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Exploring French Immersion Student Attrition in Louisiana: Who Leaves, When, and Why?

The ACIE Newsletter, May 2011, Vol. 14, No. 2

By Nicole Boudreaux, Immersion Programs Lead Teacher, Lafayette Parish School System, Lafayette, LA

Introduction to the Problem

Given the success and growth of foreign language immersion programs in the past fifty years, at least in terms of increasing enrollment, it is surprising that student attrition is considered a serious issue for administrators of these programs. However, concern about student attrition appeared early in the history of the Canadian French immersion programs, and high levels of this phenomenon has preoccupied Canadian researchers for decades (Adiv, 1979; Bruck, 1985; Cadez, 2006; Halpern, MacNab, Kirby & Tuong, 1976). In the U.S. relatively little is know about attrition in foreign language immersion; however, Rigaud’s (2005) study found that transfer rates for four Midwestern elementary immersion schools “were either similar to or lower than same-district mobility rates and mid-year transfer rates of demographically similar, non-immersion elementary schools” (p. 14). The relative inattention to this topic suggests that the phenomenon is viewed here almost as a fact-of-life by some who merely identify it as an administrative issue (Met, 1987).

Student attrition has been found to be detrimental both to the student (Kerbow, Azcoitia & Buell, 2003; Wiss, 1989) and to the institution he leaves (Louisiana Consortium of Immersion Schools, 2006). Therefore, it is equally important for researchers and school administrators to explore the extent of the phenomenon and to identify the factors that cause parents to withdraw their child at an early stage, or alternatively, that keep parents and their children in the program. Attempts to eliminate or reduce the first set of factors, and at the same time reinforce the latter, should help reverse, or at least control current levels of attrition.

Research from higher education (Tinto, 1975) offers an attrition/persistence model to better understand this phenomenon that is transferable to the immersion setting. This research study adopted this model to examine student attrition issues in a large French immersion program located in southwestern Louisiana. The model underlines the interconnection of five factors influencing a student’s persistence in an educational program: pre-program attributes, pre-program aspirations, institutional experience, sense of belonging, and commitment. In addition to Tinto’s model, this study drew from Hirschman’s (1980) business principle of a dissatisfied customer’s choice between what he refers to as voice or exit. According to Hirschman’s (1980) business theory, satisfied customers do not leave; however, dissatisfied customers must choose either to communicate their reasons for being dissatisfied (voice) or simply to leave (exit). Similarly, the dissatisfaction some immersion parents experience leads them to withdraw their child, often without first attempting to use their voice and make their frustrations known. Exploring the reasons why people are dissatisfied enough to withdraw their child from a program is important information if we are going to address the attrition challenge. However, a more complete understanding of this issue cannot be achieved until research has also identified the reasons why parents initially enter the program and the reasons why some people choose to persist in the program despite some level of discontent.

Study Design

The three major goals of this study were:

  • To identify quantitatively the number and pre-program attributes (i.e., race, gender, socio-economic status [SES]) of French immersion students who actually withdrew early (i.e., prior to completing the K-5 elementary cycle of the K-8 program);

  • To identify quantitatively the relative persistence of French immersion students and the factors – pre-program attributes and withdrawal reasons – that might relate to persistence levels, that is, the grade level at which withdrawal occurs;

  • To explore quantitatively and qualitatively the level of satisfaction among parents of current French immersion students.

Goals 1 and 2 were accomplished through detailed review of (1) consolidated French immersion rosters from academic years 2001 to 2009, and (2) exit reports kept by the school system. Information used for Goal 3 came from 445 responses to a French Immersion Parent Questionnaire (out of 860 sent questionnaires, for a 51.7% response rate), a survey developed by the researcher with questions emerging from the study’s theoretical framework (Figure 1. The questionnaire in its entirety can be viewed online at http://tinyurl.com/6yr6lwn). It contained mostly closed-response, Likert-scale items, but also included some open-response questions whose answers, expanded upon through two ninety-minute focus group discussions, were addressed during the qualitative phase of the study.

The quantitative phase of the research used a variety of statistical analyses to shed light on student attrition as well as student persistence numbers in the French Immersion Program. On the other hand, the purpose of the qualitative phase was to “help explain, or elaborate on, the quantitative results obtained in the first phase” (Ivankova, Cresswell, & Stick, 2006, p. 5) by studying parents’ perception of the program. Several major findings emerged once quantitative and qualitative data were transcribed, consolidated and analyzed.

Study Results and Implications for Practice

Findings from Preliminary Descriptive Statistics

Data from the immersion roster review showed a total of 1867 students enrolled at some time during 2001-2009. Of these 1867 French immersion students, 542 (29%) were identified as early withdrawals (i.e., they left before completing the K-5 elementary portion of the K-8 program). Exit reports were available for 56% (304 out of 542) of all early withdrawals.

Findings from Qualitative Data Analyses and Inferential Statistics

Major Finding 1: Inconsistencies were found among parents’ pre-program aspirations.
From quantitative and qualitative analyses of parents’ pre-program aspirations, it became clear that parents understood the three core goals of the program (defined in Louisiana as bilingualism, academic achievement and multiculturalism) and enrolled their child because of these goals, even though qualitative data indicated that parents tended to adapt these goals to their own understanding. For example, Cajun or Creole parents who wanted to preserve their heritage language interpreted bilingualism as being fluent in French and English specifically, but parents whose roots were not anchored in the French language simply considered bilingualism as being fluent in any two languages for intellectual benefit.
Other factors guiding parents’ decision to enroll their child in immersion included the hope for belonging to a select group of students and their parents, and the intent to have access to specific desirable school sites. When parents enroll their child based on assumptions that differ, even slightly, from program goals, a mismatch in expectations can lead to disappointment, frustration, and withdrawal. This, in turn, becomes a programmatic problem.

The issue of parent aspirations, including what some practitioners refer to as a hidden agenda, should not be taken lightly. The deep reasons for parents to enroll their child in a specific program should be investigated from a societal point of view as much as from an educational point of view. Such study has the potential to shed light on attendance trends in programs of choice, such as language immersion programs.

Major Finding 2: Pre-program attributes were not found to play a major role in student attrition/persistence.
While many practitioners empirically link pre-program attributes such as gender, race, or income level to a lack of success in and a subsequent withdrawal from a program of choice, quantitative data in this study showed a rather limited relationship between a particular attribute and student withdrawal/persistence.

Gender was not found to have any relation with student withdrawal and its link to persistence level differences between male and female students was slight.
No relation was found between race and attrition rates or student reasons to withdraw from the program prior to completion.

Socio-economic status (SES), as measured by free and/or reduced lunch eligibility, was found to have some relation with student persistence level, such that students’ level of persistence increased significantly as student group SES increased (see Table 1). In other words, students from the high SES group who withdrew early from the program did so later than students from the mixed or low SES groups. The high SES student group remained in the immersion program almost one grade level longer than the mixed SES group and more than one grade level longer than the low SES group.

Finally, the only significant interaction between withdrawal reasons and pre-program attribute was found with the high SES group who tended to withdraw more for reasons linked to the school site, as illustrated by Figure 2.

Major Finding 3: Pre-program aspirations were found to influence student institutional experience and satisfaction and to play a major role in student attrition/persistence.
The quantitative phase of this study identified two waves of early withdrawals: first, Kindergarten and first-grade levels for academic reasons, and, second, end of the elementary school grades, when high SES group students chose to withdraw from the program rather than attend the consolidated French immersion middle school chosen by the district.

The study recommended that specific actions be taken to address the two identified withdrawal waves.

  1. Early withdrawal for academic reasons should be addressed in a comprehensive plan targeting all students, regardless of individual demographic characteristics. Recommended actions include:

    • professional development for teachers in recognizing early signs of developing academic difficulties and in communicating to parents the difference between academic difficulties that may be linked to the immersion setting (rare) and academic difficulties that are likely to be encountered no matter the school setting;

    • encouragement of English language arts partner teachers to act as part of the immersion team and then to establish strong communication between the immersion professional team and the parents;

    • early intervention for struggling students, in line with recent research-based guidelines (Fortune with Menke, 2010), in the target language;

    • development of an assistance plan for parents of struggling students, including homework hotlines, support group meetings, increased parent-teacher communication and informational meetings that discuss strategies to support specific learning difficulties in the immersion setting.

  2. In regard to the second wave of withdrawal linked to the middle school site, qualitative findings shed light on this phenomenon in several ways. First, many parents were apprehensive and complained about the French immersion middle school site where all immersion programs consolidate for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. The Canadian literature has already identified transition from elementary to secondary as high attrition years (Campbell, 1992; Cadez, 2006). This study found that the profile and reputation of the middle school were compounding the problem, especially among high SES group parents. A middle school program in a geographically inconvenient location with a whole school student population that was largely low income and Black acted as a disincentive for these families. After surveying U.S. and Canadian middle school immersion programs, García, Lorenz and Robison (1995) also found that locating the program in a reputable school was “paramount to future immersion growth and success” (p. 70).

    In both open-ended questions on the questionnaire and during the focus group discussion, parents commented extensively about the fact that, in elementary school, immersion students were a special, bonded group. They congratulated themselves on the close-knit familial feeling experienced in the program, among both students and parents. Several compared the French immersion program to a private school setting within the public system. At the middle school level, this kind of feeling does not tend to exist anymore as immersion students receive instruction in mathematics, physical education, English language arts, and electives, not as an isolated group, but within the general population of the school. It was at this point that data showed the high SES group students leaving the program, suggesting that the high level of commitment expressed in the questionnaire might not go further than the end of fifth grade/elementary.

    This finding exposes a societal issue that goes far beyond French immersion. However, concentrated actions can be taken to nurture and encourage a shift among parents regarding their perception of the current middle school site. Administrators need to establish a structured program of information during the early elementary years. This program could include the following:

    • fostering positive interaction between elementary and middle school French immersion students as they work on common projects or visit each others’ schools;

    • developing media campaigns that highlight achievements among the middle school student population;

    • establishing regular communication between elementary and middle school administrators and faculties to coordinate information-sharing efforts;

    • expanding recruitment efforts beyond the annual spring 5th grade orientation (e.g. inviting future middle school parents to observe special programs, athletic events and student activities, and holding parent orientation meetings at the middle school).

Major Finding 4: Different concepts of sense of belonging and commitment were unveiled among parents.
Questionnaire scores on “sense of belonging” as evidenced by student and family participation in French immersion-related activities were low and the correlation found between this factor and parent satisfaction in the program was so small that it was of little practical significance. Moreover, some parents’ comments seemed to indicate a sense of belonging to a social group rather than to the program itself.

Tinto (1973) identified these two factors, belonging and commitment, as influential in student attrition or persistence, but parents’ responses as measured by the French Immersion Parent Questionnaire did not confirm this. If this was due to possible conflicting understandings of the concepts “sense of belonging” and “commitment”, it might also imply that some parents had agendas unrelated to the core goals of the immersion program which, in turn, re-categorizes these findings as belonging to the pre-program aspirations discussion above.

Further research is necessary to investigate families’ concept of belonging and commitment, and identify potential hidden agendas, often alluded to by practitioners, but never formally studied as a social phenomenon.

Major Finding 5: Perception of satisfaction with the components of the program was found to play a major role in student institutional experience and attrition/persistence.
Parents overwhelmingly claimed their satisfaction with and even gratitude for the French immersion program as a whole, as well as its main components, its teachers and its administrators. They routinely gave high satisfaction scores on the Likert-scale questions and in their voluntary comments on the questionnaire. This sense of satisfaction was strongly present as well throughout the focus group discussion. At these high satisfaction levels, it was noted that parent complaints, even though serious, did not lead them to withdraw their child from the program, a finding that can be linked again to Hirschman’s theory of satisfied customers. These parents seemed to have established, with their overall feeling of satisfaction, a sense of loyalty toward the immersion program. As a result, instead of exiting, as many people do when they encounter an unsatisfactory situation, they voiced a complaint. Many practitioners complain about the burden some immersion parents place on school administrators; this burden can instead be taken as a sign of loyalty to the program rather than as an unusual level of parent involvement.

Conclusion

Above and beyond all student withdrawal issues, this study revealed the impressive success of the program among its persisting students. It seems that the program and its components bring some difficult to quantify emotional elements that were strong enough to bring focus group participants to a very emotional silence during one of the two focus group sessions. One parent of four French immersion children described how she would begin playing Poisson (Go Fish) in French with her two little girls. She said:

“… then my boys would -- they couldn’t stand Mom saying the words wrong and so they would come and play with us and pretty soon Mom’s making cookies in the other room and all four of them are speaking French together. And it brings tears to your eyes when you see all four of your kids, you can’t speak it and they’re all doing it together.”



References
Adiv, E. (1979). Survey of students switching out of immersion and post-immersion programs. Montreal: Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal.

Bruck, M. (1985). Predictors of transfer out of early French immersion programs. Applied Psycholinguistics, 6, 101-119.

Cadez, R. (2006). Student attrition in specialized high school programs: an examination of three French immersion centers. Unpublished Master thesis, University of Lethbridge, Canada.

Campbell, G. (1992). Transferring from French immersion: A case study of students who leave the French immersion program upon completion of grade six. Unpublished Master thesis, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Fortune T., with Menke, M. (2010). Struggling learners and language immersion education: Research-based and practitioner-informed responses to educators’ top questions. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota.

García, P. A., Lorenz, E.B., & Robison, R. E. (1995). Reflections on implementing middle school immersion programs: Issues, strategies, and research. In R. Donato and R. M. Terry (Eds.), Foreign language learning: The journey of a lifetime (pp. 37-75). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Co.

Halpern, G., MacNab, G., Kirby, D., & Tuong, T. (1976). The full bilingualism alternative. Alternative school programs for French language training. Ontario Ministry of Education, Toronto, Ontario.

Hirschman, O. (1980). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Further reflections and a survey of recent contributions. The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly. Health and Society, 58 (3), 430-453.
Ivankova, N., Cresswell, J., & Stick, S. (2006). Using mixed-methods sequential explanatory design: From theory to practice. Field Methods, 18 (3), 3-20.

Kerbow, D., Azcoitia, C., & Buell, B. (2003). Student mobility and local school improvement in Chicago. Journal of Negro Education, 72 (1), 158-173.

Met, M. (1987). Twenty questions: The most commonly asked questions about starting an immersion program. Foreign Language Annals, 20 (4), 311-15
Rigaud, P. (2005). Attrition in four U.S. elementary immersion schools. ACIE Newsletter, 8 (3), 11- 15.

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45 (1), 89-125.

Wiss, C. (1989). Early French immersion programs may not be suitable for every child. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 45 (3), 517-529
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