Watch your language! Oakland's Ebonics resolution suffers from imprecise wording.


OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's been more than three weeks now since the Oakland Board of Education took the action that unnerved the nation. Weeks of outraged reaction and recrimination, weeks of heated national debate over black English, or Ebonics, weeks of fallout about race, education and politics.

Clearly, that outcome was not what the Oakland board had in mind when it adopted its Ebonics resolution Dec. 18. On the other hand, it was exactly the outcome it could have expected by its handling of such a volatile issue.

Oakland educators say they wanted to draw attention to the sad fact that public schools are failing to educate African-American students. They have managed, finally, to do so, but only after clouding that issue with a distracting, if instructive, lesson about the power and pitfalls of language, and the crucial need to communicate clearly to be understood.

The uproar over the board's resolution, heard across the racial and ideological spectrum, was primarily due to its declaring black English a distinct and separate language that is "genetically based," and that African-American students should be taught in this language.

It was an action many critics found befuddling; misguided at best, they said, possibly racist and separatist at worst. Numerous African-American luminaries denounced it. Poet Maya Angelou said she was "incensed" by the news. Writer Ishmael Reed called it a "travesty." Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the NAACP, termed it a "cruel joke." Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, before traveling to Oakland later to lend it qualified support, called it "madness."

In response to the firestorm of criticism, the board and its superintendent have worked doggedly to explain themselves. But just as determinedly, they have refused to amend one word of the resolution -- even as they assured critics that its actual wording had little to do with what it meant to say.

In fact, more than three weeks after its vote, the Oakland board continues to argue that its "intent," not its action, should be the focus of attention. The problem, it appears, is much the same as that faced by the children they are trying to help: Their words have been misinterpreted, misunderstood.

"It is unfortunate that this debate has focused on select words," Superintendent Carolyn Getridge said Wednesday, echoing Jesse Jackson's plea of a week earlier.

"The object is to teach these children standard American English so that they can read and reason and compete," Jackson told a packed news conference. "That's what they want to teach the children . . . how to become proficient in the English language. Let's focus on the intent."

But intent is precisely what attracted the wrath of critics, who have had a hard time accepting the board's action at face value.

What were they to make of a resolution that includes a declaration that "African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English"? And what of another statement that the district would implement a program with "teachers and aides who are certified in the methodology of featuring African Language systems principles in African-American children both in their primary language and in English."

Oakland educators insist their primary aim was to declare firm support for expansion of an existing, state-sponsored program. This project trains teachers about black English patterns of speech in order to help students learn standard English -- without making them feel inferior for the way they speak among friends and family members.

Contrary to the resolution's wording, the district did not mean to elevate Ebonics to a language. "The resolution itself took no stand on whether or not Ebonics is a language," Cook said. "Ours is not a linguist argument."

As for its terminology that refers to black English as "genetically based," the board has explained it as a concept based on the word "genesis," having to do with "origins in," not human genetics.

Patricia Jensen, a white woman who teaches science to Oakland dropouts seeking a diploma, wonders why the board won't amend the resolution to clarify these points.

"The point . . . is the language should be plain and simple so we don't spend weeks of energy and time clarifying something that should have been clear and plain and understandable to the community," Jensen said. "Now you know why we had a five-week strike [last spring]. Something is not right if you can't say, 'We made a mistake.' "

Politics at the local level may be at least partly to blame for the board's intransigence. Board President Lucella Harrison, one of four African-Americans on the Oakland board, said amending the resolution at this point would have negative repercussions.

"The resolution was the outcome of six months of work of people who volunteered -- teachers, principals, parents and community leaders," she said. "To change the resolution would be an insult to their work."

One thing that Oakland and its detractors can't dispute are the dismal student achievement figures that prompted the board's action. About 53 percent of the 51,706 students enrolled in Oakland schools are African-American; Oakland is the only school district in the state with a majority of African-American students.

But African-American children make up 71 percent of the district's special education students, 64 percent of all students held back, 67 percent of all truant students, and 80 percent of all suspended students. The average grade point average of the district's black students is a dismal 1.8 out of a possible 4.0.

Oakland faces such daunting figures despite the fact that it is one of several California school districts that already take part in a state-sponsored program aimed at improving the education of African-American students. At 26 of Oakland's 89 schools, at least one teacher participates in the Standard English Program, a teacher development project initiated by the state Board of Education in 1981.

In the program, carried out through workshops and conferences, teachers are taught to recognize such language patterns as using the verb "be" before a conjugated verb, replacing "th" sounds with "f" sounds at the end of words, or dropping "g" in words ending in "ing."

Strategies to address these differences include drilling practices which students go through a list of black English patterns and give the standard English version.

However, the mission statement of the program, now in place at about 300 urban schools in California, insists it is not a program to teach black language or to develop black language curriculum materials -- nor is it for teachers to learn black language.

At one Oakland elementary school where the Standard English Program has been operating for the past six years, African American students had a mean percentile ranking of 45 in reading, district officials said, compared to a districtwide ranking of 24.

Such statistics are compelling. But instead of presenting these figures as a rationale for its action, the Oakland board offered a political argument, setting off the imbroglio that still plagues it.

"Many people recognize the problem that the board has tried to address," said Leah Brumer, whose son is enrolled in an Oakland school eighth-grade class. "But I think the way the issue was handled and presented to the community left everyone I know, everyone I've spoken to casually, with more questions than answers."

There's little sign that situation will change any time soon.

This past week, in the Oakland television studio where school board meetings are broadcast to local viewers, the board held a "special hearing" on the Ebonics resolution, its first public meeting since the vote. While numerous advocates came forth to commend them, some critics and troubled callers forced the board to spend most of the evening defending itself and its actions.

At the end of the night, there was little news, and nothing concrete in sight -- no specific budget nor time frame for putting any new teaching plan into action.

"We have not gone beyond [the board's] proposal at this point," Superintendent Carolyn Getridge said, offering only vague plans for expanding the Standard English Program into more schools next fall. What she could say, and did so repeatedly, was: "We do not teach Ebonics."

Most of those in the audience who spoke voiced support for the Ebonics resolution. But two brand new Oakland board members, both white, argued for its rewriting, as did at least one African-American in the audience.

"This document should reflect the specific language of the intent," Oakland resident Gene Hazzard told the board. "We're talking about clarity. . . . I'm saying let's change the resolution to reflect what the exact intent is."

But again, its advocates refused.

"I do not back away from the resolution," said school board member Toni Cook, a woman with an iron will who led the community task force that drafted the Ebonics resolution. "I will not accept modification."

One can only hope the Oakland board ultimately does a better job of carrying out its intentions than it has done in stating them.

Lisa Alcalay Klug is a free-lance writer who lives in Berkeley, Calif.

Pub Date: 1/12/97

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