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Instead of Casting Blame, Let’s Start Reinventing Our Education System

By Guest Blogger — August 28, 2017 4 min read
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This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we’ve got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Rounding us out this week is Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association.

In 2006, I read a Time Magazine article that described how Rip Van Winkle could have fallen asleep 100 years ago, woken today, and been stymied by huge changes in our society—while schools and classrooms would still look the same.

Kids have changed, technology has transformed our society, our economy is global, and yet, in most schools, you will still see rows of desks with students learning in pretty traditional modes. Most schools have computers (or at least teacher access to a computer) but haven’t learned how to fully utilize these as tools of instruction.

Rather than rolling up our sleeves and collaborating for change, factions take to finger pointing. Blame the teachers’ union; cell phones; Common Core; charter schools; teachers; schools of education; administrators; politicians; Betsy DeVos; and on and on.

I taught for 27 years and I always admonished my students, “When you point your finger at someone else, you have 3 fingers pointing back at YOU!” (I know, you’re moving your digits right now to see if I’m right.)

Blaming isn’t going to get us there. I recently had the opportunity to learn from Ann Overton of Mastery Foundation and Allan Cohen of Strategy Consulting, and they would call that “Swamp Thinking.” It’s that dangerous place where we kind of wallow in complaining, accusing and lamenting how bad things are.

It’s time for those talking about education to move out of the swamp and onto dry ground (where we can begin to agree on facts). I would offer the following as items that I think we can agree on:


  • Our education system has not kept pace with other changes in our society
  • Our students need, and deserve, a better education than we are currently providing
  • Americans have the intellectual capacity to develop a better education system
  • If our education system fails, so will our economy

Notice that I started with the system. We can’t keep blaming individual elements and not acknowledging that our system is like a spider web—you can’t pull one thread without impacting the rest.

In July, Secretary DeVos accused the unions of being “defenders of the status quo” who care only about “school systems” and not about individual children. If you care about kids, you must care about the system. Dysfunctional systems won’t allow our kids to actualize their potential.

Here’s kind of a tough analogy: a woman is walking along a stream and sees a baby struggling in the water. She runs in, saves the child and then sees more kids floating towards her. Heroically, she continues to save as many children as she can. In the back of her mind she’s wondering, “How is this happening? How are these kids getting in the water?” but she is so consumed saving those right in front of her that she doesn’t have time to find the source.

I want to posit that in the case of education, the source of our problems is the system itself. The intertangled web of stakeholders, resources, student needs, and our changing world must be addressed cohesively, not piecemeal.

While this task looks overwhelming, there are folks out there who are already working on a solution. Education Reimagined is the brainchild of the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution. Several years ago, they convened a group of educational practitioners, scholars, business people, parents, and advocates with an extraordinarily diverse set of backgrounds, positions, and perspectives. These folks left the swamp to envision an education system that would contain five elements in their learning design:

Competency-Based learning, where each learner works toward competency and strives for mastery in defined domains of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized learning is an approach that uses such factors as the learner's own passions, strengths, needs, family, culture, and community as fuel for the development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Learning that is characterized by Learner Agency recognizes learners as active participants in their own learning and engages them in the design of their experiences and the realization of their learning outcomes in ways appropriate for their developmental level. Socially Embedded learning is rooted in meaningful relationships with family, peers, qualified adults, and community members and is grounded in community and social interaction. Open-Walled learning acknowledges that learning happens at many times and in many places and intentionally leverages its expansive nature in the learner's development of competencies.

Education Reimagined is now gathering education pioneers who are already on the journey of system transformation, mapping their work, and providing opportunities for them to collaborate with each other while sharing their learning with others. True to their vision, they have put learners at the center at Spark House, providing a forum for students to share their unique, learner-centered experiences.

Over the past three years, Teach to Lead has helped drive a national conversation on teacher leadership and helped teachers turn their leadership ideas into action. Over 1000 education innovation ideas have been supported by Teach to Lead and its spin-off, Powered by Teach to Lead (“Powered by” events are local summits that are supported but not run by Teach to Lead).

On September 8th, XQ Super School will present a live TV event at 8:00 pm ET (7:00 pm Central) simultaneously on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. Their focus is to ignite a conversation that will turn the American spirit of ingenuity towards high schools.

Changing our education system is a Herculean task, but public education is the bedrock of our democracy. Will we wallow in the swamp or find dry ground and reinvent?

“If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you will find an excuse.”

—Maddie Fennell

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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