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