OAKLAND — Saying it has failed to adequately educate African American youngsters, the Oakland Unified School District has declared black English a second language, making it the first district in the nation to give the controversial dialect official status in programs targeting bilingual students.
The move to recognize the black vernacular--called "Ebonics" by some educators who consider it a distinct language spoken by the descendants of slaves--was approved unanimously Wednesday night by the Oakland school board.
The vote was called historic by some educators and policymakers, who said it opened the possibility that Oakland could vie for federal funding available to help students who speak languages other than English. But others sounded strong notes of caution, suggesting that the decision stood on weak ground educationally and could lead to a political backlash.
"We are not aware of any research which indicates that this kind of program will help address the language and achievement problems of African American students," state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said Thursday. "If it does not--or worse, if it becomes a way of lowering standards for those students--then it is a bad idea."
Language experts predicted that Oakland's decision will be closely watched by other school systems nationwide, particularly large urban districts that long have struggled to improve the academic performance of minority students.
Some officials in the Los Angeles Unified School District applauded the Northern California district and said Thursday that they would consider a similar move. Since 1990, Los Angeles has offered a special program for blacks who speak nonstandard English.
Although the origins and history of "black speech" are disputed, linguists generally agree that there are about 50 characteristics that differentiate it from standard English. One of the most common is the wide use of "be" to denote an ongoing action, as in "He be going to work."
Such usage makes many people cringe and may prevent users from entering mainstream society--or getting jobs.
But supporters of the dialect say that to disparage it is to disparage a culture. And they view Oakland's move as a strategy to unstigmatize young users of such language while teaching them standard English.
"[Ebonics] is a legitimate language," said Barbara Boudreaux, the Los Angeles school board's only African American member, who vowed to propose that the nation's second-largest school system join Oakland in declaring it a distinct language.
But district Supt. Sid Thompson and others in Los Angeles said that Oakland's timing may be off, coming after voter passage of Proposition 209 and amid an ongoing debate about the value and cost of bilingual education.
"I think the English-only folks will now come and say, 'Just teach them in English,' " Thompson said. "It's too bad, but 209 and other things will enter into it."
In Oakland, officials said the decision to embrace black English was motivated by grim statistics on students' achievement.
Although African American students make up a slight majority of the 50,000-student district, they are overrepresented in programs for students identified as academically deficient. For example, 71% of the district's 28,000 black students are in special education classes and 64% are kept back a grade because of poor achievement. They represent only 37% of the students in programs for the gifted.
In giving black English official recognition, the Oakland board was acknowledging "that what we have been doing is not working," said school board President Lucella Harrison. "Someone said, why not just put these kids in remedial classes? My answer is, we had remedial classes in the '60s and '70s and they did not work. We must do something different."
The resolution adopted Wednesday calls for recognition of "the existence and the cultural and historic bases of West and Niger-Congo African language systems." It orders district officials to immediately devise and implement a program to teach African American students in "their primary language," black English, for the dual purposes of maintaining the legitimacy of the language and helping them learn standard English.
Teachers and aides would be certified in special teaching methods, and the teachers would be offered incentives to complete the training, including salary bonuses.
District officials are expected to present a plan for training and other aspects of the program by the spring.
Harrison said she knew of no plan for Oakland schools to apply for federal money earmarked for bilingual education. But she said it is likely that some black parents will press for it because they see the issue as one of equity as well as of culture and language legitimacy.