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Date: Tue, 14 Jan 97 17:35:12 CST
From: Marvin.Berlowitz@UC.Eduy Subject: Oakland Ebonics proposal
Organization: ?
Article: 3854

)>Date: Fri, 10 Jan 1997 14:42:00 -0800
)>From: Michael Gerber <mgerber@education.ucsb.edu>
)>Subject: Re: African American English

Oakland Ebonics proposal

By Mike Gerber
14 January 1997

We seem to have visited this general place before. Who can name this tune:

"... the failure to recognize and utilize existing cultural forms obtaining within the lower-class black community in order to teach new skills constitutes a form of institutional racism and dooms programs ... to inevitable failure. ... A cultural difference model in which black children are described in sociolinguistic terms as speaking a highly developed but different variety of English from that which epitomizes the mainstream is presented as a viable alternative to existing genetic inferiority and social pathology models which tends to view the black man as a kind of 'sick white.'"

You were correct if you identified Steven & Joan Baratz in the abstract of their HER article published in 1970!

A year earlier:

"... there are 2 dialects involved in the educational complex of black [students]... black [students] are generally not bi-dialectal; ...there is evidence of interference from their dialect when blacks attempt to use standard English; and ...language assessment of disadvantaged [African-Americans] must involve measures of their knowledge of nonstandard English as well as additional measures of their knowledge of standard English." (from the Abstract, Baratz, J. C., 1969, Child Development, 40, pp. 889-902)

Want a second chance? OK, how about this:

"...english should be taught as a socially useful alternative to the basic vernacular, not as the only correct way of speaking." (Labov, W., 1972)

This is more than twenty-five years ago when I was teaching school in Oakland, as it happens.

While I'm in sympathy with the plea of my colleagues for some outrage and defense .... a defense of Oakland's school board is misplaced. The local politics of this decision makes it look too suspiciously like a move to expropriate bilingual education monies to supplement the school system's budget. This maladept strategy failed, as it should have, and the school district tried to reconstruct their actions into something more praiseworthy. In these shennanigans, they invited derision and, I agree, one of the unfortunate victims of the whole sad affair will be public understanding of -- forget acceptance of -- black urban dialect.

The ultimate losers here are the children of Oakland. The real issues are not the legitimacy of 'ebonics.' The real issue is that 71% of the students in special education in Oakland are African-American, much more than one would expect based solely on demographics of the district. The real issue is that dialects develop when subpopulations are relatively isolated from the language root. It isn't the language difficulties that Oakland's children encounter that's the problem. The children were well aware that they speak differently compared even to their black teachers. The problem is that, to the degree that distance of dialect to root becomes greater, to that degree the subpopulation in question is more socially isolated.

Make-work-for-professors training programs to "sensitize" teachers to the validity of dialect will not solve these two very serious problems nor their underlying causes. And, if you've never taught in a school building built in 1936, you might not understand that the money necessary for such a misguided effort could be better spent in any number of ways that would create much more benefit to the children in question.

Mike Gerber