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Understanding Ebonics

by Michael Casserly Executive Director Council of the Great City Schools
Published in Oakland Tribune December 29, 1996

The recent decision by the Oakland Board of Education was a good illustration why it is sometimes hard to have a reasoned discussion about issues in public education, particularly urban public education. The facts just get in the way of either a good story or the need to score political points.

At this juncture, the public knows little about the December 18 decision of the Oakland School Board or the circumstances that led them to it other than it appeared to be multi-culturalism run amok. Carefully worded assertions were made about a school system on the prowl for stray federal Bilingual Education dollars or that the schools were ready to begin teaching "Ebonics" as an alternative to standard English. And there were the not-so carefully worded questions, "Could it happen here?" as if Ebonics and Eboli were the same thing.

What did Oakland do and why did they do it? The clearest answer rests in the resolution that the Oakland Board of Education actually voted on. It passed a "policy affirming Standard American English language development for all students." There was no compromise about the centrality of Standard English in American life. There was no pretense that some other language held the keys to success for Oakland students. There was no equating languages.

The Oakland Board of Education resolution did argue that Black students sometimes spoke with a language that was at least partially derived from their African and West Indian heritage. The Board also argued that this language structure--well studied for many years by respected scholars--ought to be respected because of that derivation and not simply dismissed as bad English. They did not pass an official edict that Ebonics was a new second language. They did say that teaching African American kids to read and write might be done more effectively if we stopped telling them they were wrong all the time.

The reason for the decision was not very complicated. African American school students in Oakland are not doing very well in reading and writing. And the Oakland Board of Education and its Superintendent wanted to try a different approach--one based on respect rather than ridicule.

The first news that Ebonics was spreading across the land had almost everyone responding in horror. "They are dumbing down in an attempt to lift up." You could see an entire nation rolling its eyes. You could sense the regulations being re-written to make sure Oakland was ineligible for grant support. And you could feel the disparagement.

The Oakland Schools were accused with attempting to legitimate slang, sanction bad English and permanently isolate African American children. The truth is that the program is consistent with California's "Standard English Proficiency Program (SEP)," complements the system's attempts to raise academic standards for all its children, and equips teachers with a new approach for understanding language development. Preliminary evaluations indicate that the program does what it is supposed to: raise student academic achievement. Isn't that what the standards movement is all about?

It doesn't require a linguist to notice how quickly people rushed to judgment on this. There was nearly an automatic assumption that "Ebonics" was inferior, whatever it was and however it was being used. People didn't need to hear much more than that the word was a combination of terms, one referring to African Americans and the other to language. The mixture defined inferiority for too many people.

We now have a new way to divide people. Standard American English, the people who speak it solely and believe in its sanctity are good; Ebonics, the people who speak it and acknowledge its existence are bad. This debate is not about good versus bad, excellence versus inferiority. It is about how we get from here to there, i.e., how we move from schools that are not succeeding with African American children to the extent they should to schools that equip all students with a common language that is the coin of the realm for future success in American society.

What started as a way of acknowledging and respecting people's differences and then building from them to a language we could all share is now evolving into another "us" versus "them" discussion. This Holiday Season would be a good time to lower our voices, understand what this debate is about and what it is not about, and to resist using the issue as a way of scoring points.

Council of the Great City Schools
1301 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Suite 702
Washington, D.C. 20004
(202) 393-2427, (202) 393-2400 (fax)

Urban scores show huge room for improvement
Wednesday, July 23, 2003 Posted: 9:45 AM EDT (1345 GMT) -- Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Students in six big cities are largely behind their national peers in reading and writing, but there are pockets of promising performance, new figures show.

The 2002 urban scores are the first school-district results to be included in the report card known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The achievement yardstick, which began in 1969, had only covered state and national performance. The National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the Education Department, runs the assessment, which periodically tracks achievement on a range of core subjects.

Six school districts volunteered to set an urban benchmark, allowing them to compare their fourth-graders and eighth-graders and to gauge whether school reforms work over time. The six are Atlanta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Houston, Texas; Los Angeles, California and New York.

"We knew we were taking a risk in joining up for this test, knowing it was going to be another case of Atlanta students underperforming," said Sharron Hunt, chief accountability officer for Atlanta Public Schools. "That doesn't mean we have low expectations; I believe the students can and will achieve higher rates -- all of our students."

The standard for all students is "proficient," which means solid academic performance at a given grade. Nationally, only about three in 10 students reach or exceed that mark in reading and writing; urban students did worse than that, with their results varying by city.

That's no surprise, educators say, because city schools have higher rates of students who are poor or speak English as a second language. The six districts all have high percentages of black or Hispanic students, who typically score below whites on standardized tests.

The achievement gap is about the same in most of the six cities as it is across the country, which suggests it is a national concern as much as an urban one, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, the coalition of large urban districts that pushed for the new tests.

In Los Angeles, roughly 40 percent of fourth-graders tested had limited English ability. That's a factor, not an excuse, said Roy Romer, superintendent of the city's school district.

"The value to us is, over time, how do we change?" Romer said. "We're low, but we are coming up rapidly." He said elementary grade scores in the city have increased at twice the state average, as measured by California tests.

Closing the gap

In Atlanta, Hunt said, the national scores will do more than serve as a starting point -- they will drive change. For example, the district may realize it must put more emphasis on a specific reading skill, or it could shift some lessons to an earlier grade, she said.

In nearly all cases, the city students fared better in writing than in reading.

Compared to those who reached the proficient mark, a higher percentage of city students read and wrote at a basic level or better. That means they had at least partial mastery of skills needed for solid work. Still, they scored below the national average in most cases.

Among the bright spots, officials said: Fourth-grade writers in New York matched the national average of students who achieved at least proficient writing -- meaning organized, detailed work that developed the main idea and showed awareness of the audience. Houston fourth-graders also performed similarly to national peers in writing.

Although the District of Columbia was included among the urban scores for comparative purposes, its results were first released with state and national data earlier this year.

Among some other key findings of the city scores:

--In writing, 11 to 27 percent of fourth-graders met or exceeded the proficient mark; 10 to 19 percent of eighth-graders did so. National averages are 27 percent and 30 percent.

--In reading, 10 to 19 percent of fourth-graders reached at least the proficient level; 8 to 17 percent of eighth-graders did the same. The national average is about 30 percent in both grades.

--New York schools had the highest percentage of fourth-graders who scored at or above proficient in reading and writing. The district did not have enough schools participating for eighth-grade results to be reported.

--Houston schools had the highest percentage of eighth-graders who met or exceeded the proficient level in reading and writing.

Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, an advocate for equal resources in all school districts, said the condition of urban schools is the key point, not race or student poverty. Big-city students have "the least qualified teachers, the most overcrowded classrooms and the most outdated learning materials," he said.