Despite voluminous efforts -- educationally, politically, and socially -- African American students continue to underachieve in the American school system, particularly in literacy. The American school system continues to fail this student population. Part of this failure is the historic institutional discounting of the mismatch that exists between the culture and language of the school and the culture and language of the African American child. 40 years of linguistic and educational research provide curricula alternatives to systemically address African American students and theft learning needs. Literacy instruction needs to acknowledge, affirm, and accommodate the culture and language of African American students by directly addressing them as Standard English Language Learners. The aim of this approach is to increase theft proficiency in Standard American English, their access to the core curriculum, and ultimately academic success.
Historical Systemic Failure
Chronic underachievement of African American students has been the most indefatigable problem facing this nation's educational system. The lack of overall academic achievement for African American students is the bane of the American schools and the core of an entire body of research (Darling-Hammond, 1995). Read almost any research over the past 40 years that focuses on African American students and it will begin with the historical underachievement and institutionalized inequities experienced by these students in the American school system (College Board, 1999; Comer, 1988; Irving, 1990; Ogbu, 1999). Research cites many reasons for this systemic failure (Garcia, 1995; Viadero, 2000). Historical and sociopolitical perspectives, like cultural deprivation in the home environment, institutionalized racism, oppositional counter-culture attitudes among students, and the home/school cultural mismatch have been posited. Socioeconomic factors related to poverty, peer pressure, and family issues have weighed in as well. Educational reasons, such as ineffective classroom instruction-particularly in reading and language, lack of instructional resources, low teacher expectations, and standardized test biases, also have been called causes.
From a historical perspective, Smith (1998) noted that nowhere is the failure more noticeable than in literacy and language instruction. Literacy and language proficiency in Standard American English (SAE) are held as the keys to academic success and social mobility in America. For African Americans, as well as other disenfranchised groups, literacy and language underachievement can be connected to the historical denial of equal educational opportunities coupled with stagnant, ineffective traditional literacy and language instruction. Sato (1989) pointed out that African Americans, when looked at as non-standard language speakers, as well as other groups with similar linguistic backgrounds, consistently underachieve in the school system. Current literacy and language trends reveal that history continues to repeat itself. For example, in Los Angeles for the first time African American students scored lower than the bilingual population in reading, language, and writing on the CTBS-U (eighth-grade) in 1997-1998. More recently, as reported by the Nation's Report Card on Reading (2000), African American students had the lowest percentage of students, 12%, at or above proficiency compared to 32% for the nation. Something is not working.
Non-Standard Language Awareness Approach -- An Instructional Alternative
The failure of the American school system to look at African Americans students as non-standard English speakers has been well chronicled, documented, and researched (Labov, 1972; Rickford, 1997; and Smitherman, 1977). Garcia (1995) posited that students from culturally diverse populations do not succeed at school because the difference between school culture and home culture leads to an educationally harmful dissonance. …