Language Magazine
January 22, 2005
Daniel Ward interviews the renowned champion of bilingual education, James Crawford

Language: What are your main objectives during your tenure as
NABE’s (National Association for Bilingual Education) Executive Director?
Crawford: I accepted this job because I believe NABE is an organization with enormous potential to offer leadership. First, as an advocate for educational excellence and equity for English language learners, a group of students whose needs are often misunderstood and, as a result, neglected in American schools. Second, as a professional organization that can provide far greater assistance to bilingual and ESL educators over the coming years.
To realize this potential, there are several things we must do. My first priority thus far — six months into the job — has been to strengthen NABE as an organization, revitalizing the infrastructure for serving our members and the children they teach. In concrete terms, that has meant hiring several new staff members, upgrading the NABE web site and office technology, launching new online publications, expanding our membership, and dealing with some rather serious financial problems. Recently we revamped the system by which NABE elects officers to make it more democratic and representative. We are also exploring ways to work more closely with our state affiliates. And, of course, a great deal of effort has gone into preparations for NABE 2005, our annual conference, to ensure that it addresses the key concerns of the field.
Longer term, I believe NABE must return to its activist roots in advocating for policies that truly serve English language learners. While continuing to pursue legislative work on Capitol Hill, we will be placing a higher priority on grassroots approaches that will involve our stakeholders more directly. By that, I mean engaging our members in developing strategies — for example, in responding to the No Child Left Behind Act — and mobilizing the parents of English language learners in the policy struggles to come. I also mean expanding our conception of advocacy to include campaigns to educate the public about the benefits of bilingual education.

Language: Despite a growing body of evidence in support of bilingual
education, the public perception of it remains generally negative.
How do you think that perception can be changed?
Crawford: That negative perception is due in part to the animosity that flares up periodically against immigrants and the programs designed to address their needs. The English Only movement is a good example. But a more important factor, I believe, is the widespread misunderstanding of bilingual education: what it is, how it works, and why it’s effective. By and large, most members of the American public have never heard a coherent rationalefor this program.
To some extent, we can blame the news media for this state of affairs. During the 20 years I’ve been associated with the field — starting out as a journalist, by the way — I’ve seen press coverage of bilingual education become increasingly negative, careless, and unfair.
But we must also blame ourselves. In the past, NABE has rarely made a priority of shaping public opinion. We now intend to change that. We are planning ways to get our message out more effectively by improving our outreach to news media, highlighting the field’s many success stories, publishing materials addressed to a broader audiences, and engaging actively in education policy debates.
The repeal of the Bilingual Education Act was a serious blow to the field, and to children, in numerous ways. But on the brighter side, the No Child Left Behind Act has brought English language learners onto a larger stage — a more visible platform from which to reach the public. I believe that this legislative context, combined with the rapid growth of Latinos and other language-minority enrollments throughout the country, will make our voice much more likely to be heard and taken seriously.

Language: Now that the No Child Left Behind Act is set to be extended, how do you suggest educators safeguard the rights of language- minority students?
Crawford: Of course, the law will be reauthorized when it expires in 2007. Remember, it’s simply the latest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. But we expect that No Child Left Behind will not be extended without significant changes. And NABE plans to work actively to ensure that numerous unworkable provisions — especially as they affect English language learners — will be repealed or amended.
Right now, it may appear that the bipartisan consensus that brought us No Child Left Behind remains intact. We believe, however, that this consensus is becoming very fragile. Politicians in Washington are beginning to recognize that those who must live with this law on a daily basis — practitioners, school boards, governors, and state legislatures - are up in arms about its impact. How can a system of accountability work to improve education by labeling, and potentially sanctioning, such a high percentage of public schools as “failing.” In short, the test-and-punish philosophy guiding this law is on a collision course with reality.
No Child Left Behind is especially ill-suited to the needs of English language learners because it relies on assessments that are, for the most part, neither valid nor reliable. Yet it uses these assessments for high-stakes purposes. It also mandates full proficiency for a group of students who are — by definition — limited in English proficiency. As “adequate yearly progress” targets get tougher each year, virtually all programs serving these kids will soon find themselves labeled, sanctioned, perhaps even dismantled.
Don’t get me wrong. We favor a strong and authentic system of accountability to ensure that English language learners are getting an equal opportunity to succeed. This is among the chief goals that NABE has been fighting for throughout its 29-year history. But No Child Left Behind is not that accountability system.
That recognition is growing among the full spectrum of education and civil rights organizations, many of whom initially believed the legislation was well intended and who supported the bill three years ago when it first passed. NABE has joined together with a group of more than 35 such groups in calling for fundamental changes in No Child Left Behind.
As currently written, this law is a blunt instrument that is incapable of distinguishing between programs that are neglecting our kids, those that are making improvements, and those that are already providing an excellent education. NABE intends to make sure that this “reform” is itself reformed in the coming Congress. With strong support from our members, and from allies in the education community, I believe we have an excellent chance to succeed.
We favor a strong and authentic system of accountability to ensure that English language learners are getting an equal opportunity to succeed. James Crawford