Not settling for ‘good enough’

How often, as a society, do we settle for imperfect solutions?


Bill Carpenter’s teenage son was struggling with heroin addiction.

Racked with worry, Mr. Carpenter did what he hoped was the right thing. More than once, he got his son intensive outpatient treatment and then put him right back into high school. He was throwing the boy right back into the lions’ den, he soon realized – the peer pressures of high school were a major part of the problem. But what else could he do? He couldn’t let his son throw away his education and his future.

It also happened that Carpenter was the mayor of Brockton, Mass., and what he could do was quite a lot. He led the charge to open a local “sober school” – a place where teen drug abusers could continue their education in the supportive environment of teachers trained to help them overcome their addictions and fellow students trying to make the same changes to their lives. There aren’t many sober schools in the United States, and data on them is sparse, but in his cover story on the topic this week, John Tulenko notes that early indicators point to a positive effect.

The bigger lesson, however, goes far beyond the issue of teenagers, addiction, and education. It goes to a mind-set.

How often, as a society, do we settle for imperfect solutions?

In many cases, there are very practical reasons for adopting a more one-size-fits-all approach. Massive efforts such as federal health-care reform usually require some measure of compromise. They are not about each individual problem; they are about setting up a broad framework to address them. Budget realities often intervene, too. And the pendulum can swing the other way, with made-to-order solutions that pander and create a sense of entitlement if not done wisely.

But Brockton is one example of the remarkable things people and communities can accomplish when they refuse to accept “good enough.”

In last week’s issue, Monitor writer Josh Kenworthy told the story of how Lawrence, Mass., began turning around its public schools – some of the worst and most challenged in the state. The takeaway: A new school administrator refused to accept that the city couldn’t do better for its students.

That meant breaking through barriers – a stubborn sense of competition between public schools and private charter schools, of expectations about students and parental involvement. But the city has made impressive strides by single-mindedly putting students first and rooting out any attempts to divert that purpose.

The country itself, in many ways, has been a unique experiment in innovation, from the Constitution to Silicon Valley. One of the most enduring lessons of its prosperity has been the proof that perpetual renewal – constantly rethinking solutions to old problems – is essential to progress. This is not the captive philosophy of any political party, class of people, or even of America itself. It is a universal principle.

The future has always been shaped and improved by those who refused to accept “good enough.” Brockton and Lawrence, Mass., included. 

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