -- any academic -- would not say the kind of things that Willms is quoted as saying and make the kinds of unsupported statements he is quoted as making. To do so would be to lack all scholarly integrity. Let me give you some examples:

Example number one: Willms is quoted as saying that a universal access system to immersion will raise the level of French-language proficiency among anglophones to 70%. Yet, I am certain Willms knows that the NB government is not proposing a universal access programme but one year of forced immersion. He would not say that with only one year of immersion in grade five high school students (who, after grade five would be required to take only something similar to core French and can drop the language at some point in high school) graduating seven years later have proficiency because this would not be true.

Example number two: the article intimate that Willms believes that eliminating EFI will get rid of de facto streaming of kids by social class (working class kids in English; middle class kids in EFI). Yet, anyone who has studied the history of education and its relationship to social class knows that this is not true. Anyone who has studied this issue knows that social class and the segregation it carries with it will be unaffected by the type of educational system we have because it is based in the material dynamics of society. The education system is only one part of this: income, family connections, social networks, job position, and other things create social class independent of what goes on in the school. Let me ask the question this way: does anyone think that we can create social equality by getting rid of EFI? They have no EFI in Nova Scotia ... does anyone think there is no class division in that province.

Example number three: the article intimates that parents are guided by silly emotionalism and have confused the education of their children with the selection of a soft drink. I know he would have said that. It is so arrogate and condescending, so anti-democratic, so wrong that there is no way any responsible and reasonable academic would have said this. The issue, of course, is the breadth of the generalization.

Example number four: EFI based segregation channels behavioural problems into core English. No responsible academic would make such a bold statement. They would take into account a range of different factors that contributed to a particular process. Moreover, all academics would have considered the ethics of their statements. Let me create a scenario to illustrate my point. No academic that I know would ever argue that we can solve Bob's problem by forcing John to come to live him. Yet, this is the logic that is presented here as self-evidently fair and just. Again, Willms would not have said this. Any academic would have recognized the problematic nature of such a ethical position (in effect, forcing John to clean up Bob's mess) and no academic would allege that parents cannot tell the difference between their children and soft drinks.

There are other example but I take it that my point has been demonstrated. I don't know Doug Willms. I do know academics and what we have here is a case of serious misquoting. We have here a case of bad journalism that is presenting a false message. Doug Willms deserved better.
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