Standard English causes communications problem in Ebonics debate
January 1997

This Ebonics thing just keeps going and going and going. I am still reading and hearing the pros and cons of using the system and the one thing that stands out is that all the cons are based on the same mistaken assumption: that Oakland, California public schools are going to teach students how to speak black English. But that isn't the case at all.

In Oakland, 53% of the students in public schools are black. But blacks make up 71% of those enrolled in special education classes. After noting that nothing seemed to be helping to teach students standard English, the Oakland school board voted unanimously to recognize black English as a unique language and use the knowledge of it to teach standard English.

The intent in Oakland was not to simply accept that black students speak differently and leave it at that. Rather, Oakland decided that, in order to teach black children what has been referred to as "standard English", it might be helpful to show them the difference between "standard English" and what they grew up speaking at home, much in the same way we would show, say, Asian children the difference between their language and English.

To have listened to the hue and cry across the land, you might have thought that Oakland had decided to begin conducting official business in black English. "Oakland board votes to teach Ebonics in schools, " was one sound bite heard on the radio, while the Associated Press ran a story entitled, "'Ebonics' becomes official in Oakland."

These media accounts of Oakland's actions naturally caused an uproar. The Rev. Jesse Jackson took offense, calling the action "an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace." Secretary of Education Richard Riley said that "elevating black English to the status of a language is not the way to raise standards of achievement in our schools," and vowed that no bilingual funding would be available for teaching Ebonics. Mean governor Pete Wilson pointed his finger and pounded his fist and swore not to fund any such project. What more would you expect from the man who blames the state's problems on immigrants, both legal and illegal? But that promise seemed to be at odds with the state of California's Standard English Proficiency Program, which, according to a published synopsis of the Oakland policy, which enables teachers to "respect and acknowledge the history, culture, and language that the African American student brings to school." Sounds a lot like what Oakland wants to expand upon.

Of course every talk radio show had to do a segment on the issue and as you might imagine, the overwhelming response was negative. "Even Jesse Jackson is against it!" they cried. "Maya Angelou thinks it's a bad idea, too." These comments from the same people who, on any other day, would say, "Well what makes Jesse Jackson such an authority?"

It got worse. On a late night news program, after Oakland board member Toni Cook explained that it was not the board's intention to teach Ebonics, the anchor asked, "Well if that's what you meant, why didn't you say it in the first place?" "We did!" Ms. Cook replied, somewhat bewildered. The reporter then said that the board's policy stated otherwise and quoted, " give the students instruction in the language of Ebonics." Ms. Cook explained that the meaning of that statement was to use the language that the students are speaking in order to teach them "standard English;" to use Ebonics to bridge the gap.

What seemed to pass completely over everyone's head at that point was the fact that it was the use of "standard English" which caused the misunderstanding in the first place. The phrase, "to give students instruction in" meant two different things to two different groups of people. The media, in their lust for another explosive issue, interpreted the statement to mean that Oakland was about to embark on a project to teach Ebonics to children. The board never intended to teach Ebonics to children at all. All this fuss over the use of "standard English" seems a bit ridiculous when you consider the problems that are frequently encountered when using "standard English," such as the above confusion. The board even had to issue the following clarification: "The term 'genetically-based' is synonymous with genesis. In the clause, 'African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English,' the term 'genetically based' is used according to the standard dictionary definition of 'has origins in.' It is not used to refer to human biology." See what I mean?

It seems to me that we shouldn't be so quick to throw out another approach, especially one that has been studied and used in the past with good results (see Language and the Mind, by Noam Chomsky, 1972). Ebonics is nothing new; the term was coined in 1973 and the language has been used in teaching before and has been written about at length. It remains to be seen whether it will work in Oakland. It certainly deserves a chance.

Of course the Oakland school board is in the position of trying to improve learning and test scores without spending any more money. This same crunch is happening Florida. The real disgrace is really that we have surrendered budget priorities to a government owned and beholden to big business.

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