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Sidetracked by pundocracy: speaking of education – Ebonics controversy of bilingualism in Oakland, California

To let the commentators tell it, educators in the city of Oakland
have gone mad. They are teaching Black English as a second language and
are seeking federal funds to do so, and depending on which “Black
leader” you quote, this is a “bad joke” or a “cruel hoax” on the
African American community. Coming a few days before Christmas, and a
few weeks after affirmative action stumbled with the passage of
Proposition 209, all one could say was, “Bah, humbug.”

The real comment is, “Bah, homework.” If those who are commenting
would do as much reading as the children they want to protect are asked
to, they’d know that Oakland never said it would teach Black English to
youngsters. Indeed, on December 18, the Oakland Unified School District
Board of Education approved a policy affirming Standard American
English language development for all students. In other words, they
aren’t suggesting that, “We be teaching dis and dat and dese and dose.”
(The quote marks appear because I don’t ever, ever, ever want to be
accused of an inability to deal with the so-called Queen’s English).

It seems that, without a lot of information, key African American
leaders are condemning the Oakland approach to teaching standard
English. But then if you believe everything you read, you’d have to
doubt the Oakland approach, too. After all, it seems that
conventionally educated African Americans are asking that their
children and grandchildren get something different than a conventional
education. But then, isn’t this what the school-choice, school-chance,
school-circumstance advocates are saying. Students aren’t like
T-shirts. One size one schedule, one curriculum simply does not fit
ail. Oakland actually ought to be commended for seven years of
experimentation in a Standard English Proficiency Program that has
demonstrated success in retention, achievement, and graduation. It
requires understanding, though, in order to commend them.

Oakland is trying to balance two concepts, language deficiency and
English proficiency. Too many African American students in Oakland are
viewed as “language deficient” because they don’t speak the Queen’s
English. “They be tripping and be trying,” but the command of the
English language is highly correlated with family income, education,
and exposure. Too many students in Oakland come from families where
there is unemployment, poverty, and a side track, not the mainstream.
Should these students be welcomed into classrooms, or shunned? Should
they be judged deficient, or offered a bridge to proficiency? The focus
on Ebonics is an Oakland School District focus on teachers, not
students. It teaches teachers sensitivity, understanding, and a way to
build a bridge. Only a combination of press ignorance and raw cynicism
would turn an effort to increase sensitivity into an effort to glorify
non-standard English.

English proficiency has always been the goal of the Oakland Board
of Education. But when they asked each other how to get to proficiency,
they found that little discussion had taken place about the teaching
and treatment of African American students in the classroom. Toni Cook,
former chair of the Oakland Board of Education, and a current member,
said she saw the key issue as the education of the Black child. She
noted that 71 percent of those in Oakland’s special education courses
are African American, and 64 percent of those held back are African
American-both numbers out of proportion with the 53 percent
representation of African Americans in Oakland’s schools. How can we
fix it, Cook fretted, wearing her hat as a former college professor and
motivator? The data show that one way to fix it is to use Ebonics as a
bridge to standard English.

By now, though, the discussion has been skewed by reporters who
find fun and fury in Oakland’s decision. The discussion has been
fractured by those African American leaders who have used their
prestige to suggest that the Oakland decision is wrong. The discussion
about learning has been sidetracked by the pundocracy, the people who
get paid to say what they think no matter how much or how little they
know. Bah, homework.

Indeed, a second story in the histrionics about Ebonics is the way
the media works its way into overdrive when race is part of an issue.
Thirty years ago “new math” was a curriculum change that was hotly
debated. But it wasn’t, as Newsweek Magazine’s January 13 cover touts,
a “war” — as in the “war over Black English.” Curricular changes have
done everything from introduce economics education to change history
requirements. When race matters are introduced, though, rationality
seems to go out of the window.

Let’s be clear about my biases. My skin crawls when I hear the word
“ax” instead of “ask,” and it takes all my worldly self control to sit
still when someone says, “I likes-es greens.” I am less repelled by the
language of the streets, seeing in it a bilinguality that speaks to the
street in all of us — for example, “I’ve been hanging with my homies
in the hoopdie” instead of “I’ve been spending time with my friends in
their less than traditionally maintained car.” That’s how I talk some
of the time, but it’s not the commercially viable language that I take
to editorial meetings and business deals. Or if I do, believe me, it is
not for lack of knowing better.

Black people have always had to be bilingual, but we have also
always known the space, place and context of our bilinguality. When
there is no context, when commercially viable workplaces lock us out,
our children end up monolingual, and only marginally so. Should our
schools lock them out or pull them in? Can teachers take the language
used and turn it into standard English proficiency. The Oakland Board
of Education says yes. Their position has been “dissed” (or
disrespected) by a drive-by analysis that reacts to headlines and
nothing more. Now they have to explain themselves with press releases,
web site information kits, and bibliographies that try to tell the
whole story.

Oakland should not be on the defensive, but on the offensive about
issues of African American education. Based on their experience,
Oakland school board members ought to be the ones to bring educational
leaders together to discuss key issues around the education of African
American youngsters. Are educational challenges the same, or different,
from those of the majority culture? And as long as we accept the notion
that different children have different needs, why can’t African
American youngsters be accommodated? Too often, in African American
History Month, there is talk about visionaries of the past. But by
opening a can of worms about learning styles and Ebonics, the Oakland
school board might be described as the visionaries of the future. Let’s
get the facts straight on the Ebonics controversy, and celebrate the
educators who said their goal was, no matter how, to teach Black
children standard English proficiency.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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