Guest Column

If It Ain’t Broke, Should We Fix It?

by GARY A. BURTON

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that as a superintendent, people like to give me advice. I always try to listen attentively because the advice offered is usually free and well intended.

Of late, however, more and more of the advice I hear is proving to be unusable. Worse, it often conflicts with advice already given to me by some other well-meaning person. Believe me, it’s becoming a problem to know which advice is best and which I should follow!

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s good New England advice that certainly has stood the test of time. Or has it? Recently, a prominent educator made the point that if you wait for something to break, in this case our public schools, then it’s already too late to fix them. His point is that the time to improve the public schools is before they stop working well and everybody starts complaining about them.

Some adults believe our nation’s schools already are broken and thus must be repaired. They cite as proof young people who can’t read, high school graduates who can’t fill out a simple job application and store clerks who can’t make proper change. The advice they offer is straightforward: We need schools like they used to be--schools that teach the three “R’s” and discipline!

Yet I wonder if something broke once and all you do is put it back the way it was, won’t it inevitably break again?

Mid-Course Correction
While people may accept the old furnace in the basement breaking down once in a while, experience has taught me they’re not nearly so accepting or understanding when it comes to the school’s academic programs. Imagine how parents might react if school officials announced one day in the middle of the winter that the math curriculum was broken (as a result of low test scores), and so the school would be closed for two weeks until the teachers could get that program fixed? A mechanical failure is one thing, but math instruction is something else.

All this leaves me to wonder: Are our public schools really broken? Should we leave them as they are or should we change them before they break? If you’re inclined to fix things as a preventive measure, how do you know when it’s time to change something?

Typically, classroom teachers, with the approval of their building administrators, modify a school’s curriculum a little each year. Such changes occur because teachers are constantly upgrading their programs by attending professional development workshops, reading educational research and analyzing what works and doesn’t work with the students in their particular classrooms. As a result, curriculum changes are occurring in all subjects all the time, and thus the curriculum never breaks down.

More specifically, teachers, by grade level or subject matter, may decide the way they teach a topic needs to be changed to promote better learning opportunities for their students. Changing the time of the day or the manner in which a certain subject is taught often will promote increased learning in that subject. New textbooks replace outdated ones and capitalize on new knowledge and newer teaching methods.

How we manage the students to help them learn is always changing. Time was, not long ago, when teachers thought that keeping students who misbehaved after school to write something 100 times on the blackboard would cure them of their bad habits. It didn’t, and we now know better. Dunce caps, knuckle raps and standing in the corner all have been removed from our classrooms for just that reason.

Changing Times
For many years, our treatment of children with special needs wasn’t sophisticated or successful. Only recently have instructors begun to understand the complexities of personal behavior, learning styles and brain research to help them deal with students with identifiable learning disabilities. Again we changed what, why and even how we did things for students with special needs and overall our schools improved.

Public schools today are not like they used to be. People who haven’t been in a school building during the day might not even recognize the schoolhouse of 2003. That’s good because every year our schools change a little bit, and every year they get a little bit better.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may be good advice for old lawn mowers and long marriages, but when it comes to the public schools, change and continuous improvement is always on the minds of educators.

Gary Burton is superintendent of Wayland Public Schools, P.O. Box 408, Wayland, MA 01778. E-mail: gary_burton@wayland.k12.ma.us