We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now…This is a time for vigorous and positive action.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Reflecting on our nation’s now 35-year-old tradition of celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, it must have been nearly impossible during Dr. King’s time to dream of a day when a woman of color would be elected Vice President of the United States. And yet, it feels poetic to have witnessed just that two days after we honored Dr. King’s immeasurable and enduring impact. I also imagine that, while he would be jubilant about this historic milestone, he would declare in the same breath: there’s more work to be done to reach “the mountaintop.”
The pandemic-driven lockdown and social isolation coupled with the political events of these past few months have revealed the true fragility of our country’s social and economic foundations—foundations established long before the times we live in today.
Even if we narrow our focus to education in the 21st-century, I would assert that we’re still recovering from the impacts of the failed No Child Left Behind legislation, passed by Congress in late 2001 and signed into law by President Bush in January 2002.
From the moment it was implemented, the program was ironically falling behind itself—quickly losing momentum as a compelling narrative for transformation, even as it morphed, over the next dozen years, into the Every Student Succeeds Act. The problem from the start was that our leaders never truly defined what student success looks like beyond surface level improvements in reading and math test scores.
Inequities are now baked into our system more than ever before. And, good intentions mask the persistent denial of opportunity.
Co-Executive Director, Big Picture Learning
As we mark the 20th anniversary of this infamous legislation, let us all be reminded that “being behind” has never been the problem. The problem has been allowing millions of learners to be unknown.
When No Child Left Behind was first announced, the Big Picture Learning team knew it violated basic understandings about learning and learners, and about equity and social justice. To those of us deeply committed to true learner-centered practice, we could see what was coming. The lack of results from these flawed designs were destined to be interpreted as flawed execution, rather than seeing any issue with the design itself. This repeatedly led to the assumption that a tweak here and a tweak there would surely correct things.
No Child Left Behind—which superficially defined segments of young people as “behind”—devised group-level programs that deliberately ignored the individuality of these students.
The result? Inequities are now baked into our system more than ever before. And, good intentions mask the persistent denial of opportunity.
No Child Left Behind was, at best, a failure of imagination and courage. At worst, it was yet another attempt to deny any real opportunity to young people, and particularly those most deprived of it. The legislation, and the programs and practices it engendered, did nothing to change the fundamental culture, systems, and structures that define public education. And, it did nothing to cultivate the relationships that are required for deep, sustained, and powerful student learning.
As we face times of challenge and controversy, it’s not enough to ask decision makers to search their hearts. We need them to also search their policies.
Co-Executive Director, Big Picture Learning
I expect there will be new “landmark” education legislation to guide our way forward. Those responsible for crafting that legislation—including presumed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona—must learn from the failed policies of the past and present, and be guided by the mantra that has motivated and guided teachers and administrators in Big Picture Learning Schools for the last 25 years: one student at a time in a community of learners.
As we face times of challenge and controversy, it’s not enough to ask decision makers to search their hearts. We need them to also search their policies. We need bold new policies, programs, and practices that celebrate and respond to each learner as an individual. No group labels or group programs are necessary—just a laser-like focus on each learner’s interests, needs, and talents.
In such a system, let no child be left unknown or their uniqueness undistinguished.
Knowing young people as unique individuals requires that we give them our attention and that we listen deeply. With that knowledge, we can help them exercise their intrinsic—not mandated—right to choose their own learning pathways based on their own interests.
Dr. King’s call for the “fierce urgency of now” reminds us that the time to wait for a better future of education to be realized has passed. Now is the time for leaders positioned to enable transformation to step up their game. Or, find themselves left behind by the growing momentum in communities across the country to empower learners, expand opportunity, and unleash more young women of color to dream big.