Oakland District Says Policy on Ebonics Misunderstood

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Less than two weeks after their embrace of Ebonics as a distinct black language brought them international derision, Oakland school officials tried Monday to redefine the issue by arguing that they had been misinterpreted.

After meeting with one of the policy's harshest critics, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, local school officials insisted that they were only trying to boost the dismal academic achievement of African American students--and help them learn to speak standard English--by declaring Dec. 18 that the speech of many black students is a bona fide language that requires special status.

Jackson said he now largely agrees with the board's action--and blamed the media for focusing on "the absurd, and that which is divisive."

But Oakland school board members said they will not reconsider the wording of the resolution that was lambasted by everyone from poet Maya Angelou and novelist Ishmael Reed to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. Critics noted that the language of the resolution, had it come from another source, would have been branded blatantly racist.

The Oakland resolution declared that the speech of many blacks is "genetically based" and that teachers should be trained to teach such students "both in their primary language and in English" and should be paid more for doing so.

Though refusing to withdraw the resolution, district officials here have tried to qualify the "genetically based" reference, saying that they meant only that certain speech patterns had their "genesis" in Africa.

Oakland schools Supt. Carolyn Getridge, in a letter published on the front page of the Oakland Tribune on Sunday, said the furor over the issue was "based almost entirely on very basic misinterpretations of the meaning and intent of the policy."

On Monday, Darolyn Davis, the spokeswoman hired by the district to handle the fallout from its decision, tried to walk a fine line: She denied that the board had softened its position. But she insisted that--contrary to the resolution's wording--the "district did not mean to state whether [Ebonics] was a separate language or not."

Yet even the events meant to show solidarity underscored the issue's sensitivity. A state official who attended the closed meeting between Jackson and school officials said the civil rights leader cautioned the local officials to not use the word "Ebonics" before the press--and to not refer to the Dec. 18 resolution.

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Advocates say Ebonics--a label that combines "ebony" and "phonics"--is a language brought by slaves from Africa, featuring such usages as, "He be goin' home." But some linguists say it's merely one of many American speech patterns and actually has its roots in England and the American South.

While Oakland officials tried to defuse the controversy, some national educational authorities said it should be expanded--to inspire skepticism about many educational policies and programs today.

They said the broader philosophy exposed in the issue--that students come to school with unique cultural backgrounds, languages and even "styles" of learning that require specialized instruction--is evident in far more than the racially charged issue of Ebonics.

The philosophy comes out of a desire to recognize--and even celebrate--student differences. But critics blame it for "dumbing down" academic content in a misguided quest to make students feel good about themselves.

Few areas of the curriculum--even ones that are seemingly objective, such as science and math--are unaffected.

Prominent mathematics journals publish articles proposing special ways to teach African American and Latino students, the authors arguing that these groups traditionally have not done well in classes that use the old-style lecture format and need hands-on approaches.

Reading researchers at Harvard University and elsewhere are focusing on what they call "family literacy" in an effort to understand how reading and writing are used in the home--and how classrooms might be made less intimidating.

One study found that in the homes of many poor families in Appalachia, for instance, the parents spend little time reading novels or even newspapers. They are unlikely to write much more than grocery lists or hasty notes.

The study therefore criticized classrooms that use only books and do not give equal weight to teaching students how to read newspapers or grocery lists.

"Within the hallowed halls of schools of education, a lot of foolishness is still being spread and accepted," said Diane Ravitch, a former Bush administration education official who often criticizes the educational establishment. "Ideas of this kind are taken very seriously."

Ravitch was encouraged by the uproar generated by the Oakland district's Ebonics position. Too often over the years, she said, such questionable approaches have been implemented by school districts--that women learn math differently or that Latino students ought to be taught math the way Mayans learned it--with little criticism.

Ravitch recalled that the school board in Ann Arbor, Mich., adopted a policy very similar to Oakland's in 1979 without touching off an uproar. She said the reaction to the Oakland policy reflects the more conservative political tenor of the times as well as the public's worry that public schools are not succeeding.

"There's a certain amount of people being fed up . . . [with] what a lot of pedagogues put forth as being reasonable," she said.

Other experts agreed that public skepticism should not stop at Ebonics.

Herbert Walberg, an educational psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said American education is built on creating special programs for special needs. But such programs--for learning-disabled or poor or non-English-speaking children--are costly to administer and achieve only limited effectiveness, he said.

Walberg said that such programs isolate children--and that Oakland risks doing the same with African American students.

"In my view it doesn't help kids on the average and in some cases it hurts them, and it leads to exorbitant expenditures," he said.

This is not the first time that the Oakland district, where 53% of the students are African American and 91% are minorities, has found itself in the middle of an uproar over sensitive race and culture issues.

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In 1991, the school board refused to purchase social studies textbooks for students in grades four, five and seven on the grounds that those approved by the state were "racist and disrespectful" in their treatment of blacks' contributions to the nation.

The decision meant teachers had to write course materials from scratch.

On Monday, Jackson and school spokeswoman Davis said the district had no larger political agenda with its latest action, but was only trying to improve student learning.

"You cannot begin to discuss this matter of how to reach these children, without discussing [the fact that] one-half of all African American youth are born into poverty," Jackson said.

Davis said: "The district's unanimous vote to approve the resolution was in fact to ensure that every child in Oakland is proficient in standard American English and that entails taking a child from wherever they are and helping them bridge the gap."

The controversy has had an impact beyond Oakland.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, board trustee Barbara Boudreaux appeared poised Monday to soften her approach, after saying last week that she soon would bring forward a motion similar to that approved in Oakland.

Though Boudreaux--like the Oakland officials--characterized the criticisms as a "knee-jerk reaction" to misrepresentations--she said she hopes to avoid backlash in Los Angeles. The first step, she said, would be to seek the counsel of local African American leaders and politicians invited to meet at her home Thursday.

Times education writer Amy Pyle contributed to this story.

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