Equity & Diversity

‘Ebonics’ Vote Puts Oakland In Maelstrom

By Lynn Schnaiberg — January 15, 1997 9 min read

Students in Oakland, Calif., returned to classes last week after winter break. But things were far from normal for school leaders, who had spent weeks under fire for the district’s nationally debated resolution on “ebonics.”

School officials continued a furious campaign of what supporters called clarification and critics called damage control over the school board’s Dec. 18 adoption of the resolution.

District leaders faced questions from educators, researchers, commentators, and politicians across the country. And Oakland teachers faced questions from their students about the resolution, which deems many of the district’s African-American students to be speakers of a language distinct from English.

The tone at a Jan. 8 school board meeting--the first since board members unanimously passed what has become known as the ebonics resolution--was overwhelmingly supportive of the district.

In essence, the resolution treats ebonics--which blends the words “ebony” and “phonics"--as a second language. It is also known as “black English,” “African-American language,” or “African-American vernacular English,” among other names.

The policy recognizes ebonics as the “primary language” of many of the district’s African-American students--who make up 53 percent of the 52,300-student enrollment--and calls for them to be taught in their primary language. It directs the superintendent to devise a program to help students master English. It also suggests that some African-American students are eligible for state and federal bilingual-education and English-as-a-second-language money. (“Full Text of ‘Ebonics’ Resolution Adopted by Oakland Board,” This Week’s News.)

Oakland school officials have said that the resolution is being taken too literally and that the district’s intentions are being misinterpreted. Students and teachers will not be taught ebonics, they said. Rather, the intent is to ensure that black students successfully learn to read, write, and speak standard English and to expand existing district programs to meet that goal, they maintained.

Regardless, critics and supporters agreed last week that the district’s action has triggered a national debate--though not a new one--on black English and how to boost black student achievement.

Statement’s Origins

The resolution grew out of a district task force created last year to recommend ways to improve education for black students.

The task force--which includes representatives of African-American community groups, teachers, and administrators--called for a range of changes, including beefing up recruitment of black teachers, bolstering parent involvement, and improving student nutrition. Those proposals were part of a task force report that the school board adopted along with the ebonics resolution.

The report also called for the board to “provide access to all services, current or planned, for limited-English-proficient students to limited-English-African-American-Language/Ebonics students” and to adopt a policy that “recognizes that African-American children speak a language other than English in the home.”

Board resolutions typically go through a committee review before a vote, according to Jean Quan, an Asian-American board member who took over as president last week. But this resolution did not, and board members had little time to review it before voting, she said.

“I think people were trying to rush to get it done before the changing of the guard,” Ms. Quan said, referring to school board members elected last spring who started duty last week.

Before the elections, African-Americans held four of the seven board seats. The Dec. 18 meeting was that board’s final meeting. The new board has three African-Americans, one Hispanic, one Asian-American, and two whites.

Board member Toni Cook, an African-American, introduced the resolution and serves on the task force. She did not return repeated phone calls last week.

Ms. Quan said she had some reservations about the resolution’s wording. Following the vote, she said, the board discussed revising the language, but opted against it, fearing revisions would simply add to the controversy and confusion.

Questions of Funding

Some observers charged the district with passing the resolution in a bid to reap more funding for bilingual education.

Oakland Superintendent Carolyn Getridge said that although the district has not requested such funds for African-American students, “the statement is keeping our options open.”

Following passage of the December resolution, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley made it clear that they would not qualify for federal bilingual-education funds.

“Elevating ‘black English’ to the status of a language is not the way to raise standards of achievement in our schools and for our students,” Mr. Riley said late last month. “The use of federal bilingual-education funds for what has been called ‘black English’ or ‘ebonics’ is not permitted. The administration’s policy is that ‘ebonics’ is a nonstandard form of English and not a foreign language.”

Immediately after it was adopted, Oakland’s resolution was attacked by some prominent black leaders and a slew of commentators and politicians nationwide. But Oakland officials have hired a public relations consultant and taken to the national airwaves and the Internet to clarify their aims. Some critics have since changed their minds.

Many observers said the initial criticism missed the point.

Oakland’s task force report highlighted devastating statistics on the district’s African-American students: As a group, their grade-point average is 1.8. And they make up 71 percent of Oakland students in special education.

“The school board is showing real concern about the failure of African-American youths to achieve,” said Miles A. Myers, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English in Urbana, Ill. “The point of their program is to teach standard English, and we celebrate the effort of the district to do this.”

But others, such as Oakland high school teacher Sheila M. Quintana, said the district was placing undue emphasis on the language gap as an explanation for poor student achievement.

“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on my toe, and I need a tourniquet because my leg is being cut off,” said Ms. Quintana, who is also second vice president of the 3,500-member Oakland affiliate of the National Education Association. “Where is classroom management, materials, and accountability?”

Context Emphasized

Sorely missing from the debate over Oakland’s resolution is context, many local and state observers said.

Oakland is a majority-black school district in a state where Hispanics and Asians constitute a majority of the 5.3 million-student public school enrollment. Last year the district went through the longest teachers’ strike in its history, which stirred racial tensions and divided the community.

In recent years, state and federal education officials have harshly criticized Oakland’s LEP programs and pressured the district to focus on its 16,000 limited-English-proficient students--most of whom speak Spanish, Cantonese, or Vietnamese.

“This was an attempt to make a statement,” Peter Haberfeld, an executive director of the Oakland teachers’ union, said of the Oakland resolution. “There’s a feeling among some that black kids haven’t been served very well, that they don’t have the resources they need” relative to other racial and ethnic groups.

“It’s clear that this was a racial issue,” he said, “with an attitude of either you’re with us, or you’re not.”

Largely lost in the debate is the fact that the program Oakland officials are considering expanding exists in about a quarter of the district’s schools. Its $400,000 budget comes from state and federal compensatory-education funds.

Oakland is one of 25 school districts voluntarily using California’s Standard English Proficiency program, or SEP, which dates to 1981. The state school board that year formally recognized the need for targeted efforts to develop proficiency in standard English for students who speak black English.

Generally, the program is designed to help teachers understand the structure of black English, show students the way it differs from standard English, and discuss with them when it is appropriate to use one language form over another.

In Oakland, 125 teachers in 26 schools are undergoing voluntary SEP training, said Nabeehah Shakir, Oakland’s SEP director. In the classroom, teachers are able to lead students in informal exercises such as “contrastive analysis,” in which they practice moving from dialect into standard English, and students get a healthy dose of African and African-American history and literature, she said.

“The point is, you can’t correct a child you haven’t taught,” Ms. Shakir said.

It is unclear how Oakland will expand or alter the program, but Superintendent Getridge said the ultimate goal is for all Oakland teachers to be trained. The district should have a plan in place by year’s end, she said.

Sparked by Oakland’s action, the one black member of the Los Angeles school board said last week that she intended to introduce a motion this week to expand her district’s language programs--including SEP--for black students. (“Talking the Talk,” June 1, 1994.)

What Research Shows

Oakland’s program has had success in boosting student test scores in reading. But evaluations have included so few students that Oakland is “not advertising” the results, Ms. Getridge said. Nationally, the limited research available suggests that approaches such as Oakland’s can work to boost English literacy, said researchers such as John R. Rickford, a Stanford University linguist.

The debate over black English in education is not new. Interest in the subject has waxed and waned at least since the 1970s, experts say. And the linguistic and political debate over whether black English constitutes a dialect, vernacular, or language still rages.

A widely cited study from the late 1970s tracked more than 500 students in a few urban districts across the country for four months. The group that used a sequence of reading materials that first used black English, then a transition dialect, and finally standard English showed much greater progress in reading than the group that used standard remedial-reading activities.

That some African-American students have trouble moving from vernacular to standard English is well-documented, according to William Labov, a linguist from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “But the emotional reaction to black English has been so strong that it often prevents programs and research,” he said.

Urban districts outside California, including New York City, Chicago, and Dallas, have made attempts in recent decades to target programs to students who speak black English.

While districts may not have formal programs, individual schools or teachers may be using similar strategies informally, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based coalition of the nation’s largest urban school systems.

Mr. Myers of the NCTE noted that since the fracas over the Oakland policy, his group has received several calls from schools asking about existing programs.

But observers cautioned that targeted language programs for black students are not a cure-all for poor academic achievement.

“The controversy really misses the point,” said Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust in Washington. The nonprofit group issued a report late last year that showed a widening gap in achievement between white and minority students. (“Achievement Gap Widening, Study Reports,” Dec. 4, 1996.)

“We keep looking for another thing to blame,"she said. “We’re getting what we’re teaching, and we’re not teaching them enough.”

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