Recently, I asked my friend, a physicist who likes fixing things, if he thought he might be able to repair my washing machine.  He embraced the challenge and began taking it apart to see what was wrong. Methodically, he disassembled each layer: control panel, back, wiring, motor. I confess was a little concerned as I hardly recognized my machine and was not confident that all the pieces could be put back exactly as they were again. My friend discovered that a little plastic piece supporting the drum was broken.  He found a company who sold the piece online for ten dollars, we picked it up the next day, and he proceeded to put it all back together. Now it works fine.

Watching this process was a revelation to me. I realized that many times when I had called repairmen for my appliances, they had not really fixed what was broken.  None had ever considered taking the machine apart; they had simply replaced parts to see if that would fix the problem. Most didn’t seem to care what the problem was; they were just there to make the machine work again.  One of them, failing to find a quick fix, said, “You need a new washing machine.”

There is a modern tendency to replace rather than to fix; in fact, it seems in many contexts we would do almost anything rather than take the time and trouble to find the specific problem and fix only that.

We see similar tendencies in education. I returned to graduate school to get a literacy degree because, as a Language Arts teacher, I wanted to understand better why certain students were not reading well and what I could do about it as a classroom teacher.  Many of my classes offered blanket solutions—ways to motivate students better, ways to support all readers, designing interesting vocabulary lessons—and these were useful suggestions for a classroom teacher.  One class, however, taught us how to diagnose individual reading problems—to find the specific problem– and provided ideas for designing lessons to address the specific needs.

When I graduated, I was so fascinated by the success I had with my practicum student for the reading diagnosis class that I decided to tutor more individual students.  I have since diagnosed and tutored several students, all with excellent results as judged by grades, teacher comments, parent observations, and performance on End-of-Grade assessments (EOGs).  One student in the fourth grade was failing her EOGs when she came to me for diagnosis and tutoring.  In three months she made the highest possible scores on her benchmarks. Another improved her reading grade level by 2 years in 10 sessions. Another learned to apply his ingenuity with Legos to the writing process to produce better writing.

I didn’t know how to account for such positive results. In part I was sure it was the one-on-one attention and the support of the parents in reinforcing my practice suggestions. When I watched the physicist fixing my washing machine, the answer became clearer:  I was targeting what was found to be broken, not just treating all the reading skills, hoping to cover (accidentally) what was needed.  I was able to stay focused on one particular problem and the best way to solve it. Teachers rarely have the time or training for such individual focus and intervention, but using school-wide resources, we could do a much better job of it.

We often make the mistake of not finding and fixing what is truly broken in education. We change the way we grade, for example, when that isn’t the problem: it is how poorly students are performing that is the problem.  Changing the way we grade only masks that.  Covering up the problem makes it harder to discover what is actually broken.

Even when we diagnose the problem, we don’t always fix just that; we don’t consider whether we are breaking other, perhaps more important, pieces in the process–pieces that might best be used to solve the problem. I tutored one child who was a genius according to IQ tests.  He had difficulty with writing, so he was placed in a collaborative Language Arts class.  Scheduling convenience meant he would be in a collaborative Math class as well, even though that was an area of strength for this child. This student now had little hope of intellectual stimulation in his area of strength, yet using a child’s strengths is the best way to overcome weaknesses. Why aren’t we fixing only what is broken and keeping what is working intact—or using it to our advantage? Shouldn’t this be what our new  “data driven” effort is all about?

So what might we do to remedy the situation? A few suggestions come to mind:

(1) Diagnose. We should not assume we know what the problem is before we diagnose for each individual’s problems. School-wide reform movements sometimes make this error, creating new problems in the process of solving old ones.

(2) Discuss.  Talk to all those involved, especially those closest to the issue. Why would district officials, for example, purchase a program for the whole district without discussing with building administrators and teachers whether the program would fulfill their specific needs?  This happens frequently in some districts.

(3) Discipline. Train ourselves to avoid distractions in the decisions we make. It is easy to be distracted by what is best for pocketbook, career, or the efficient schedule.

(4) Dream. If the program we need costs $50,000.00, we should not assume we can’t raise that much money. Fight for the ideal. It is why we all went into this business in the first place.

I have been fortunate to witness a model of these principles in my friend.  He came to my assistance again just this past week when the metal strip on my pull-down attic stairs bent over 90 degrees as I was trying to pull the steps down.  I was looking forward to the new set of stairs I knew he would be able to install for me, but instead, he straightened and reinforced the metal strip and re-bolted the surrounding planks that had not been properly affixed the last time I had the steps replaced.  It took a few hours, but there was no waste, and the total cost was just a few dollars.

So the solution is not always a $50.000.00 program.  Maybe we just need to be inspired by people like my friend to take the time to do the work of fixing only what is broken and leaving the rest alone.