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Black Leaders' Group Backs Nontraditional Language Curriculum

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Seeking remedies to "the national disaster in minority education," an ad hoc group of black leaders is promoting a nontraditional language curriculum that abandons remediation as the road to standard English in favor of methods that encourage learning through self-expression.

Academic failure by minority students is now "so commonplace," according to the Select Committee on the Education of Black Youth, "that many educators have lost the capacity for outrage and the will to cope with this injustice."

The result is "a two-tier educational system" that reinforces "a latent suspicion of black deficiency," said the committee in a recent working paper.

The group, composed of influential black officials in the fields of education, religion, and politics, is chaired by Dr. Alvin Poussaint of the Harvard University Medical School. Among its members are Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association; U.S. Representative William H. Gray 3rd, Democrat of Pennsylvania; John E. Jacob, president of the National Urban League; and Manfred Byrd Jr., superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools.

At its first meeting on Dec. 10, the committee endorsed "Foundations for Learning: Language," an experimental curriculum that the group says has yielded promising results in several inner-city schools.

'Quiet Revolution'

The committee's effort is timely, said Dr. Poussaint, because of "a quiet revolution" that has taken place in urban school systems--one that has brought black educators into top administrative positions in many districts.

"For the first time, blacks hold the levers of the processes and institutions that educate--or fail to educate--their children," he said.

The committee's chief organizer, Arthur E. Thomas, president of Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, said, "It is time for blacks to talk to blacks and bring an end to failure, dropouts, and devalued diplomas."

"The reason black and other students fail is that they have been denied the opportunity to acquire the language skills necessary to cross the threshold of learning," Mr. Thomas added.

At least one recent study suggests that the problem may be worsening as the gap widens between standard English and the dialects spoken on the streets of inner-city neighborhoods. California lawmakers sought to address the issue in a bill passed last fall that would have required special language instruction in schools where more than 10 percent of the students lacked proficiency in standard English. But the measure was vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian. (See Education Week, Sept. 18, 1985.)

New Methods Endorsed

The select committee's working paper, "A Time for Action: A Call for Change," cites a litany of statistics on black students' poor performance: a high-school dropout rate of 60 percent, a 40 percent failure rate for 9th graders in two or more subjects, a median verbal score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test that is 76.9 percent of the median for whites, and a decline in college enrollments.

The report, prepared by members of the committee who have tested the Foundations for Learning curriculum, concludes that minority students "are not brain-damaged," but lack the command of language skills--reading, writing, speaking, and listening--necessary for progress in all subjects.

Arguing that traditional methods have failed, the report calls for an "integrated, holistic" approach to teaching language skills, rather than one that is "compartmentalized for the convenience of teachers."

Language should be taught "as a process" whereby students are motivated to learn such skills as vocabulary, usage, and punctuation "as a means of enhancing communication, not as isolated 'rights' and 'wrongs,"' the report adds.

"Each individual's experience and heritage" should be used as a starting point, the paper recommends. "Dialect, for example, is a point of departure, useful in moving toward a command of standard English," it says.

In the past, some educators have avoided the correction of "black English" for fear of demeaning students' cultural heritage. Asked0labout this concern, Mr. Thomas said: "Granted, the English language itself has racist aspects--white 'angel-food cake,' black 'devil's-food cake'--but if black youth can't negotiate standard English, they can't negotiate the world of employment."

Preliminary Data

The Foundations for Learning curriculum was developed by high-school and college teachers and administrators under the leadership of Mr. Thomas. Warren Rovetch, project director for the select committee, said that where it has been tested, Foundations for Learning hasproduced dramatic improvements in students' writing skills.

At Shaw High School in East Cleveland, Ohio, students in grades 9 through 12 who were enrolled in the program last year scored a median improvement of 27 percent, compared with 3 percent for a control group receiving traditional language instruction, according to an assessment by the Resource Center for Urban Initiatives in Education of Boulder, Colo.

Similar results were achieved at schools in Chicago, Detroit, Inglewood, Calif., and Washington, D.C., according to the center.

Mr. Rovetch conceded that the data are too preliminary to prove the curriculum an unqualified success. But "when everything is moving in the same direction," he said, "it's a measure of validity that something positive is happening."

In addition to advocating new methods of teaching language, the committee plans to draft a "national manifesto" to address broader problems affecting minority students, such as teen-age pregnancy and crime, Mr. Thomas said.

Committee Members

Other members of the Select Committee on the Education of Black Youth include:

Gwendolyn C. Baker, executive director, Young Women's Christian Association; Hortense G. Canady, national president, Delta Sigma Theta sorority; Douglas Covington, president, Alabama A&M University; Nolan M. Ellison, president, Cuyahoga Community College; Arthur Jefferson, superintendent, Detroit Public Schools; Ferdinand Jones, director of psychological services, Brown University; Floretta D. McKenzie, superintendent, District of Columbia Public Schools; Evelyn K. Moore, executive director, National Black Child Development Institute; the Rev. Otis Moss, Olivet Institutional Church; Representative Louis Stokes, Democrat of Ohio; and Assemblywoman Maxine Waters of California.

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