On Dec. 18 the Oakland Unified School District board of education approved a policy affirming Standard American English language development for all students. This policy mandates that effective instructional strategies be utilized to ensure that every child has the opportunity to achieve English language proficiency.
Language development for African-American students, who comprise 53% of students in the Oakland schools, will be enhanced with the recognition and understanding of the language structures unique to many African-American students.
This language has been studied by scholars for decades and is referred to as “Ebonics” or “Pan-American Communication Behaviors” or “African Language Systems.” Research indicates that an understanding of these language patterns helps students build a bridge to Standard American English.
The Oakland School Board’s new policy has touched a nerve across the country. Talk show lines have been jammed and commentators have offered virtually non-stop opinion about the policy. Unfortunately, the reaction is based almost entirely on very basic misinterpretations of the meaning and intent of the policy. In the education that America’s public schools provide to minority children, there are many reasons to despair — but this policy is not one of them. Let me try to start the process of setting the record straight.
- First, Oakland Unified School District is not replacing the teaching of Standard American English with any other language. The district is not teaching Ebonics. Nothing could be further from the intent of this policy. Our district emphasizes teaching Standard American English and has set a high standard of excellence for all of its students.
- Second, Oakland is providing its teachers and parents with the tools to address the diverse language needs that children bring into the classroom. This is not new. For over a decade our district has instituted the Standard English Proficiency program, a state of California model program, which promotes English-language development for African-American students. The SEP training enables teachers to build on the history, culture, and language that many African-American students bring to school. The new board policy takes these practices to all schools throughout our district.
- Third, this policy is not an attempt to reallocate bilingual education funding. We are fully committed to incorporating this training into the professional development of our teachers and, if necessary, redirecting present funds to this end. We have not requested any state or federal funds for this purpose.
ADDRESSING AN URGENT NEED
The directions set forth in this policy hold the promise for the positive, sound changes we must make in our nation’s schools, which historically have failed African-American students. The low level of African-American student achievement is a national disgrace. One root cause of this dismal performance is the belief held by many that African-American and other minority children are in some way deficient intellectually, socially, and even in their mastery of language.
Committed to seeking strategies to address this dire situation, the Oakland Board of Education formed a broad-based task force in June 1996. The Task Force on the Education of African-American Students established a process to review district-wide achievement data and make recommendations for proven practices that would enhance the opportunity for all students to access and to successfully achieve the core curriculum. The recommendations of the task force, based on academic research, focus on the direct connection of English language proficiency to student achievement, the unique language needs of many African-American pupils, and the opportunities for parents and the community to support improved academic achievement.
The findings on student achievement in Oakland are evidence that the current system is not working for most African-American children. While 53% of the students in the Oakland Unified School District are African-American, only 37% of the students enrolled in Gifted and Talented classes are African-American, and yet 71% of the students enrolled in Special Education are African-American.
The grade point average of African-American students is 1.80 compared to the district average of 2.40; 64% of students who repeat the same grade are African-American; 67% of students classified as truant are African-American; 80% of all suspended students are African-American; and only 81% of the African-American students who make it to the 12th grade actually graduate.
These statistics are both mind-numbing and a cause for moral outrage. The situation has not improved itself during the decade of reform launched by the landmark report, A Nation at Risk, and yet there has been little public reaction to the failure of our public schools to educate minority children. Now, however, in response to a straightforward policy to improve teaching and learning, many in the public have readily misunderstood it and made it the occasion for scorn and derision.
The question is not whether or not we must act; rather we are confronted by questions about how best to act, and how quickly can we act? The answers to these questions are not simple and they are not comforting. Quite to the contrary, the answers to these questions challenge some of the fundamental assumptions we have about the purpose and design of education.
The work of the Task Force on the Education of African-American Students provides us with a means to focus our attention where it is most urgently needed. Our focus on African-American student achievement is all the more compelling because of the fact that if we find ways to help the least successful students, we will benefit all of our students.
The recommendations establish English language proficiency as the foundation for competency in all academic areas. Passage of this policy is a clear demonstration that the Oakland Unified School District is committed to take actions to turn around the educational achievement of its African-American students.
Furthermore, the actions of the Oakland Board of Education have elevated the level of the debate on the education of African-American children.
I welcome this debate and I am confident that, as a result, we will move Oakland and the nation to an open discussion of the connection between language and literacy.
We must confront this issue head on, for our achievements in public education will ultimately be judged by how well the least successful of our children perform.