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EDUCATION POLICY MUST TARGET STANDARD ENGLISH LEARNERS
By Larry Aubry
Published January 14, 2016

Larry%20Aubry

Larry Aubry

 

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Nearly two decades ago, a largely uninformed and misguided debate about “ebonics” gained national attention. (African American children, speakers of ebonics, are now referred to as Standard English Learners (SELs) because their home language differs from standard and academic English.) Caroline M. Getridge, then superintendent of the Oakland School District, shed considerable light on the controversial issue in her presentation to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, on January 23, 1997. Superintendent Getridges’ statement/perspective follows because Black students are still discriminated against simply because of the way they speak, and the general public and the education establishment largely continue to turn a blind to the problem.

“I am grateful for this opportunity to appear before this Subcommittee, which is broadly examining important questions regarding what role the federal government should play in helping underachieving African American students improve their academic standing and exploring effective approaches to teach English language skills.

The recent actions by the Oakland Unified School District have sparked a national debate concerning the failure of our public schools to effectively serve the educational needs of African American and other minority students. The media focus on “ebonics” diverts our attention from the more substantive concerns of English Language development and the even more fundamental issue of minority student achievement in urban school systems.

The central issue is the underachievement of African American and other minority students and what we’re going to do to address this dismal record. Current achievement data demonstrate that no urban school district is effectively educating minority students. After thorough research, the Oakland Unified School District has developed a bold plan of action in order to turn around a situation which for far too long has been tacitly accepted. This testimony is intended to clarify the actions of the Oakland Unified School District and advocate for additional reforms which are required if the educational success of African American and other minority students is to be improved.

Although Oakland is the focus of attention, the issues we have surfaced are national in scope. You cannot talk about issues of educational achievement of African American children in urban America without also addressing issues of race, class, poverty, language and immigration.

While many of the issues confronting urban America are not of our making, it seems all too often that we, as an urban school district, are the frontline for dealing with these issues. We will be better able to deal effectively with these issues if we are afforded the following supports:

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First, expand early childhood education programs for all children ages three and four. Pre-school is a proven and cost-effective strategy to improve education and life circumstances of children. The expansion will also deal directly with jobs and support systems for the very people impacted by recently enacted welfare reforms:

Second, include funding for schools as part of the various state and federal urban initiatives and empowerment strategies. For example, urban schools are typically not in a position to fund the physical infrastructure improvements and school building additions required as city demographics shift in response to other urban initiatives:

Third, expand funding for professional development opportunities so that we can continue to retool the teacher workforce and address the needs of an influx of new teachers to our schools: And,

Finally, fund a longer school day and longer school year to support the educational achievement needs of urban youth. In return, we will be better able to dedicate our efforts to:Establish clear and measurable academic standards and public accountability for professional standards for teachers and administrators such as those developed by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards and,

Develop City-Schools partnerships to mobilize and align resources dedicated to youth initiatives.

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 opinions 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. Our testimony before this Senate Subcommittee is an opportunity to set the record straight, answer specific questions which have been raised and explore strategies to address the failure of our public schools to educate African American and other minority children.”

Dr. Getridge’s statement helps to place the ancient “ebonics” debate in proper perspective by juxtaposing the nexus of language acquisition and policy development as critical to effectively educating Black children.

(A year and a half ago, June, 2014, the Los Angeles Board of Education passed a Resolution to improve educational outcomes for Standard English Learners—mostly African American children—whose home language is neither standard nor academic English. Currently,  the status of implementing the Resolution is not known, but requests for that information have been made.)

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