Larry AubryThe failure of public schools to properly educate Black students is criminal. They have long been at the bottom of virtually every measure of effective schooling. Yet the Black community has remained largely on the sidelines; its dominant response, silence.
The chasm between middle-class and poorer Blacks aggravates the problem. The former have virtually opted out of the continuing struggle for civil rights and improving education in traditional public schools. Middle-class parents, wanting the best possible education for their children, seek alternatives in private and charter schools. But this reinforces failing traditional public schools by siphoning off resources sorely needed for those left behind. Middle-class presence and civic participation are also crucial for helping to hold school districts accountable. Moreover, the downward spiral of Black students in traditional schools continues unabated- they exist in an environment that ignores or minimizes their plight and lacks the desire and/or political will to provide resources commensurate with their needs.
While public schools have primary responsibility for educating students, it is the collective responsibility of parents, community and Black leadership to hold the educational establishment-boards of education, administrators and teachers-accountable for providing Black students’ equitable resources and most important, a quality education. Education reform efforts should include an assessment of the implications of school district policies and practices that do not address the specific needs of Black students.
Blacks are among the world’s most resilient people but they also represent a paradox: They have internalized the white majority’s values without full access to its benefits. This has troubling psychological and practical implications. For many Blacks, actually challenging the educational system is tantamount to challenging themselves since most do not have viable alternatives. This dilemma is at the heart of Blacks’ continuing ambivalence and inability to keep the educational establishment’s feet to the fire. It is also a fundamental barrier to their forward progress. Individual attainment, financial or otherwise, is to be applauded. However, Blacks have to distinguish between personal attainment and the pervasive individualistic and materialistic values that serve as barriers to their progress. Black leadership must challenge not regularly reinforce these barriers as many tend to do.
Unity, a key factor in Blacks moving forward, requires developing common ground, i.e., explicit agreement on the purpose of education reform-or related community efforts which increase the likelihood for expanding such efforts and holding participants accountable.
As a foundational ingredient of culture and heritage, language acquisition is one of the most important issues in the miseducation and pernicious low achievement level of Black students. It also validates and affirms non-standard language which is central to resolving the still controversial but crucial debate over non-standard English, aptly termed “unacceptable language” by Dr. Sharoky Hollie, author of the book, Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning.
The 1996 Oakland, California Board of Education’s widely mislabeled “Ebonics Resolution” highlighted the issue of non-standard English and recommended a solution to the institutional attack on the “unacceptable” language of Black students and the massive distortion of the issue by both whites and many Blacks.
Here’s a key excerpt from the Oakland School Board resolution: “….The superintendent shall immediately devise and implement the best possible academic program for imparting instruction to African American students in their primary language for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language, whether it is known as “Ebonics,” “African language systems,” or other description, and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of (Standard) English language skills.”
Within days, the resolution seemed to garner the attention of the entire nation. Many argued that such attention represented tensions about race rather than the potential technical and educational merits of the resolution itself. Much of the public debate focused on the absurd claim that Oakland intended to “teach Ebonics.” The debate should also be understood as a discussion about the legitimacy of Black cultural expression.
Common understanding and support about the validity of Black students’ “unacceptable” language, particularly among Black educators and linguists, is necessary to move boards of education to adopt policy affirming that validity. Black students continue to be denied adequate attention and resources often based simply on the way they speak. Therefore, only broad and sustained, organized mobilization will generate pressure sufficient to convince school boards to adopt policy that addresses the needs of Black students who speak an “unacceptable” language.
For years, efforts outside, (and from time to time, within) the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), called on the Board of Education to embrace and adopt culturally and linguistically responsive policies. Several years ago, an internal African American Education Task Force recommended that the board adopt such a policy. (Given LAUSD’s history of never having sustained programs that focused on African American students this was potentially a landmark exception.)
Office of the Superintendent has a new Access, Equity and Acceleration (AEA) unit whose goals include closing the achievement gap for African American students. The Academic English Mastery Program (AMEP) is part of AEA. Its mission is to assure students whose primary language differs from standard English,”… have equal access to California State standards-based content curriculum and post secondary career opportunities.”
The AEA unit is partnering with the Education Committee of the Black Community, Clergy and Labor Alliance (BCCLA) to close the Achievement gap for African American students and affirm the legitimacy of non-standard English. LAUSD should commit to sustaining this partnership.