Politics, Language, and Culture: A Critical Look at Urban School Reform

By Joseph W. Check | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

San Francisco and Oakland: Language Issues and Urban Reform

INTRODUCTION

Culture and language are inseparable, core elements of individual and group identity. Evidence of this fact is all around us, from the on-going split in Canada between English- and French-speakers to continuing political battles in the United States around English-only legislation.

The educational ramifications of language use are many, and in parts of this chapter I will engage in technical discussions of language policy and programs. Such discussions are meant to elucidate, not obscure, the essential, powerful reality underlying linguistic issues in schooling: language is part of cultural identity and cultural identity is part of language. Threats to language are felt as threats to self, to family, and to group; advocacy for language is felt as support for culture, family, and self. And for any student, anywhere, whether the school is felt as a threatening or a supportive environment has a strong effect on whether that student succeeds or fails.

Improving schooling for linguistic minority students is one of the most urgent issues facing urban reform. In many cities, such students form a third or more of the entire school population. In individual schools these figures can be much higher, in some cases approaching one hundred percent. Yet systemic reformers have advanced few programs or strategies specifically tailored to the needs of linguistic minority students or their teachers. More often, in the face of research evidence to the contrary, reformers have taken the position that whatever is good for native English speakers will be good for linguistic minority students too.

Even under the best conditions, the presence of large numbers of linguistic minority students places additional demands on already overtaxed urban

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