Reinventing Our Schools

by Maddie Fennell, Executive Director

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 many 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 yet 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; teachers; colleges of education; administrators; politicians; Betsy DeVos; and on and on.

I always admonished my students “When you point your finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at YOU!” (I know, you’re moving your digits right now to see whether I’m right.)

‘Swamp Thinking’

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. 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 strong education that will prepare them for a changing world.
  • 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 acknowledge that our system resembles a spider web: you can’t pull one thread without impacting the rest of the web.  

In July Secretary DeVos accused education unions of being  “defenders of the status quo” that care only about “school systems” and not about individual children. I would argue that if you care about kids, you must care about the system.  Dysfunctional systems won’t allow our kids to actualize their potential and they demoralize and destroy good educators.

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 toward 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.

Support for You

While this task looks overwhelming, there are folks out there who are already working on solutions. I know that we have educators right here in Nebraska who have great ideas to change education.

NSEA wants to support YOUR innovative idea at the Powered by Teach to Lead Teacher Leadership Summit in Kearney on Saturday, Dec. 2. Start with an idea that might strengthen or improve your classroom, school building, school district or even public education on a statewide basis. Submit your idea to NSEA no later than Sunday, Oct. 22, at this website:

Teachers will score the ideas for their potential impact and 20 teams will be chosen to join us in Kearney.

Your team of up to five stakeholders (at least one of whom must be an active teacher) will spend the day working with a critical friend (someone who can help you dive deeper) to strategically plan your move from idea to action. LEARN – NSEA’s new 501c3 – will cover costs of team travel, food and hotel (for those traveling more than two hours). It will be a day of intense work, guided by national trainers from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, that is focused on DOING and not on “sit and get.”  

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

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