Thursday, June 09, 2011

Q: Would ebonics programs in public schools be a good idea? Opposing views.

Insight on the News
March 31, 1997

See also:

“Ebonics and the Betrayal of Black Children”;

“Ebonics: The Language of Hate”; and the “most thorough” exposé of ebonics ever written, according to my Liberty editor:

“Ebonics: Bridge to Illiteracy.”

Keith Gilyard
Yes: Such programs will help African-American children learn standard English more quickly.

Gilyard is director of The Writing Program at Syracuse University and author of Let's Flip the Script: An African-American Discourse on Language and Learning.

Years ago, professor Basil Bernstein of the University of London's Institute of Education wrote that "if the culture of the teacher is to become part of the consciousness of the child, then the culture of the child must first be in the consciousness of the teacher." By this logic it is obvious that many African-American students would be well served if their teachers were trained in ebonics or, the term I prefer, African-American vernacular English. However, the obvious or logical do not always prevail in educational debate and practice. In fact, with respect to the ebonics issue, several myths seem to have greater impact on the public than do some of the insights derived from the serious study of language and language use. People may disagree on what to do about the facts of language, but they at least ought to get the facts straight.

Linguistics educators generally agree that African-American vernacular English, or AAVE, is a legitimate language variety in its own right. It is not a broken version of any other verbal system and has the same standing among linguists as any other variety of language, be it an English version or otherwise. Like spoken languages worldwide, AAVE is fully conceptual, composed of 10 to 70 meaningful sounds; has consonants and the requisite number of vowels; has noun and verb elements; has rules of syntax; and contains statements, commands, questions and exclamations. No contemporary linguist would talk about AAVE as slang, substandard, incorrect, deficient or jive talk. In other words, linguists do not regard AAVE the same way as the pundits and politicians who have garnered most of the media spotlight.

Nor do linguists lend credence to the hysterical claim that AAVE merely is a dialect and never should be classified as a language. The two most popular ways of distinguishing dialects from languages are size and prestige. In other words, a language is said to be larger than any dialect of the language. If this definition is employed, however, then AAVE would have to be considered the linguistic equivalent of standard English. Both forms would have to be considered dialects, among many others, of the total English language. Contrary to conventional wisdom, AAVE no more is a dialect than standard English is a dialect. It is no less a language than standard English is a language. As for prestige, that obviously is a social, not linguistic, call. To insist that standard English is a language and then label nonstandard varieties dialects merely affirms that standard English has the juice. It is the dialect with the Army and Navy, to recall an old phrase, and has the Air Force, Marines, language police and most powerful media hit men too!

Should programs in ebonics be eligible for federal funding under bilingual-education initiatives? It has been well-publicized that Education Secretary Richard Riley has taken a strong stance against funding such programs, but it is not often revealed that his position runs counter to several major legal decisions. In 1974, the decision in favor of the plaintiffs in the landmark Lau vs. Nichols lawsuit, filed against the San Francisco Unified School District on behalf of non-English-speaking Chinese-American students, ushered in the era of federal involvement in bilingual education. [Actually, he’s six years late.] The same year, Congress reinforced the spirit of the Lau decision by passing the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, which required schools to act to overcome language barriers that block full academic participation by students. This act was the basis for Judge Charles Joiner's 1979 ruling in the celebrated case of Martin Luther King Jr Elementary School Children vs. Ann Arbor School District Board. Joiner ruled that black English or AAVE had to become part of a preparation program for teachers at Ann Arbor, Mich.'s Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. Viewed in the context of the legal history concerning language rights, the idea of seeking federal funding for ebonics programs, regardless of whether ebonics is called a language or a dialect, is not an outlandish idea.

Although nothing in AAVE makes it a priori unsuitable for teaching and learning, some critics argue that any use of AAVE in formal educational settings is disabling to African-American children. These critics contend that using it in school implies that African-American children cannot learn standard English; they assert that it lowers educational standards and perpetuates ghetto culture: they admonish that it holds kids hack from success in the mainstream.

It may be argued that these claims are illustrations of the "upward mobility myths." They appear to inform critics of AAVE who ignore the first principle of sociolinguistics: Language use inextricably is connected to other social variables.

Sociolinguistics does not tell us how important or determining any of those variables are in any given situation. This is why we have to study each situation on its own merits. But we definitely can say that language alone is not powerful enough to reject, fail or exclude African-Americans. Nor will language alone empower them.

Obviously, many young speakers of ebonics invest their language use with a great deal of meaning. In many instances they are exhibiting hostility and resistance toward institutions they don't perceive to be operating in their best interests. Teachers, too, invest African-American linguistic difference with meaning -- difference often is a signal for them to fail students. So, although there is no magic in a teacher-preparation program that features attention to ebonics, nor is there any harm, and there are potential benefits worth the venture. Recognition on the part of teachers that AAVE is a legitimate form of language certainly could spur students to embrace formal education and to expand their verbal repertoires. Such expansion is a complex and sophisticated feat to expect of students. The message contained therein is that African-American students indeed can learn standard English.

A curriculum will be successful to the extent that students subscribe to it. It's not that hard to figure out. If a fellow comes along and bellows "March!", some folks merely will ask how fast and others defiantly will ask why. Some reluctantly will comply and others will refuse. Where I grew up, that fellow may get knocked upside his head and told to take those marching orders somewhere else.

Language use involves similar choices. With respect to standard English, I marched quite a bit myself. I often perceived it to be to my advantage to do so. I learned how to juggle standard and vernacular varieties to my communicative benefit, a juggling that linguists call code-switching. I juggled several subidentities into one big, complicated code-switching identity. Even while running the streets -- and running them pretty well from a street point of view -- I always wanted to be a player in the public arena, in respectable forums.

I had my eye on the civil-rights and black-power movements as well as on school. James Meredith got shot while trying to attend the University of Mississippi -- that was the beginning of fifth grade. The murder of Medgar Evers -- that was the end of fifth grade. "Freedom Summer" and the killing of civil-rights workers Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman -- that was summer vacation after the sixth grade, the end of elementary school. The assassination of Malcolm X -- that was junior high school. King's assassination and the growing popularity of the Black Panthers -- that was high school. I always wanted to voice opinions about the American social order and knew I had to acquire as much language power as I could to do so effectively. Along the way, and because of my goals, I excelled at reading and writing. The trip was not the smoothest one and in psychic terms it was expensive. But I paid.

This does not mean, however, that I could or should get anyone else to make the same payments. If I truly want to teach African-American children to attain my language power, then I have to find a way to motivate them to achieve it. Them -- not the assimilation-minded East European immigrants that often are held up as role models. Them -- not the alienated African-Americans who often put down the children who speak AAVE and their communities.

True, standard English may be cultural capital, so students should accumulate as much of it as they can. But such acquisition is not likely to be facilitated by programs that emphasize the eradication of AAVE or, frankly, by programs that merely focus on getting students to translate from AAVE to standard English. If African-American children perceived that social circumstances were in their favor, then learning another dialect would be viewed as favorable. In fact, it would be hard to prevent them from learning standard English. Merely pushing a doctrine of "correct speech for success in the mainstream" ignores some of the realities of American racism. As linguist James Sledd has observed: "In job-hunting in America, pigmentation is more important than pronunciation."

Top executives at Texaco recently have proved Sledd right. Remember, the corporate bosses were not taped saying "keep those ebonics-speaking jelly beans at the bottom of the jar." They said, "Keep those black jelly beans at the bottom of the jar." Remember, too, that African-American college graduates, among the best speakers of standard English we have [!], earn a fraction of what white college graduates earn. What you look like, what you speak about and whom you speak for can cancel out the so-called benefits of verbal conformity to the dominant mode of expression.

[The Texaco execs were merely quoting the black diversity trainer whom they had paid a fortune to “enlighten” them.]

More studies are being conducted about the outcomes of ebonics programs. John Rickford at Stanford University has a passion these days for collecting data on such instructional efforts. Evidence gathered in places such as Philadelphia and East Palo Alto, Calif., already suggests that when teachers are trained in ebonics, African-American children are learning better. [That’s a bald-faced lie!] Additional empirical work needs to be done, but I am betting that, over the long haul, Bernstein will be proved right over and over again.

No: This feel-good fad will serve political advocates far more than kids in school.

Stix teaches English as second language in the City University of New York system and has written for the Chelsea Clinton News, Chronicles, DEOLOG and Newsday.

When the Oakland (California) Unified School District resolved last December to seek federal bilingual-education money to use ebonics to teach black youngsters English as a second language, a local school-board flap became a national panic. Educators and lawmakers furiously debated whether ebonics programs in public schools would help black children, and what its use would mean in terms of expenditures and philosophy.

The national debate quickly was dominated -- and decided -- by the naysayers, whose voices included NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume and poet Maya Angelou.

But maybe the defenders of ebonics only look dead. On Jan. 11, former New York City Board of Education member Adelaide Sanford argued on behalf of ebonics: "We have the right to self-define... and to determine how we teach our children."

Despite Education Secretary Richard Riley's insistence that no federal money will go to fund an ebonics curriculum, Insight writer John Berlau found that the Oakland school system already was receiving funds for ebonics through Title One, a federal program aimed at disadvantaged children (see waste & abuse, March 24).
The controversy may seem puzzling to educators who have been following the issue for more than 20 years. The term "ebonics" was coined in St. Louis in 1973 by George Washington University psychologist Robert L. Williams, who combined the words "ebony" and "phonics." However, until the eighties "black English" -- the title of linguist J.L. Dillard's 1972 book -- was more commonly used. The ebonics movement now has converged with the "bilingual education," or BE, movement begun with the 1968 Bilingual Education Act.

Although the federal BE budget for fiscal year 1996-97 only is $160 million, according to U.S. English, an English-language advocacy group, 1994-95 state and local BE expenditures totaled $12 billion. And, since black children in the nation's public schools outnumber Latino children, an ebonics-based curriculum for black children would bring the bilingual education tab for states and localities up to more than $24 billion.

But what if bilingual education works? A 1990-94 New York City Board of Education study compared the success rates of limited-English proficiency, or LEP, schoolchildren in English-as-a-second-language and BE classes. English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, teachers use a "structured immersion" method' in which the new language predominates. Immersion in its various forms is the most popular method for teaching a second language -- except in America. In BE, children take most classes in their parents' tongue, with two periods a day or less in the new language. The idea is to make a gradual transition into the new language.

Very gradual, indeed. While 79.3 percent of LEP students who entered kindergarten in ESL-only classes exited into normal classes after three years, only 51.5 percent of the same cohort attending bilingual classes exited after three years.
The BE disadvantage widened for children who entered American schools later. For those who entered in the second grade, the three-year ESL-only exit rate was 67.5 percent, while the BE exit rate was only 22.1 percent. The BE success rate for children who entered in sixth grade only was 6.9 percent compared with a success rate in ESL-only of 32.7 percent.

Oakland Board of Education members' pronouncements have been ambiguous or contradictory. Most reporters initially were confused about whether the plan to teach teachers to "understand" their pupils' ebonics would culminate in teaching children in ebonics. And the claim that ebonics is "genetically based" was changed into the belligerent insistence that "genetic" means "ethnic." Even BE advocates are scratching their heads. Sandra del Valle, a lawyer from the pro-BE, New York-based Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, asks, "Do they want to develop a language or maintain an existing one?" On the anti-BE side, Dan Michaelis, an aide to Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, says, "They're arguing for bilingual education in a language that doesn't exist."

On the streets of New York's poorest black neighborhoods, I hear a "language" that no longer is distinctively black. Dominated by a handful of Anglo-Saxonisms that predate the slaves' arrival -- such as "f*ck" and "sh*t" -- it often is indistinguishable from the jargon spoken by poor, American-born whites or Hispanics. Conversations are filled out with repeated cliches, such as "know'm'sayin'," "chill" and "word!" -- terms familiar to white suburban kids through the media.

True, colorful black idiomatic phrases such as "It bees datway sometime" have been cataloged and interpreted by Michigan State University English professor Geneva Smitherman and others. But I rarely hear such phrases used by speakers under the age of 40. The grand oral tradition Smitherman praises was inseparable from legally enforced racial segregation. Ironically, advocacy of ebonics has risen at the time when integration, mass media and social-welfare programs largely have killed off the very culture the language activists celebrate.

Many proponents of ebonics seemingly make three assumptions: 1) ebonics has linguistic roots in West Africa; 2) all black Americans speak the same language (ebonics); and 3) all white Americans speak the same language (white English).
Since linguist Dillard took the West African connection for granted in 1972, Afrocentrists have been content merely to echo his claim. Some Afrocentric language consultants have claimed that American blacks' tendency not to enunciate the final consonant in a word is characteristic of West African languages. But the same tendency happens to be true of white Southerners and of French speakers. Are they Africans, too?

The thesis that all blacks speak the same language has been refuted by some of the Oakland School Board members themselves, who admitted that many of their black teachers could not understand black pupils. And anyone who truly believes that whites all speak the same dialect need only visit working- and upper-class white neighborhoods in the same city -- say Boston's "shanty-Irish" Charlestown as opposed to "lace-curtain" Beacon Hill.

Since America has dozens of dialects in use, English curricula could be based on Appalachian patterns, the English-Spanish hybrid, Spanglish or Brooklynese. The claim that black children need a special pedagogy designed around their speech patterns implies that one group is entitled to special privileges or the false premise that black children can't learn standard English the way nonblack children do.

Representatives of the Oakland school system have insisted that the board simply wants to teach standard English and other academic subjects better to black students by acknowledging the language spoken by inner-city blacks. "To do that, we are recognizing that many students are bringing to the classroom a different language, ebonics," spokeswoman Sherri Willis told the New York Times in late December 1996. It has been reported that Alan Young, director of state and federal programs for the Oakland school district, has told many callers that the ability of teachers to help students make the transition to standard English is hampered if teachers presume black English to be a sign of low intelligence. The Oakland proposal would have allowed teachers to receive merit pay for studying black English and applying that knowledge in lesson preparation, thereby acknowledging the students' cultural uniqueness.

My experience as a teacher of English as a second language inclines me toward extreme skepticism of this approach. Most students I have met bring substandard English into class. Competent teachers must correct them repeatedly so that, over time, they learn to correct themselves. Some proponents of ebonics regard this method of correction as disrespectful. In a way, however, it is. How long can a teacher be geared toward understanding and respecting ebonics without ineluctably using it as a language of instruction? The language teacher either must remain loyal to standard English or jettison it. Otherwise, there will be classroom chaos.

In lending qualified support to the use of ebonics to help black youths learn standard English, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has said, "The challenge is to stop ignoring the youth in the margins." Yes, but to listen and truly to understand is not necessarily to accept. Educators of such divergent orientations as traditionalist Rita Kramer and bilingual-education supporter Hulberto Saenz have made remarkably similar diagnoses of the failure of mainstream pedagogy and many bilingual-education programs as being due to self-esteem-oriented teachers taking shortcuts that turn into endless detours.

Thirty years ago, minority advocates demanding community control of local schools introduced self-esteem pedagogy for poor, struggling black children. Their ideas have come to dominate conventional teacher-education programs, argues Kramer in the winter 1997 issue of the Public Interest. Kramer explains that self-esteem pedagogues have not counteracted, but caused, "the explosion of 'learning disabilities' diagnosed among schoolchildren in recent years" and use of special education (which disproportionately is devoted to black boys) through their neglect of the hard work of teaching English.

Saenz, the principal of George I. Sanchez High School in Houston, explains why bilingual programs sometimes fail: "The teacher, if he’s not really trained, is fooled into thinking the student knows the language structure; he doesn't, and he flunks."

Teaching complex sentence structure is hard work and rough on students' self-esteem in the short term.

At bottom, the ebonics debate may be only tangentially about language. The more central issue may be whether an emerging cultural identity claimed by ethnic enthusiasts, nurtured by Afrocentric academics and manipulated by inner-city political machines will displace the last remaining element defining American identity -- a common language. Special pleaders for an Afrocentric curriculum in public schools frequently argue that conventional methods of education fail black children and that new learning styles-ebonics, certainly -- are needed to remedy the problem.

Unfortunately, the learning style in question is characteristic of low achievers in all ethnic groups. Acknowledging the special status of a substandard speech pattern in the classroom invariably will promulgate that pattern. That may please those students who share the pattern and excite experts in the growing ebonics-training industry. However, such tactics will further marginalize children struggling in inner-city schools, ensure their academic failure and stigmatize them. Poor black kids can't afford any more "help" to their self-esteem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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