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Mainstream English Is the Key

Official status for black English won't cure educational problems

December 22, 1996

The Oakland school board is rightly worried about the poor performance of black students in the district, but its official designation of black English as a second language is no cure for failures in the classrooms. It is not a separate language at all. Nevertheless, the board's action has ignited a useful national debate over how best to help children who speak nonstandard English master the language of mainstream America.

Whatever the intent in Oakland, the goal there and in other districts must remain proficiency in standard English for all children. Anything less would stigmatize students, limit their ability to compete successfully in college or the workplace and do them a permanent disservice.

Districts with students whose first language is not English are entitled to federal bilingual education funds. Oakland is not likely to prevail in any bid to get these funds to educate speakers of black English. The U.S. Department of Education, in 1981, noted that black English is a dialect and a form of standard English, not a separate language itself. Therefore black English is not eligible for federal bilingual education funds.

This is not the first time that educators have engaged in a debate about black English. In 1979, a federal judge ruled that the dialect was a barrier to equal participation in public education after 11 black pupils were unfairly classified as slow learners and assigned to special education classes in Ann Arbor, Mich., because they failed to speak standard English. That ruling required the Ann Arbor school district to change its policy and prompted other districts to address how to teach children like these.

Among the successful approaches: an emphasis on thinking, listening, speaking, reading and writing in standard English, especially in the primary grades, effective teacher training, greater parental involvement, smaller classes, oral language development programs, tutoring sessions, individualized instruction, mentoring programs and broad racial and economic integration within classrooms. Teacher training remains a key because instructors must help children make the distinction between the two forms of English.

Black English evolved from West African languages and slave traders who used a form of pidgin English to communicate with African slaves who were neither allowed to speak their tribal languages nor to learn English in a classroom. Also known as ebonics, a combination of the words "ebony" and "phonics," it shares a vocabulary with mainstream English but is governed by distinct grammatical usages and has separate syntax patterns, unique idioms and an array of differences in pronunciation. This legacy of slavery persists particularly among African Americans who remain isolated racially and economically in poor black communities. Nonusers often dismiss it as ghetto slang or poor, ungrammatical English and penalize those who speak it.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has 92,000 black students among its 669,000 pupils, Supt. Sid Thompson encourages teachers to respect the abilities of children who do not speak standard English, but his bottom line is that every child must achieve proficiency in mainstream English. The district spends $3 million annually on a special program that targets 31 predominantly black campuses in Central L.A. and trains 2,000 teachers to work with children on standard English. There is a waiting list for other L.A. schools that wish to participate.

The Oakland school board should try to bridge the achievement gap, but its recognition of ebonics as a second language is not the cure for what is wrong in the classroom.

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