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Why Ebonics Is Irrelevant

by Ellis CoseJanuary 13, 1997

IF OAKLAND'S SCHOOL BOARD ACCOMPLISHED NOTHING else, it gave people (at least those
who were not howling in dismay) something to laugh at over the holidays. Yet, all the
hooting over "Ebonics" notwithstanding, the board's call for change was justified. America's
dereliction of its educational duty to black children is a national tragedy. Unfortunately, in
lieu of a solution, Oakland, Calif., came up with stale, silly rhetoric.
The problem is not that the board embraced Ebonics, but that it put Ebonics at the core of
its educational strategy. If schoolteachers want to learn black vernacular, or turn
themselves into amateur linguists, that is perfectly fine, perhaps even desirable, but it
won't necessarily transform them into better teachers. If Oakland educators truly are
incapable of communicating with children from the " 'hood," they have a problem that a
crash course in "black English" won't solve. The key to teaching black children (or any
children) is not in convincing them that they speak a foreign language, but that they are
capable of mastering any material put in front of them. Numerous teachers are already
doing that--and without resorting to jargon about "Niger-Congo" idioms. Sadly, such
teachers don't make up the majority of the educational establishment. And children pay the
Last month, the Education Trust, a Washington -based nonprofit organization, released a
report documenting educational meltdown on a massive scale. After years of watching the
achievement gap between white and minority children narrow, the trust found that the gap
has grown over the last six years. Although one third of white eighth graders were jud ged
proficient in mathematics, only one in 33 black students and one in 14 Latinos were
performing comparably. The reason is simple, said the report: "we take students who have
less to begin with and give them less in school, too."
Yet, even in an ocean of failure, there are islands of success. Waitz Elementary School in
Mission, Texas, with a student body that is overwhelmingly poor and Latino, saw well over
90 percent of its fourth graders place at (or above) grade level in the math and English
sections of a standardized test. How? By closely monitoring students' work and relentlessly
focusing on developing skills, observed the trust's director, Kati Haycock.
Waitz is not alone. Xavier University in New Orleans has worked wonders with black high
schoolers through summer enrichment programs that routinely catapult youngsters to new
achievement levels. Many of those students end up attending Xavier, which, largely as a
result of its single-minded focus on academics, sends more blacks to medical schools than
any other institution in the country. Philip Uri Treisman, a mathematician at the University
of Texas at Austin, has worked similar educational magic, making math whizzes out of
numerous black and Latino students, many of whom, without his help, seemed dest ined for
math mediocrity. Over the last four years, administrators in El Paso, Texas, have reported
a stunning turnaround in performance in 15 schools previously rated as disasters. The
secret, says Susana Navarro, executive director of the El Paso Collabo rative, is a philosophy
rooted in the belief that "virtually all students are capable of high achievement." Robert
Slavin, codirector of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on the Education of
Children Placed at Risk, reports equally heartening news from the more than 400 schools in
31 states associated with his center. The typical fifth grader in an affiliated school, he
says, is a full academic year ahead of his nonaffiliated peers. "Some bright, enthusiastic,
highly motivated kids are washed up by the third grade," beaten down by failure, and
expectations of failure, all around them, says Slavin. "We try to break the cycle... so that
these kids can succeed," he adds.
None of the miracle workers employs exotic techniques. (Delving into Ebonics, notes Slavin,
is irrelevant to the enterprise: "It's just not an issue.") They all, however, insist on results,
and they develop materials and teaching methods capable of achieving those results. Arthur
Whimbey, a psychologist and director of the TRAC Rese arch Institute in Albuquerque, N.M.,
who helped generate many of the materials used at Xavier and elsewhere, uses "text
reconstruction" (which entails having students reconstruct vignettes they are given in
scrambled sentence order) to hone grammar and rea soning skills. Although the vignettes
may focus on black notables, the purpose is not merely to develop racial pride but to
sharpen practical skills.
In my new book, "Color-Blind" (HarperCollins), I attempt to distill the principles that make
the successful programs work: (1) find a group of young people motivated to learn, or find
a way to motivate them; (2) convince them you believe in them; (3) teach them good study
skills; (4) challenge them with difficult and practical material; (5) give them adequate
support, and (6) demand that they perform. Unfortunately, far too many educators
conclude, in effect, that it's easier to teach students to feel good about themselves --and
even about their academic failings--than it is to help them raise their level of per formance.
Self-esteem becomes a goal unto itself.
Certainly, cultivating pride and self-respect is a worthwhile goal, but that self-respect
should be rooted in achievement. Students already at an educational disadvantage should
not be provided with false pride in the misuse of language. Rather, they should be provided
with confidence that they can perform at the highest academic levels, and with the support
and tools to do so.

Staunch Ebonics Supporters Urge Training of
City's Teachers
Published: January 11, 1997
Though officials ranging from the Schools Chancellor to representatives of the teachers'
union have rejected the notion, a group of community advocates is nevertheless urging that
teachers in New York City schools be instructed in how to do a better job of teaching
students who speak so-called black English.
The idea of using black English as an educational tool has sparked debate, and criticism,
since the school board in Oakland, Calif., passed a resolution declaring that the vernacular
spoken by most of the city's students should be recognized as a distinct language labeled
ebonics, a coinage from the words ebony and phonics.
In New York, which has the nation's largest school system, Chancellor Rudy Crew said the
idea was ''unworthy of serious consideration as an approach to achieving educational
excellence.'' The United Federation of Teachers, while noting the necessity of being
sensitive to students' language needs and cultural differences, has also rejected the idea of
instructing teachers in ebonics, and William C. Thompson, head of the New York City Board
of Education, has voiced his disapproval.

But a small group of parents' advocates, educators and clerics, citing widespread failure in
the city's schools, say they still hope to persuade officials at least to consider ebonics in
an effort to help New York City students achieve.
''I've seen too many instances in history, and have been a part of too many struggles in
which we were the minority at first but the minority succeeded in winning the case,'' s aid
the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a well -known community advocate who co-founded the New
York Ebonics Movement. ''We believe that the school system is failing and needs to look at
some new, innovative programs.''
In New York and other urban school systems, he said, ''too many educators treat different
speech patterns with contempt, with ridicule, so a child feels humiliated and refuses to
participate in the educational process.''
The coalition, which also includes Ayo Harrington, president of the United Parent s
Associations, and Adelaide Sanford, a member of the state Board of Regents, held a
community forum attended by about 100 people yesterday evening at Mr. Daughtry's
Brooklyn church, the House of the Lord, to discuss how ebonics could be used to improve
student achievement.
In an interview earlier, Charles Barron, a leadership skills consultant and co -founder of the
coalition, said, ''How could you throw out anything when you're doing such a horrible job
with all the traditional methods that you use?''
Reports released this month by the state's Education Department showed that the majority
of New York City schools fell at the bottom when their performance was compared with
that of schools around the state. Only 30 percent of New York City third graders read at
or above grade level, half the statewide rate.
But many educators and school officials said they did not believe that ebonics was the
answer to a complex problem. ''I have the greatest respect for Reverend Daughtry,'' Mr.
Thompson, president of the Board of Education, said this week. ''We have agreed on many
issues, and we have disagreed on many issues. This is one we will disagree on.''
And while Mr. Crew would be willing to meet with the coalition, his spokeswoman, Chiara
Colletti, said he would not consider training New York City schoolteachers in ebonics.
''He believes that it is misleading to tell children that it's all right to speak in slang,'' said
Ms. Colletti. ''And that it's really taking our eyes off the ball to start to make this a focus
of professional development for teachers or to lead children to believe it is a language of
But just as the Oakland school board that ignited the controversy, coalition members in
New York say their goals are being misunderstood.
At the forum last night, where most audience members seemed to support the concept, Mr.
Barron called ebonics ''a tool to help teachers communicate with students.''
''We're not talking about teaching the kids ebonics -- they already know it,'' he said. ''And
we're not talking about replacing standard English with ebonics. We're talking about using
ebonics as a bridge.''
Supporters of the fledgling ebonics movement contend that the language spoken by many
urban blacks is not merely a slang version of English but a distinct lan guage with roots in
West African languages. The Oakland board said teachers should study it to make them more
sensitive and respectful when teaching. But many critics interpreted the resolution as
meaning students would be taught in the dialect or would le arn the speech pattern in class.
Ms. Harrington said her organization had passed a resolution on Monday supporting the
Oakland school board's proposal and asking that the Chancellor wait to evaluate the
progress ebonics makes in Oakland before dismissing t he idea.
''There are too many children pushed into special education for a variety of reasons, and
language is absolutely one of them,'' said Ms. Harrington. ''The same speech pattern that
would cause a child not to get a job is the same pattern that cause s teachers to believe the
children cannot do any better, and will not do any better.''
Some educators said they hoped that the larger issue of improving education did not get
lost in the clamor over the narrow issue of ebonics.
''I hope they use this as pr essure not to recognize ebonics,'' Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, director
of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the City University of New York Graduate
Center, said of the coalition, ''but to make teachers realize they've got to start where kids
are to help them learn.''

January 23, 1997

Kwame Holman reports on the Ebonics debate, which has moved to the United States Senate.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter said he held
today's hearing to help clear up the nationwide controversy over using so -called "Ebonics"
to help teach African-American students. The controversy arose last month after schools in
Oakland, California, began instructing teachers to recognize black language patterns, called
Ebonics by some, as a way of teaching standard English more effectively.
TEACHER: (teaching class) Ebonics is very simply African language systems on t op of
English lexicons.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Ebonics controversy born in Oakland was evident from the opening of
today's hearing. Sen. Lauch Faircloth is a Republican from North Carolina.
SEN. LAUCH FAIRCLOTH, (R) North Carolina: But I think Ebonics is absu rd. This is a political
correctness that simply has gone out of control. As Rev. Jesse Jackson said, it was teaching
down to people. And that's the last thing we need to be doing. Now I'm very much aware that
teaching children in schools in the inner citie s and in poor neighborhoods all over the
country, rural or inner city, has never been easy, and it never will be. But rather than trying
to lower the academic standards, we should try some of the old -fashioned remedies that I
think would still work. Nobody should be passed from grade to grade unless they can master
the basic three R's of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who represents a district in Los
Angeles, disagrees. She supports programs designed to hel p teachers understand the
language patterns used by some black children and says they're already working in her city
and others.
REP. MAXINE WATERS, (D) California: The fact of the matter is, Mr. Chairman and members,
African--too many African-American children have been entering school year in and year out
speaking different language patterns, something other than standard English. They really
can't learn the sciences and math and other subjects that are being taught because they are
not proficient in the English language. Nobody is saying we want to change English, we want
to teach black English. Nobody is saying that. What we're saying is and what they said is we
want to recognize that it is a fact of life. What can we do about it? How can we help
students learn standard English? That's the goal. And so let's not talk about Ebonics being
absurd or ridiculous. The fact of the matter is I think we all want the same thing.
KWAME HOLMAN: Robert Williams, professor emeritus at St. Louis's Washington University,
coined the word "Ebonics," combining "ebony" and "phonics," in the 1970's.
ROBERT WILLIAMS, Washington University: Now we certainly all agree that standard
English is the lingua funka or the common language spoken by the people of the United
States of American. It is certainly the language of the business, commerce, and industrial
world. Our goal is to develop methods that will enable African -American children to master
standard English. I think the basic question that concerns us is: What are the best methods
for achieving this goal?
KWAME HOLMAN: Williams said a 1972 test of 900 black kindergarten and first graders
showed the effectiveness of using familiar language p atterns to evaluate and teach some
black children.
ROBERT WILLIAMS: The results were striking. The children scored significantly higher on
the Ebonics version than on the standard English versions. The following two examples are
given here to show the method of code switching or translations. Standard English: Mark
the toy that is behind the sofa. Ebonics version: Mark the toy that is in back of the couch.
Two: Standard English version: Point to the squirrel that is beginning to climb the tree. The
Ebonics version: Point to the squirrel that is fixing to climb the tree. What I discovered in
the first example, the word "beginnings" and "sofa" were blocking agents. I translated both
worst to "in back of" and "couch." In the second example I translated the wor d "beginning"
to "fixing to." These changes produced dramatic changes in the children's test scores.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee: Do you end up in the same
place? That is, if you have the bridge language and you use the Eboni cs, at the end of the
course, do the students communicate in standard English?
ROBERT WILLIAMS: Yes. They know that there's home talk and there's school talk. And they
learn standard English. I still speak Ebonics. Every day I play golf. We get down.
KWAME HOLMAN: Superintendent Carolyn Getridge says the Oakland schools use Ebonics
because the 50 percent of students who are black have an average grade of D+, far below
the grades of white and Asian students.
CAROLYN GETRIDGE, Oakland California Schools Superintendent: When students have an
opportunity to engage in learning and they are consistently told that what they say or how
they express themselves is wrong, with no explanation of the reason that it is not
acceptable or standard English, then students begin to shut down and will at some point,
either intellectually or physically, drop out of the process. We want to change that reality
for many of the students in Oakland by giving teachers the ability to address these issues
in a more consistent, thoughtful, and respectful way.
KWAME HOLMAN: But there were critics as well. Conservative talk show host Armstrong
Williams said teaching teachers to understand African -American idioms is the wrong
ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, Radio Talk Show Host: Proponents of Ebonics feel that teachers
should be able to relate to the students by showing that they too are able to speak the
structured, cultural student idioms. But I do not agree with this approach, and I'll tell you
why. A teacher would not teach mathematics by trying to show that he or she could make
mistakes in addition or subtraction. Must one's senators have to smoke marijuana to be able
to relate to teen-age drug addiction? Should they smoke marijuana in order to teach them
a better way? Definitely not. And the same is true with language.
KWAME HOLMAN: In the end, Chairman Specter concluded the Ebonics issue is complicated
and said he's not yet sure of the proper role federal education funding should play in such

Talk Radio Hooked On Ebonics Debate
Controversial Language Issue Proves To Be
Anything But Black & White As Some Folks Let
Their Bias Do The Talking
Tuesday, January 07, 1997
IF YOU'RE ONE OF THE MANY folks wondering why the Oakland Board of Education felt it
necessary to recognize "Ebonics" as a separate language, listen for a few minutes to some
of the white folks who are discussing the Ebonics issue on talk radio.
Some hosts and callers not, it is important to note, all of them seem to feel the bes t way
to articulate their opposition to the Oakland decision is to mimic black English themselves.
The idea is this: If they say something really stupid in an exaggerated "black" accent, it
proves that recognizing Ebonics is also really stupid.
Trouble is, they also end up delivering another message: All "black English" is stupid and,
therefore, whoever speaks it must be stupid, too.
Sometimesthis message is unintentional. Sometimes not. In either case, it doesn't make for
good radio. It makes for uncomfortable radio. It just sounds too much like a group that
collectively has many advantages laughing at a group that doesn't.
This assumed superiority didn't just pop up with the Ebonics discussion, of course. It has
deep roots in America deep enough that i t's probably one of the reasons the Oakland board
made its decision in the first place: to assure students who speak black English that their
schools don't think that brands them as ridiculous or stupid.
In this increasingly multicultural society, more and more children enter school without a
background in standard English. Their background is in Spanish, Chinese, Creole, Korean,
Schools do not ridicule these children. Schools do not tell them the way they communicate,
however well it may work in a family or social circle, marks them as laughably stupid in the
larger society.
Yet that's exactly the message much of the Ebonics mockery on talk radio is sending, and
if it's coming across on talk radio it is presumably also coming across in the real world.
These 19th-century minstrel show routines are obviously something many folks have been
storing up for a while, with the Oakland case giving them an excuse to go public.
So maybe the Oakland board, recognizing all this, simply wanted to tell its st udents in part
that black English isn't something you speak when you're too stupid to learn real English.
Maybe the board is saying it's a legitimate form of communication that students should
replace with standard English in situations like school or work , where the common tongue
works to everyone's advantage most of all, the student's.
Now, there's still a legitimate debate to be held on the Oakland plan. Black talk radio has
also crackled with this subject and there's no consensus there, either. Many bl ack folks
agree with many white folks that officializing Ebonics risks sending to some students the
pernicious and patronizing message that 1) they aren't smart enough to learn standard
English, and 2) they aren't valuable enough for anyone to teach them.
So, yes, talk radio should be kicking all this around, and within that discussion there is
always room for satire, humor and absurdity.
But it's also important to keep the discussion grounded in a few basic facts. The Oakland
school board isn't instituti ng any ideas not already in use around California for years. Nor
is it teaching Ebonics. It's hunting for a more effective way to teach English, and part of
that effort is assuring students they aren't stupid just because they sometimes speak like
people around them sometime s speak.
On talk radio, however, too many people have lined up to tell them just that. Maybe that
should give us a clue about the deeper problem.
(Starting Jan. 12, this column will move to The News' Sunday Spotlight section.)