In December 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA,) a re-vamp of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act of 2002. Both of these acts are continuations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. That original law was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Fifty years later, we have come closer to the ideals laid out in Johnson’s visionary plan, yet we still have huge disparity in school success among races and socioeconomic groups. Fifty years later, we have not solved the problem of urban school failure or child hunger. Fifty years later, poor children are more likely to be obese, sick, and failing in school. How, after billions of dollars have gone into federally-funded, nationally-awarded educational programs, do we still see these gaps in achievement? Why have we not won the war?
While the intentions of The War on Poverty were and are noble, I have always disliked this metaphor. The imagery of a “war” denotes a series of battles with a beginning and an end, strategies that result in a victor and the vanquished. Personifying an intangible and calling it a bad guy does not automatically make it “killable.” That is a childish response to an awesome challenge. To claim that one can wipe out ignorance, want, prejudice, or any evil with a new bureaucracy is nothing but hype.
The circumstances that lead human beings to their lowest points are ever-present, in every society. To resist them, to reduce their prevalence, involves patient commitment to a discipline of examination, education, and outreach. As educators, we must be contemplative practitioners. In the journey toward a society free of want, we must be willing to be pilgrims. We don’t need superheroes and saber-rattling in the ranks of educators. We need gurus. We need educators who are willing to sit under that dang tree, climb that blasted mountain, walk the path to that holy place that is the student’s heart and find a way IN. But before we start that journey, we need to understand where we are going, and how others got there before us.
And so, like mystics on a path of discovery, we turn back on the paths we have tread before. We open our minds to new ideas: tablet-based learning, open-educational resources (OER,) flipped classrooms, and re-examine old ones: portfolio assessment, project-based learning, cooperative learning. Rather than marching to yet another war, I hope that America’s educators join together in a shared pilgrimage toward guiding our children toward a future full of possibility.