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McClendon, G. (2017). An Ebonics History Primer and Teacher Attitudes on Black Dialect. PHILICA.COM Article number 925.

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An Ebonics History Primer and Teacher Attitudes on Black Dialect

Garrard McClendonunconfirmed user (GARRARD MCCLENDON, Chicago State University)

Published in edu.philica.com

Although in the second decade of the new millennium, we still see strong evidence of discrimination, bias, and stereotype threat when alternative dialects are used within mainstream environments and outside of the classroom and workplace. As the tenure of President Barack Obama ends and the Donald Trump Presidency begins, we still see the problem of the color line pertaining to language. In American schools, teachers frequently enforce Standard American English (SAE) without teaching students about the nonstandard dialects they may speak, such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Hip Hop Nation Language (HHNL) (Alim, 2007; Wheeler, 2010). What makes this opposing and problematic is how litmus tests don’t exist on how employers or teachers perceive dialects, intonation, skin color, class and race. Individuals criticized on their language use have choices: to be defensive, offensive, alternative, accommodating, acculturating, or assimilated. Codeswitching must be embraced or else the speaker who codes will love one dialect, hate the other or realize that coexistence is possible if the encoder is accepting. This only makes students more protective over their linguistic identity and less willing to learn SAE (Alim, 2007). Thus, defending and valuing all students’ dialects should be a priority for a teacher in order to preserve their students’ linguistic identities. Primers and attitude studies are needed to explain the adjustment that may have to take place in schools, business environments, and dominant cultural scenarios. The opportunity to provide students with a bidialectal environment is present, but when schools focus on SAE, very few curricula on non-standard dialects are created or used (Alim, 2007; Kelly, 2013; Messier, 2012; Godley & Escher, 2012). This work seeks to explain the landscape of Ebonics and how history, literature and priming can offer greater explanation for acceptance and discrimination.

Key Words - Ebonics, Codeswitching, black English, black dialect, African American, bidialectal

Article body

  1. Primer, History, and Literature Review

The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation (Lincoln & Seward, 1863), the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case (Brown, 1954) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1965), were all legal constructs created to implement authentic citizenship for Africans in America. Although bills, laws, and ordinances have been passed, the African American still struggles to be considered a whole citizen. The achievement gap speaks to this partial citizenship, and school leaders have the opportunity to eradicate its problematic manifestation in their schools.

Soder (1996) stated that American schools have the charge of teaching children ethics, moral character, and content to help them live and work in a democracy. Schools should embody an ethic of care (a belief in the intrinsic value of persons), creating a place where students are educated in a safe environment (Noddings, 1984; Starratt, 1991). “In affirming this, it [the ethic of care] defines enterprises as ethical to the extent that they promote human development, welfare, and happiness” (Beck, 1992, p. 472). 

The climate and culture of the nation is formed by the three million teachers in American schools (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, 2007). Teachers’ and administrators’ perceptions of students can be a factor in the school’s own culture and climate: “The more open the climate of the school, the less alienated students tend to be” (Hoy, 2008, p. 1). “Meaningful school improvement begins with cultural change—and cultural change begins with the school leader” (Reeves, 2007, p. 94).

Judgments about a student’s language and dialect may significantly alter the behavior and beliefs of the school’s leaders. African American Vernacular English has been considered non-standard, and many teachers have looked down on the use of AAVE as derogatory, deviant, and deficient (Jonsberg, 2001). This has been an issue of affect and effect. A teacher’s affective domain or disposition, along with their cultural beliefs, can influence their perceptions of student expectations (McLeod, 1995).

African American Vernacular English has been widely accepted by the popular media and dates back to the 1940s Harlem Renaissance (Brasch, 1981), however some teachers in American schools have reservations about its use. Alternative dialects are acceptable in informal contexts, but school faculty tend to judge non-mainstream dialect and behavior as deficient (Jaffe, 2007).

Culture and climate are two constructs that can drive the success or failure of a school. Before formal studies of culture and climate were made, administrators and teachers could only guess at how these factors might influence students. Could the culture and climate of a school’s administration effect how teachers and students judged AAVE? In 1978 and 1979, Brookover studied school climate by using surveys designed to measure student, teacher, and principal attitude. Earlier research showed significant relationships between climate and achievement. For example, Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s studies (1968) of self-fulfilling prophecy, the Coleman Report’s (1966) emphasis on African American student academic futility, and Cooper and Goode’s (1983) work on teacher expectations showed the importance of leadership, climate, and sensitivity to student dialect and culture.

Principals can shape school climate – the dialects spoken within a school can be accepted, rejected, or ignored. The building leaders’ perceptions of AAVE can be shared with the faculty to help produce proactive pedagogy, fostering an attitude that supports all students’ dialects in a healthy school environment. From the Middle Passage (the transport African slaves to North America) to the Emancipation Proclamation, Brown v. Board of Education, and the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, language has been a volatile issue for African Americans, accepted in literature and the arts, while suffering denial in public schools and in the job market.

The climate of negative attitude toward dialect can be significant. Nearly four hundred years after Africans were forced to come to North America, language discrimination pervades our current society. Studies have demonstrated that dialect can affect behavior. Massey and Lundy (2001) showed how property owners discriminate based on renters’ dialect, sending a message to those in search of a place to live. Male and female auditors called rental housing listings in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The auditors used White middle-class English, Black-accented English, and AAVE. The outcomes showed that those using White middle-class English were preferred over those using AAVE. The study didn’t include a face-to-face interview between homeowners and renters. Research indicates that Americans can infer race from speech patterns without seeing faces, thus offering rental agents an opportunity to discriminate over the phone. Does this type of discrimination also exist in schools? What kind of climate do high school principals create to make students strive for excellence while maintaining an appreciation for cultures?

2.     Educators’ Attitudes  

Craig (2002) stated that many African American students speak AAVE. There are numerous studies (Fogel, 2006; Goodman, 2006; Isenbarger, 2006) that include teachers’ attitudes and perceptions toward AAVE, which includes the Ann Arbor, Michigan, Black English court case focusing on language barriers created by teachers’ unconscious negative attitudes toward students’ use of African American English, and the negative effect these attitudes have on student learning (Ball, 1997).  Substantial literature (Blasé, 1999; Jonsberg, 2001; Powell & Aaron, 1982) exists on teachers’ expectations and perceptions, but little about administrators’ perceptions.

Oates (2003) noted that positive disposition of teachers toward students elevates scholastic performance – though the individual effects are sometimes modest. Ferguson (1998) said that the evidence is mixed as to whether teachers’ attitudes are shaped by anti-black bias.

There may be conflicting views on about empirical determinants, but African American students tend to be the outcasts in American schools – the group about which widespread notions of academic inferiority prevail (Ainsworth-Darnell & Downey, 2005; Jencks & Phillips, 1998; McWhorter, 2000; Steele, 1999). This phenomenon may extend to teachers’ and principals’ negative perceptions of the language that many Black students use. A review of the literature indicated a need for research on high school principals’ perceptions of and expectations for students who use Black Vernacular English.

According to Sergiovanni (1991), principals are considered the leaders of schools. He considers school leaders to be culture builders. It is only appropriate that principals’ perceptions of students’ language skills be surveyed to gauge academic expectations against cultural biases. Self-fulfilling prophecies can influence teachers’ decisions. According to Masland (1979), a teacher’s bias against a student’s Black English dialect may trigger lower teacher expectations and lower student performance. The language that a student uses at home and the student’s race or ethnicity may have an impact on principals’ perceptions. According to Oates (2003), anti-Black bias among White teachers is more prevalent than the same bias from Black teachers. White teachers’ perceptions are significantly more consequential to the performance of African American students (Ferguson, 1998). Claude Steele (2006) stated that a person’s “social identity” defined as group membership in categories such as age, gender, religion, and ethnicity—has significance when “rooted in concrete situations”(p. 1). Steele defined these situations as “identity contingencies”—settings in which a person is treated according to a specific social identity. Social identity can be recognized by speech pattern, phenotype, skin color, gender, and other factors. The individual may assess his own identity as positive or negative, while other individuals may have differing perceptions of that person. The United States has dozens of laws that are supposed to prevent discrimination, but bias is subtle, and may not be detectable in some school settings. Although teachers may not admit to discriminating against students’ use of their home dialect, some studies have supported the thesis that there is substantial teacher bias against dialect speakers (DeVilliers, 2006; Lippi-Green, 1997; Tauber, 1997). African American children arrive at kindergarten with fewer reading skills than Whites, even when their parents have equal years of schooling (Barbarin, 2002; Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2007; Phillips, Crouse, & Ralph, 1998). The Black-White test score gap is constant (in standard deviations) from primary through secondary school (Ferguson, 2003; Leavitt & Fryer 2004). Given that socio-economic status and educational attainment are equal, there must be another reason for the disparity in educational achievement. The purpose of this study was to explore how high school principals viewed the dialect used by many African American students in the state of Illinois. Findings from this study may increase administrator awareness of dialect bias, especially towards African American students.

3.     Statement of the Problem

For many theorists, literacy is the foundation of education. Henry Giroux interviewed Paulo Freire, and after the discussion Giroux wrote that “in a more specific sense, critical literacy is both a narrative for agency, as well as a referent for critique … [meaning the development of] theoretical and practical conditions through which human beings can locate themselves in their own histories and in doing so make themselves present as agents in the struggle to expand the possibilities of human life and freedom. To be literate is not to be free, it is to be present and active in the struggle for reclaiming one’s voice, history, and future” (Giroux, 1989, p. 155). Freire believed that an effective and fair curriculum could exist if the “oppressed” are included in its development. Freire (1989) said that “the pedagogy of the people engaged in the fight for their own liberation, has its roots here. And those who recognize themselves as oppressed must be among the developers of this pedagogy” (p. 53). Because social and economic status varies according to the school, students have varied experiences. Teachers and principals not only have to adhere to educating students according to the state academic standards; they must also meet students’ cognitive and affective needs, as well as have empathy for students.

Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, researchers such as James Coleman (1966) have studied on the lower academic aptitude of African Americans. The Coleman Report provided research on 600,000 students and 4,000 schools, finding that most children attended schools with a majority race, and that minority children were a few years behind White students, with a widening gap from elementary through high school (Coleman, 1966). The relationship that is difficult for researchers to assess is the relationship between language, perception, expectation, and achievement (Labov, 1972). Ladsen- Billings (2000), Delpit (2002), and Wolfram (2005) have contributed literature on African American Vernacular English and teacher expectations. Delpit focused on how coded language is a way of connecting with people from different groups, “I have come to realize that acquiring an additional code comes from identifying with the people who speak it, from connecting the language form with all that is self-affirming and esteem-building (Delpit, 2002, p.39). Ladson-Billings (1995) stated that a curriculum should be “culturally relevant” so students won’t feel isolated from the learning experience. This inclusion would incorporate alternative dialects, instead of excluding them.

Before assuming that inclusion or exclusion is present, principals need to be asked about their perceptions of African American English dialect and their expectations for students using this dialect. There is little literature on administrators’ expectations about dialects that are not considered to be standard. However, research shows that teachers have lower expectations and negative perceptions of African American students who use Black English. Cross (2001) stated that listeners judge speakers' personal characteristics based on the dialect spoken, and that ethnicity is considered in the perception of language. Cross found that White respondents were most favorable to White speakers and least favorable to Black speakers. Evidence exists about teacher expectations, but the assumption cannot be made that administrators’ perceptions and expectations follow suit.

Expectations are significant. Carruthers (2003) stated that classroom expectations and assumptions or inferences might influence student’s academic achievement or future behavior. The influence of expectations in our lives was demonstrated by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968), who manipulated teacher expectations for student achievement to see if these expectations would be fulfilled. When teachers were told that randomly selected students had been identified as "intellectual late bloomers," teacher behavior changed enough to have a significant positive effect on student performance, both in the classroom and on achievement tests. Results were explained in terms of the significant effect of self-fulfilling prophecy on students, and its impact on teacher expectations.

The work of Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) created controversy and interest in how teachers form expectations and how they are communicated to students. Despite criticism of their work, it has been well documented that teacher expectations are communicated to students during teacher-student interactions (Casteel, 1998). Casteel found that African American students were given less attention, praised less, and reprimanded more than their non-African American classmates, when taught by Caucasian teachers. Brophy (2004) studied the ways teachers communicate their expectations to high achievers and low achievers. Classroom observation revealed that teachers treated low achievers differently than high achievers. This behavior can be found in pre- Brown v. Board of Education schools (1954) as well as after.

The following behaviors indicate common attitudes toward students perceived to be low achievers: “providing general, often insincere praise; providing them with less feedback; demanding less effort; interrupting low achievers more often; seating them farther away from the teacher; paying less attention to them; calling on them less often; waiting less time for them to respond to questions; criticizing them more often for failure; and smiling at them less or giving them fewer other nonverbal indicators of support” (Good, 1987, p. 11). Studies were conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968), the authors of Pygmalion in the Classroom, and Fordham and Ogbu (1986), best known for their study of Black student disengagement in their article, “Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb.” Ogbu (1986) studied how Blacks may adapt by “acting White” if it is advantageous. “Acting White” is a value statement declaring that behaviors deemed to be academic, positive, and mainstream equate with being other than Black. Ogbu stated that students would immediately change their behavior if surrounded by African American students. Those choosing to change their behavior in accord with the situation are using a code-switching technique to avoid being discriminated against. Those choosing to code switch are also trying to defy self-fulfilling prophecies. As originally described by Merton (1948), a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when a false definition of a situation evokes a new behavior, which makes the originally false conception come true. Thus, the Pygmalion study (1968) was seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy effect, because while the imminent intellectual blooming of target students was "false information", it presumably led teachers to act in such a way as to make the false conception a reality. Also, residual effects are said to occur when teachers respond on the basis of their existing expectations for students, rather than to changes in student performance caused by sources other than the teacher (Cooper & Good, 1983). Good and Brophy (1984) described the influence of expectations: “Self-fulfilling prophecies are the most dramatic form of teacher expectation effects, because they involve changes in student behavior. Sustaining expectations refer to situations in which teachers fail to see student potential and hence do not respond in a way to encourage some students to fulfill their potential. In summary, self-fulfilling expectations bring about change in student performance, whereas sustaining expectations prevent change" (p. 93).

Numerous factors can influence teachers to have lower expectations for students, including gender, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, type of school, appearance, oral language patterns, messiness/disorganization, readiness, halo effects, seating position, negative comments about students, outdated theories, and tracking or long-term ability groups (Brookover et al., 1982; Cooper 1984; Good 1987). From this list, race/ethnicity and language patterns are germane to this study. Students from minority groups were sometimes viewed as less capable than Anglo-American students, and the presence of any non-standard English speaking pattern can sometimes lead teachers to hold lower expectations (Brookover, 1979).

Although self-fulfilling prophecy can be a factor, it is not to be taken as completely determining outcomes. A high achiever can be in a low expectation group, and the inverse can hold true. Several investigators (Snow, 1969; Thorndike, 1968; Wineberg, 1987) have found technical deficiencies in Rosenthal and Jacobson’s studies from the 1960s, and there are still doubts on whether self-fulfilling prophecy is a factor at all (Cotton, 1989).

4.     History of African American Vernacular English

In 2008, there were about 6.5 million African American students in public schools in the United States (http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#). Two hundred thirty- two years after the country’s birth, many of these students used a form of English known as African Vernacular English Dialect or Black English. In Geneva Smitherman’s (1994) book, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner, the author argued for the legitimacy of Black English by calling it “a slice of the dynamic, colorful span of language in the African American community” (p. 1). For many African Americans, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is spoken daily. “Black English is the language used primarily by Black people in their communities; it stands to reason that it evidences itself in the classroom in some fashion or another” (Greene & Walker, 2004, p. 435).

Many scholars such as Asante (1987) and Hilliard (2004) agree that the African American experience differs from that of other cultures. The African American experience is the term used to characterize the African Diaspora (indigenous Africans forcibly removed and spread throughout the world (Hecht, 1993). As a characteristic of the Diaspora, AAVE is a product of what is called the Afrocentric Approach, which emphasizes people’s holistic experience in the explication of their social reality (Asante, 1987). Part of this social reality is how African Americans use language. The use of AAVE dates back to a time before the creation of the United States. It was necessary for this study to review the literature about the dialect because Wolfram stated that teachers who reveal a “deficit stance” or “negative view of the language” see students who use it as handicapped socially and cognitively, and the child is often recommended for remedial language training and other educational services (Wolfram et al., 1999, p. 61). The history of AAVE can assist in understanding why these perceptions of the dialect exist.

The first signs of AAVE probably pre-date 1619 (when Africans were first brought to North America). In his History of the Negro Race in America, the historian George W. Williams (1883) stated that “through all time to come no event will be more sincerely deplored than the introduction of slavery into the colony of Virginia during the last days of the month of August in the year 1619” (p. 116). AAVE is primarily a result of slavery, since the languages of the African continent were forcibly discouraged. As African languages were lost, the English language began to work its way into the psyche. Although few African Americans speak or read any African languages (such as Wolof, Swahili, Twi), traits from African languages are embodied in AAVE. A hybrid language was developed without Africans and slave masters even realizing it. New words, innovative expressions, dynamic phrasing, and unique spelling inhabited the English language, derived from African linguistic perspectives. According to Covin (1990), there were social contexts that supported the Afrocentric development of AAVE:

1.     1)  People of African descent shared a common experience, struggle, and


2.     2)  Present in African culture was a non-material element of resistance to

the assault upon traditional values caused by the intrusion of European

legal procedures, political processes, and religions into African culture.

3.     3)  African culture took the view that an Afrocentric modernization process

would be based upon three traditional values: harmony with nature,

humaneness, and rhythm.

4.     4)  Afrocentricity involves the development of a theory of an African way of

knowing and interpreting the world (Covin, 1990).

Many African Americans have shared a similar historical experience, resist some values stemming from European influence, incorporate rhythm into some cultural behaviors, and know and decipher the world from an African perspective.

There are two schools of thought concerning whether AAVE is a language or a dialect. African American Vernacular English is a distinctive language code. Some treat it as a dialect of Mainstream American English, assuming that African Americans came to the United States with no knowledge of English and developed the dialect while learning the mainstream language (Weber, 1991). Some contend that AAVE is a Creole language, formed out of Mainstream American English and native African languages (Jenkins, 1982; Labov, 1982; Smitherman-Donaldson, 1988; Stewart, 1970; Weber, 1991). Scholars still disagree on whether AAVE is a dialect or an actual language. Those who argue that it is a language believe that its speakers created a new form of communication, and not just a hybrid of English and African languages.

In African American Communication: Ethnic Identity and Cultural Interpretation, Hecht (1993) argues that “like other language forms, Black English is governed by rules with specific historical derivations; it has been passed on through socialization” (p. 85). Black English is a legitimate language form with a unique and logical syntax, semantic system, and grammar (Smitherman- Donaldson, 1988). Dillard (1972) and Smitherman (1994) describe the distinctive characteristics AAVE. Final and post-vocalic consonants, along with medial consonants are not pronounced. The first syllable is stressed in two-syllable words. “AAVE usage can indicate tense without adding suffixes, and there can be occasional verb removal” (Smitherman, 1994, pp. 6-7). In AAVE, “be” is used in place of the words am, are, and is, with tense shifts, intonation, and inflection used to construct sentence context. Burling (1973) said that AAVE and Standard English have distinctive differences, including “word variability, sound variability, contrast variability, final consonants, multiple negation, loss of suffixes, and tense shifts” (Koch, 2001, p. 29). In United States classrooms, these characteristics may be considered to be defects, thus making schools more apt to discriminate.

Using AAVE can be a detriment to a student’s education. In the Ann Arbor Black English Trial of 1979, Ann Arbor Judge Charles Joiner ruled in favor of plaintiffs who argued that Black English was a valid dialect and that its use may be a “barrier” to academic attainment and achievement (Whiteman, 1980). Although Michigan and California brought nationwide attention to the Black English debate, the Ann Arbor decision did not create enough weight to bring the question to the Supreme Court. This outcome decreased the momentum of advocates who wanted AAVE to be considered in the same category as English as a Second Language. The court would not hold that dialects were languages. However, in Oakland, California, the School Board agreed that “Ebonics is the primary language of African American students” (Rickford, 1999, p. 5).

5.     Code Switching - Is Standard English Talking White?

The ability to speak English with facility is recognized as a valuable form of cultural capital. Although most Americans speak some form of regional dialect (Ball, Giles, & Hewstone, 1985), AAVE is considered less desirable and less acceptable in educational environments. Knowledge of this has an influence on everyday speech. Labov (1970) said “it is the goal of most Black Americans to acquire full control of the standard language without giving up their own culture” (p. 124). The behavior used to alternate between different dialects is called “code-switching” which is “the use of two or more linguistic varieties in the same conversation or interaction” (Myers-Scotton & Ury, 1977, p. 7). Greene and Walker (2004) stated, “code-switching is not random or meaningless. It has a role, a function, facets and characteristics. It is a linguistic tool and a sign of the participants’ awareness of alternative communicative conventions” (p. 435). African Americans have had a complicated relationship with English.

Although English is the first language of today’s African Americans, students are teased if they choose to use the standard version of the native language. Ogbu and Fordham (1986) give evidence for this in their article, The Burden of Acting White. Black students at Capital High School in Washington, D.C. mentioned that the following behaviors were considered “acting white” and consequently unacceptable: “speaking standard English, spending a lot of time in the library or studying, working hard to get good grades in school, going to a symphony orchestra, being on time, going to a party with no music, and doing volunteer work” (Fordham 1986, p. 178). These actions are considered a betrayal of Black culture, therefore acting “White” (Patton & Townsend, 1997). This rejection of code-switching is the sign of a person trying to maintain “cultural identity” at all costs. African Americans who share the ideas of the students Fordham and Ogbu interviewed regard mainstream social and linguistic behavior negatively. Standard English is included among these behaviors.

Jonsberg (2001) said that speaking AAVE should not create shame or incur immediate correction, but should rather reinforce self-esteem. Teachers and administrators who don’t understand or appreciate AAVE should exercise more empathy. This awareness is articulated by Greene and Walker (2004), who stated that “if instructors demonstrate an understanding and respect for Black English, its history, and its place as a valid means of communication, not as an indicator of the worth of the student, then they may more sensitively assess outcomes rather than means” (p. 438). Code-switching is necessary for survival when speech becomes a premium issue. While many argue that a code-switching individual is bi- dialectical, some argue that several dialects occupy our consciousness. Baker (2002) stated that:

There are at least three forms of the English language that most Americans need to learn in order to lead socially fulfilling and economically viable lives:

1.     1)  ‘home’ English or dialect, which most students learn at home, and recent immigrants often learn from peers,

2.     2)  ‘formal’ or academic English, which is learned by many in school, from reading, and from the media,

3.     3)  ‘professional’ English, the particular language of one’s profession, which is mostly learned in college or on the job (p. 52).

Although Baker and Delpit advocated trilingualism and have observed children using several dialects in a school context, some educators reject code-switching, labeling it as lowering standards (Mati, 2004). The purpose of code-switching in a formal, professional, or neighborhood context, is to be understood and to understand a conversation in context. Code-switching “enables the speaker to maneuver through a variety of publics” (Greene & Walker, 2004, p. 435). According to a Western Kentucky University study, speakers who use Standard English were “viewed as more credible – more competent and having a strong character – and more sociable than Ebonics speakers” (Payne, 2000, p. 367). The study also confirmed that a dialect could become a norm when a larger speech community agrees to the coding. When a speaker’s dialect isn’t accepted as a norm, negative results may occur as a result of discrimination. To have positive results, a user must implement speech accommodation, which is the practice of altering speech to fit the comfort zone and understanding of the audience (Giles, 1984).

AAVE has rules that are consistent, with a rule-governed phonology and semantic, properties (Koch, Gross, & Kolts, 2001; Smitherman-Donaldson, 1988). Value and respect should be given to students who choose to use AAVE in a school context. Jonsberg (2001) said that school employees should model positive behaviors concerning language, and faculty should make their expectations of English use explicit, so that students will understand what is considered mainstream English or AAVE.

The difficulty of accepting AAVE is heightened by the teacher’s obligations. Unlike some other content areas, the mandatory discipline of language arts has a strong identity component. Each student’s way of communicating is personal and cultural; therefore using speech becomes a social and political act.

6.     Educators’ Perceptions of AAVE

Some children enter school with English skills learned in the home. If the language of the family and neighborhood is considered Standard English, the child starts school with a communication advantage. “The language of tests has a great impact on the performance of students. Tests are written in the language of the dominant culture deemed as Standard English. Many culturally diverse students do not speak Standard English at home or at school” (Harmon, 2004, p. 4).

Some students who do not use Standard English are Black students. Although a person’s spoken dialect does not determine his intelligence, Williams (1976) reminds us that students who use AAVE are assumed to be students with challenges. In A Legitimate System of Oral Education, Wofford (1979) noted that:

The consequences of teachers' attitudes toward a dialect are profound. For example, attitudes can affect teachers' initial judgment about how intelligent children are likely to be, or how they are grouped for instruction, how their contributions in class will be treated, and the like. It is important for teachers to adjust their attitude as it affects how children feel about themselves as persons, learners, participants, and contributors (p. 367).

The scope and sequence of traditional public school education takes a child from pre-K through 10th grade (Posner, 2003). Course offerings broken into distinct content areas are known as the structure of the disciplines. An Illinois high school diploma requires four years of language arts, two years of writing-intensive courses, three years of mathematics, two years of science, two years of social studies, and one year of an elective (http://www.isbe.net/news/pdf/grad_require.pdf).

Children are all subject to the same state standards, but those who aren’t willing or able to speak Standard English may be at a disadvantage when tested. This can also lead to a negative perception of African American students. Some educators manifest a generally negative reaction to the “less familiar dialect” in favor of Standard English. Black educators have long recognized the possible socioeconomic disadvantages of speaking a Black dialect in a predominantly White society. “There is empirically based evidence of teacher bias against Black students. [Children] with this pattern are candidates for coded categories such as “slow learner,” “learning disabled,” “intellectually impaired” or “not a strong potential candidate.” Black English speakers are presented with more obstacles to success than speakers of Standard English” (Winsboro, 1990, p. 51-52). Teachers’ perceptions of students may determine the methods used to teach them.

Harris-Wright (1999) said that communication skills could influence academic achievement. Positive perceptions follow students who express concepts in an articulate fashion using Standard English (Cazden, 1988). John McWhorter stated that students speaking other dialects (e.g., Brooklyn, Appalachian, or rural Southern white English) are not taught standard English as a foreign language, even though the latter is extremely similar to Black English (McWhorter, 1997). McWhorter continued by endorsing the language abilities and cognitive prowess of African American students. He criticized those who suggest that AAVE is a determiner of low test scores: “To impose translation exercises on black children implies that they are not as intelligent as white children” (p. 2).

Insensitivity to AAVE is evident. “Many educators either do not know or do not care to know the details of African American Vernacular English, and they have not been able to plan appropriate literacy development strategies for African American vernacular speakers” (Harris-Wright, 1999, p. 54). Some educators believe that AAVE is inferior to so-called Standard English. Because a teacher’s role is to instruct and to correct, subjective judgments may occur in line with the teacher’s frame of reference. Educators’ perceptions of language stem from their frame of reference. Categorizing dialects in a hierarchy posits that Standard English is superior. Often called the language of the middle class (Johnson, 1969), and the way educated people speak (Traugott, 1976), Standard English is perceived to be the most professional way to communicate. In Black Identity, Homeostasis, and Survival Gilman (1993) stated that the word standard is an elitist term.

If Standard English is an elitist concept, then we either do a great disservice to schoolchildren by not teaching Standard English explicitly or by not embracing diverse dialects. Wolfram (1999) stated, “language diversity is one of the most fundamental dimensions of human behavior, yet there are few programs that educate students and the American population about it” (p. 61).

Another of Wolfram’s premises is that we should recognize that dialects are natural (originating from home and neighborhood) and regular (having patterns).

7.     Stereotype Threat

When a person exhibits feelings of inadequacy or a lack of confidence, an inferior behavioral outcome may result. The belief in outcomes that result from an individual’s self-concept is considered stereotype threat or stereotype vulnerability (Steele, 1992). Students who perceive their own dialect as inferior may internalize their speech as inferior. Teachers may compound this inferiority by correcting the student’s speech or defining their dialect as sub-standard. When an individual is reminded that he is from a specific group, he is more likely to concentrate on what is expected of that particular group, instead of the task at hand (Steele, 1992).

Stereotypically, English-language listeners have expectations about how a person will speak according to their skin color, ethnic background, family, and socio economic status (Robbins, 1988). Television viewers will commonly witness this phenomenon. The stereotypes that are immediately identified are phenotypical (facial structure and color) assumptions about Asians, Africans and Hispanics. Perceptions of these characteristics are born from stereotypes. Irwin Katz studied the stereotype threat phenomenon in the 1960s. Contemporary researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson have also examined the topic. In one study, Steele and Aronson (1995) administered a test known as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to White and African American students.

Half of each group was told that their intelligence was being measured, while the other half thought the test was not measuring their intelligence. The White students performed almost equally in both circumstances. African Americans, in contrast, performed far worse when they were told their intelligence was being measured. The researchers concluded that this was because stereotype threat made the students anxious about confirming the stereotype regarding African American IQ. The researchers found that the difference was even more noticeable when race was emphasized.

"When capable black college students fail to perform as well as their White counterparts, the explanation often has less to do with preparation or ability than with the threat of stereotypes about their capacity to succeed” (Steele, 1999, p. 44). Skin color or gender does not determine a person’s aptitude, but stereotype threat can have an effect on how an individual views himself. The effect can rise exponentially when the individual and others have a negative perception. Steele (1999) emphasizes that a person’s self-view can have a significant influence on test score performance, but that self-view is not necessarily a test score determiner. An African American person doesn’t obtain a lower score because of his/her ethnicity. Steele’s studies showed similarities with gender stereotypes, which may support Merton’s theory (1948) of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

A widespread belief perpetuated throughout schools is that boys have stronger innate abilities in mathematics than girls. There is no empirical evidence of this. However, when girls believed gender differences could be revealed by a mathematics test, the boys performed better. If the test was presented as gender neutral, the sexes performed equally well (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999). Steele has created instruments to which result in the same finding with regard to ethnicity and race.

Schools tend to ignore the anti-intellectualism pervasive in the Black community. In The Black-White Test Score Gap, by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips (Jencks & Phillips, 1998), the authors found that on standardized tests Black students performed 25% lower than Whites and Asians, and that this gap appeared before kindergarten and continues into adulthood. There are no studies that prove that Blacks are genetically inferior, contrary to what is advocated by Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994). Rather the results may be caused by stereotype threat. Stereotype threat itself may be a product of the expectations that some African American parents have of their children.

8.     School Leadership and Expectations

Sergiovanni (1998) discussed five types of authority that may be used in a school context. The five types are Bureaucratic, Personal, Technical-Rational, Professional, and Moral (Sergiovanni, 1998). Technical-rational and professional would appear to be the authority types most effective in implementing a program of bringing scholarship and sensibility to understanding the dialects of a diverse student body. A principal implementing technical-rational authority would implement “logic and scientific research” in her school (Sergiovanni, 1998).

Sergiovanni stated that those who use professional authority refer to their “experience and personal expertise” (p. 37). However, moral authority (the heart) would be instrumental in creating and defining the climate. The element of caring for students is the responsibility of the building leader. Principals can participate in creating a climate where teachers are sensitive to students’ cultures. Moral authority obligates the principal to do what is deemed good,…and to influence teachers to share commitments and felt interdependence (Sergiovanni, 1998). Principals’ leadership creates a climate that influences learning outcomes (Schulman, 2002). Caring is a key element in school administration. Gilligan (1982) said that caring individuals have a “moral imperative…a responsibility to discern the real and recognizable trouble of this world” (p. 100).

Beare, Caldwell, and Milliken (1989) stated that outstanding leaders have a vision of their schools – a mental picture of a preferred future – which is shared with the whole community (Beare, 1989). Principal influence may create a school climate that strives for the understanding of dialects: “Leadership is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual or leadership team induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers” (Gardner, 1980, p. 1). With “black-white gaps in reading and math skills among 17 year olds more than one-third larger than 15 years earlier” (Bub, Murnane, Willett, & McCartney, 2005, p. 1), secondary principals must emphasize cognitive skills (formal assessment), while remaining aware of and appreciating dialects. Marks and Printy (2003) have discussed “classroom instruction of both instructional and transformational approaches to leadership on the part of principals” (p. 370). “Instructional approach” refers to direct leadership with a strong curriculum and instruction component. The transformational approach focuses more on a collaborative emphasis in classrooms. In Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy, the instructional approach would focus on teachers stressing knowledge, comprehension, and application. The transformational approach would be more student-centered, with an emphasis on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. A transformational approach in schools may be used to initiate dialect understanding. If we find that AAVE is considered unacceptable within the school’s climate, and if students are being discriminated against due to their dialect, a transformational approach may decrease negative bias towards students who use AAVE.

Choosing and evaluating principals are two of the most important responsibilities of a school board or local school council. Byrk (1998) stated that the single most important responsibility exercised by a local school council was its evaluation of a school principal and the decision to award (or not award) a four-year performance contract. A principal can set the tone of a school’s hidden curriculum, by encouraging high expectations from faculty and students, or by discouraging the faculty through a lack of support. “Reculturing is a contact sport that involves hard, labor-intensive work” (Fullan, 2001, p. 44). Principals have a positive impact on a variety of factors and those factors have an indirect effect on student achievement (Witziers, Bosker & Kruger, 2003). A principal harboring negative perceptions of and expectations for students who use dialect may promote a climate detrimental to teachers and students. This attitude could negatively influence teachers.

Effective servant leadership in a school surfaces when a principal shows a willingness to contribute services, beyond the principal’s job description, to the school. Page and Wong (2000) described “servant leadership” as turning the hierarchical pyramid upside down, with the leader at the base. In The Principal’s Role in School Culture, successful cultures are deemed the key to school achievement and student learning (Deal & Peterson, 1990). Fullan (2002) points out that "…only principals who are equipped to handle a complex, rapidly changing environment can implement the reforms that lead to sustained improvement in student achievement" (p. 16).

If the school’s leader has a negative view of certain subcultures, this could be a sign of low tolerance for certain groups within the school. African American Vernacular English can be part of a school’s culture and climate, and if a school leader lacks understanding of this culture, students can be discriminated against in overt and covert ways. The leader’s role is to ensure that there is “strong and evolving clarity about who and what the organization is” (Wheatley, 2006, p. 131). In a school, compassion for the children it serves must be predominant.

Transformational leadership can be participatory, allowing others within the school to design effective solutions and decisions. Faculty and staff can practice participative management, which “guarantees that decisions will not be arbitrary, secret, or closed to questioning” (DePree, 1993, p. 22). DePree’s prologue stated that “at the core of becoming a leader is the need always to connect to one’s voice and one’s touch…the right actions taken in the context of clear and well considered thinking” (p. 9). A principal must be mindful of creating an ethical and fair environment. Clear, unbiased approaches must be implemented to foster a healthy school climate.

Not unlike the legal or medical professions, school administration has strict guidelines written to ensure schools’ quality, efficacy, and safety. The following is a list of standards created by the American Association of School Administrators. The 11 precepts listed below describe the association’s definition of an educational leader who upholds a code of ethics.

1) Makes the education and well-being of students the fundamental value of all decision making.

2) Fulfills all professional duties with honesty and integrity and always acts in a trustworthy and responsible manner.

3)  Supports the principle of due process and protects the civil and human rights of all individuals.

4)  Implements local, state and national laws.

5)  Advises the school board and implements the board's policies and

administrative rules and regulations.

6)  Pursues appropriate measures to correct those laws, policies, and

regulations that are not consistent with sound educational goals or

that are not in the best interests of the children.

7)  Avoids using his/her position for personal gain through political,

social, religious, economic, or other influence.

8)  Accepts academic degrees or professional certification only from

accredited institutions.

9)  Maintains the standards and seeks to improve the effectiveness of

the profession through research and continuing professional


10) Honors all contracts until fulfillment, release or dissolution mutually agreed upon by

all parties.

11) Accepts responsibility and accountability for their own actions and behaviors


9.     Summary

A primer on Ebonics and a review of the literature on the perceptions and expectations public secondary school principals hold concerning the use of Black Vernacular English by students in an academic setting was presented. The literature showed that many African Americans use a dialect called African American Vernacular English. The dialect’s origins date back to 1619, when Africans arrived on the shores of North America. The literature showed that many African Americans rely on a practice called code switching, or the ability to change dialects depending on the situation. This practice allows a person to switch from dialect to mainstream speech, for the purpose of adapting to the majority community. Adapting to a majority community can act as a form of currency for daily communication survival.

The literature showed that some public school teachers and administrators have lower expectations for African American students. Self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotype threat show that an administrator’s perceptions of dialect may be a factor in school climate and student performance. These theories were discussed in the literature review because they may show how students’ academic success can be influenced by their own perceptions of how others perceive them.

The literature review included discussions of leadership, school climate, and a description of Black culture and how non-Blacks perceive it. The literature review concluded with the American Association of School Administrators’ code of ethics.



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McClendon, G. (2017). An Ebonics History Primer and Teacher Attitudes on Black Dialect. PHILICA.COM Article number 925.

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