Over the pass few months, a controversial subject regarding the education of African American students in the Oakland School District has made its way to the top of discussions across America. “Ebonics” or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Vernacular Black English (VBE) has been erroneously called “slang,” “broken English,” instead the full-fledged dialect that it is. Much heated debate, public and private, has brought an opinion from almost everyone who has heard of the subject. Without there being only one primary reason, evidence shows there are several important reasons such as lowering the English standards, wasting the taxpayers dollars and finally lowering the students’ self-esteem and confidence are equally significant in the fight against Ebonics.
Oakland Unified School District strongly disagrees with the linguists and the Board of Education opinion of lowering student’s academic standards and proposes its ambitious professional development goal: ensuring that teachers understand the structural details of AAVE so that they can draw on Black students’ linguistic proficiency. Attitudes toward the vernacular dialect may well have to be overhauled, and some fairly extensive linguistic training will need to occur. Teachers will need to know how to weave dialect instruction into reading, writing, and oral language development in order to connect it to real communicative functions.
Society has a clear vested interest in educating its youth. In his most famous decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in Brown vs. Board of Education “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments… In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” An education that promotes success and esteem, not one that suggests lower standards. Warren’s words are no less true today.
President Kennedy once said, “A child miseducated is a child lost.” Ebonics has fast become a statewide concern because it promises to miseducate an entire generation of children by lowering academic standards, forcing students to underperform. Oakland’s proposal on Ebonics intending to improve performance of black students, who make up more than half of the distinct and whose average grade is a D-plus will not be successful as many studies prove it. Since 1966, linguists at Stanford University have done a number of studies of Ebonics and their researches show that black children who have been thought using the Ebonics program — which recognizes so-called Black English as distinct from standard English – have not improved their ability to read and write standard English. “These children deserve a first-rate education, not another feel-good trying to help program which failed in 1977 in the trial in Ann Arbor1,” said Jim Boulet, Jr., Executive Director of Standard English Proficiency Program. “The marketplace is demanding excellent communications skills. These children are being denied that opportunity,” Boulet said.
Ann Arbor High School is not the only failure in the history of African American Vernacular English. Twenty-six years ago, Brooklyn College offered a course, which taught “Black English” as the alleged native language of African-Americans. The outraged response of the NAACP to “Black English” is instructive to those who would defend Ebonics instruction today: “This language is merely the English of the under-educated with provincial variances in accent and structure from locale to locale throughout the English-speaking world,” declared the NAACP. “What our children need, and other disadvantaged American children as well — Indian, Spanish-speaking, Asian, Appalachian and immigrant Caucasian — is training in basic English which today is nearly an international language as any in the world… Let our children have the opportunity, and be encouraged to learn the language which will best enable them to comprehend modern science and technology, equip them to communicate intelligently with other English-speaking people of all races, and to share in the exercise of national power.”
There are many ways for tax dollars to be wasted on many things in California, but the Legislature in Sacramento should not waste a single tax dollar on Ebonics instruction in California’s public schools because Ebonics is an unacceptable dumbing-down of English standards that legitimizes academic underachievement by creating a role for slang in education. Oakland District states in its bulletin “ Asian-American, Latino-American, Native American, and all other language-different children are provided general funds for bilingual education, English as a Second Language (ESL) and state and federal (Title VIII) bilingual education programs to address their limited and non-English-proficient (LEP/NEP) needs. African-American pupils are equally entitled to be tested and, where appropriate, shall be provided general funds and state and federal bilingual education and ESL programs to specifically address their LEP/NEP needs.”
As far as Ebonics being genetically inherited from ancestors from the Swahili language and thus is a natural form of speech within African decent (view used by Oakland for support for the federal bilingual funding), is not being supported by many linguists. “Black English is a dialect — it is not a separate language,” said John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics and African-American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Even though many scientists disagree with Ebonics being a foreign language, Oakland wants the House of Representatives to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to ensure that funds provided under such Act will be used to promote the teaching or use of regional or group dialect.
I can personally say that I know African Americans who have grown up in the city areas. Some Blacks in the city speak in this “dialect”, but others do not. “It is just the matter of the environment,” says Michael O’Neal, a linguist and a director of English First. On top of this, I know some Whites who have grown up in the city and their speech patterns mimics that of “Ebonics-style” Blacks, which just proves that Black English is not inherited.
In the last decade many studies of so-called Black Educational Programs have been conducted and most of them have failed to incorporate and provide the right education. Ebonics not only fails academically, but also ethically ruining Black students self-esteem and making them feel like they are not good enough or maybe just not smart enough to be thought in standard English. “It’s saying in the most racist way that black kids are stupid and they can’t learn English so let’s not bother with that,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. “It’s black people shooting themselves in the foot. Oakland is implying that black people are incapable of learning a language.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson: “Ebonics is a disgrace to our children. It suggests we are below standard, can not achieve what Whites in America have achieved. Teaching unstandardized English in the classroom promotes our race is a failure.”
Behaviorists and psychologists at Harvard University after working with Black students from Arbor Ann High School in Michigan, which thought so-called “slang” in the classrooms, concluded that because of the replacement of standard English with Ebonics Black students had a very low self-esteem and not very high opinion of themselves. “ Hundreds of students were observed by our staff for several months. Almost 97% of all the students we worked with showed no confidence at all and a very low self-esteem,” says Dean of Social Studies Department Christopher Phillips.
It might be fair to show what the proponents are saying about Ebonics:
A. “Ebonics,” or “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE), or “Vernacular Black English” and by other names is systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties. In fact, all human linguistic systems–spoken, signed, and written — are fundamentally regular. The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years.
B. The distinction between “languages” and “dialects” is usually made more on social and political grounds than on purely linguistic ones. For example, different varieties of Chinese are popularly regarded as “dialects,” though their speakers cannot understand each other, but speakers of Swedish and Norwegian, which are regarded as separate “languages,” generally understand each other. What is important from a linguistic and educational point of view is not whether AAVE is called a “language” or a “dialect” but rather that its systematicity be recognized.
C. Ebonics is a genetically inherited speech pattern from African ancestry.
According to the California State Department of Education, over 300 schools statewide already participate in a little-known government program established by the State Board of Education in 1981–the “Standard English Program for Speakers of Black Language.” That program is apparently a failure. Now, other school districts throughout the state are poised to follow Oakland’s disastrous lead in retraining its teachers to accommodate Ebonics in the classroom.
Providing universal, high-quality education in California is central to providing an opportunity for success in society. From pre-school to college, California must be committed to improving the entire spectrum of its educational system. Never have Californians and their children more desperately needed quality education. And never have fads such as Ebonics had the potential to do more harm to students desperately needing the skills with which to compete in a modern, global economy. Let me put it another way, these students who are underprivileged, underrepresented, under-everything need and must have all the tools for success and achievement. Saying to someone, “you’re not good enough, that’s ok, lets lower the standards” is dumbing-down that person.
Come on, it is bad enough already in California! With the standard educational workload we see students (both black, white, and hispanic) already having below average English skills. California’s children are passed from one grade level to the next without having acquired standard English skills. Those students who wish to learn are prevented from doing so by a lack of discipline and order in the classroom. After twelve years, students receive high school diplomas without having attained basic competence in reading, writing, or speaking proper English.
At the heart of the “American dream” is the concept that every child, in every neighborhood, should have an equal chance to succeed in life. The primary responsibility of the educational system is to qualitatively educate students and prepare them for career success and equal participation in California’s communities to give them a chance to succeed. Ebonics is opposite this educational goal; it embraces academic underperformance and creates inequality in standards.
In conclusion, we see incorrect grammar and slang being reproposed into classroom as an education tool/excuse. The proof is in the pudding, it did not work before in 1971 (under a different name than Ebonics, but same concept) and it will not work now. Blacks, whites, greens, stripes are all the same and given the same opportunities in life with same histories, backgrounds, etc. can achieve anything anyone else can. Ebonics is not the answer. So what is? The answer may lie deeper than slang or nonconjugated verbs. It may lie in politics… social/economic/historical politics. Much like affirmative action, we can not lower the standards of Blacks or anyone.