Martin Luther King Elementary in Anacostia is no slouch of a school, with computer-wise kindergartners writing phonemic sentences in a nationally touted program; with a caring staff and principal who collar both troublemakers and innocents for regular accountings; with no-nonsense teachers insisting on ordered thought and copious self-expression.
If being black and poor -- 67 percent of the students' families are on welfare -- conveys a learning disadvantage, this is not immediately evident in the children's work.
Except, that is, for occasional clues in speech and writing, slight enough to go unmarked by administrators who accompany a reporter on a classroom tour. "My teacher name is Mrs. Coleman," recites a third grader, reading aloud from his essay paper. A shy classmate follows: "My aunt name is Wilhemina. She help me with my homework. She work at the Navy Yard."
The significance of such variations and the school system's response to them -- once subjects of searing national debate -- rock little more than the ivory tower today, 15 or so years after "Black English" made it into the popular lexicon. While troubling new findings are shaking the research community, the nation's schools appear scarcely touched by all the fuss then or now.
"They don't speak 'Black English.' They use 'bad grammar,' " says principal William Dalton of his King students. Words to make a linguist shudder. So much for years of explaining that the purportedly African-influenced speech of many black Americans is a dialect as inherently sound as standard English, with a different, but consistent grammar and a full range of intellectual expression.
Two decades into the fight, it is the educators who have stood fast and the linguists who have regrouped under a more moderate banner. Virtually abandoned is the once-headlined cry that black children be taught to read, at least initially, in Black English.
"It was scarcely ever tried," says Ralph Fasold, associate professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "Where it was tried" -- Chicago schools gave it a trial run, and the District's Catholic schools briefly toyed with the idea -- "the results were very mixed."
These days, few linguists or educators dispute the need for black children to achieve greater fluency in standard English regardless of what they speak at home. What they still dispute is what, if any, concessions schools should make to Black English to achieve this.
Orlando Taylor, acting dean of Howard University's school of communications, says test scores show schools have not accommodated enough.
"All you have to do is look at the national statistics on school achievement in language arts for minority children to see the traditional approaches don't work . . . Children who come to school speaking nonstandard English score at or near the bottom. When that happens, you either have to assume there's something innate in blacks that prevents their learning standard English, or something inadequate in teachers, or -- the one I argue for -- that teachers have in their hands an approach that is inappropriate."
An approach he designed is now being field-tested in California -- the only state where accommodation is mandated. It teaches language in a framework of cultural diversity, using English-as-a-second-dialect methods to avoid stigmatizing Black English speakers.
District school officials -- including James Guines, who grew up with Taylor in Chattanooga, Tenn. -- reject the idea of accommodation. Guines, associate superintendent for instruction for the District's public schools, holds that differences in test results -- M.L. King students score "slightly below the national norm" -- are more reflective of socioeconomic deprivation than of race or language differences.
"My position is just what it was 15 years ago," says Guines. "I'm not going to deal with Black English any more than I'm going to deal with Governor Wallace's English or with President Kennedy's English . . . I'm not going to waste my time with that. We've not had any foolishness come from the school system to allow children to use the language they use at home and in their neighborhood in school."
The question that remains is, why are many black children not learning standard English? One answer, recently published by University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor William Labov, has provoked a new furor.
Labov's widely publicized study claims that the English of many urban blacks is becoming more divergent -- not less, as expected -- from standard English as society becomes more racially divided and urban blacks more isolated. As contact with whites decreases, Labov argues, black city children may face increasing language difficulties.
In the academic community, the report has had the effect of a spark in a tinderbox. Emotional pronouncements of support and condemnation have underscored researchers' own divisions -- racial and philosophical.
Critics have scored Labov's methodology ("sloppy," says Taylor), his interpretation ("Many of us in the field think he's overstated the case," says Fasold. "The data don't support the degree of concern he's expressing") and his conclusions. "It's not more divergent. It's edging closer to the white vernacular," insists Walt Wolfram, director of research at the Center for Applied Linguistics, an institute in the forefront of the Black English movement in the 1960s.
Fasold and others suggest "new" grammatical features identified by Labov were present earlier but not detected. Vocabulary, he says, always changes. "Maybe 15 years ago, two black men meeting each other on the street might say, 'What's going down, blood?' Today, they'd say, 'What's up, home?' Each one of them would be equally mysterious to a white person . . . There's change, but the net effect is the same."
Labov could not be reached for comment.
The real concern is with the implications of the findings. If Labov is correct, any drive to preserve Black English is arguably misplaced. Also, Taylor and other black linguists are particularly riled by the suggestion that blacks can't learn standard English effectively without exposure to whites:
"I view that as a racist position," argues Taylor. "I think that's faulty. The best example is Washington, D.C., with its strong history of housing segregation. At the same time, one of the most successful high schools in the country is Dunbar High School, an institution that at one time produced the greatest number of highly educated blacks in the nation. These were black kids studying with other black kids under black teachers."
Labov's has not been the only attempt to answer why standard English poses an obstacle for many children.
While claims of lesser intelligence have been disproven, Black English is still commonly misperceived as a substandard form of language. "A teacher has to understand," says Howard Mims, associate professor of speech and hearing at Cleveland State University, "it isn't just a matter of a child's leaving s's off words when he conjugates a verb. It's programmed in his head like a computer: third person singular doesn't have an 's'."
Linguists say Black English is not a sign of pathology either, although it has been confused with this, too.
In the District's public schools, children with inner-city dialects were seen by speech therapists until 1969. Across the country, school systems frequently mislabeled black children as retarded or learning-disabled, says Lorraine Cole, director of minority affairs for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. "The Department of Education Office of Civil Rights still monitors these classes and takes a census by race to make sure this is not happening," adds Cole. Similarly, says Harry Seymour, associate professor of communication disorders at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, real impairments of some Black English speakers have gone undetected.
A more likely deterrent to children's learning, linguists have been saying since the '60s, is the stigma often attached to Black English speakers.
"It's not the linguistic features that make a dialect good or bad," explains Cole. "Stigmatized dialects are such because of the people who use them. Standard English has more prestige because it's associated with the middle class and more highly educated people. Black English is stigmatized because black people have been stigmatized."
Lack of respect for the speech or speaker is not an inducement to further learning. Says Seymour: "If a child perceives you have negative views about what he's saying and how he's saying it, communication breaks down." Overzealous efforts by some school systems to eradicate Black English can thus backfire.
The District's public school staff appears more sympathetic. Thelma Michael, coordinator of the system's "Writing to Read" program, says, "If a child says, 'I be . . .,' the teacher gently says, 'You mean, I am going to . . .' as opposed to beating the child down, because he doesn't know. You don't want to crush the child."
Insufficient contact with standard English speakers is another problem. "We talk like the people with whom we associate," says Cleveland State's Howard Mims.
Schools can teach standard English all they like, he contends, but "if you don't have the opportunity to use it, you're going to lose it. Two things are essential to learning a second language or dialect: motivation and identification. There must be someone who speaks the other dialect with whom the child can identify. If this psychological need isn't met, changes are going to come very slowly."
These and other theories were showcased in the nationally publicized Ann Arbor school decision of 1979 -- one of the few big triumphs for defenders of Black English. That summer, a Michigan court ruled that a group of black children in a predominantly white school district had been denied equal educational opportunity because reading instructors made no accommodation to their dialect. The judge ordered teachers to attend special workshops to address the problem.
(In Chicago, Fasold recalls, where experiments with Black English reading primers had been abandoned, news of the decision is said to have prompted a phone call. " 'Hey,' " Chicago school officials reportedly told colleagues in Ann Arbor, " 'We have this whole warehouse full of dialect readers, which we'll be happy to give you . . .' ")
As local school officials see it, the Ann Arbor case has little bearing on them.
"In Ann Arbor," Guines suggests, "these were minority students in a predominantly white school system. In D.C., the system is predominantly black. It may be, in a situation like this, there's more accommodation. More of us are more comfortable with the use of dialect . It's not policy, but there may be greater tolerance. We don't get bent all out of joint when kids use it. We have made it a real position to let the kids be natural. Let them write as they speak, and as they get more proficient, then demand more. It may be, in our crazy backhand way, we are accommodating a lot more than someone in Ann Arbor."
Has the gulf shrunk any between linguists and educators? There are many, in both schools of thought, who would like to see black children attain fluency in both dialects, switching back and forth as needed. "But," admits Seymour, "I don't think the public has bought it, nor have we learned how to do it."
Can schools do anything further to facilitate the learning of standard English? Will they? That's unclear.
Wolfram, who urges teaching about language diversity, says, "The schools are perpetuating a myth about dialects, that they are unworthy approximations of standard English, that if you don't speak standard English, you're not smart, you can't communicate, when some of the best communicators of our time could do it in vernacular dialects."
But he's realistic. "Popular notions about language are so thoroughly entrenched that they're not going to be overcome overnight," he concedes. "We're still confronting the same thinking we encountered 20 years ago. I guess that doesn't say much for the rate of social change."