A few years ago, I learned for the first time about the concept of a “bucket list.” Supposedly, it pertains to a list of things that each of us keeps in our head to refer to things that we would like to do or accomplish during our lifetimes. The contents of each bucket list will obviously depend a lot on the quirks of each individual, but they are also tremendously influenced by the time, place and socio-economic status in which we reside. For the people I grew up with, I would expect their bucket lists to be filled with exotic overseas trips, thrill seeking activities, tickets to see rock legends perform or athletes compete at the highest levels, or other recreational highs. We are a consumerist society, and we love to go to exciting places and do “cool” things. Anyone these days who dies without having experienced those highs is viewed to have not really lived.
I have to say, though, that I’m kind of old school. Back in the day, not everyone had the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal, sky dive, or see an entertainer who was known all over the world. They had different kinds of bucket lists, reflecting the opportunities that were available centuries in the past. And I have some of those same items in mine.
I’ve been thinking about bucket lists lately because I’m within months of getting a theology book out on the market, and that’s been on my bucket list since I first started writing about God in my early 20s. But in the past week or so, I’ve been reminded of another item on my bucket list that seems destined never to leave the bucket. That involves doing something meaningful to improve our system of education. The educational field thoroughly obsessed me during my first several years as a practicing attorney. In our final year in law school, we were required to write a lengthy publishable-quality paper, and I chose to write about the intersection of religion and education. Once I began that writing project, I was hooked. And in 1989, five years after I began my career as an attorney, I left the legal field for two full years to pursue my dream as an educational reformer. I got a Master’s Degree in Teaching, taught my own public school classroom for a marking period, worked at an educational policy research firm, and co-authored a textbook chapter on the philosophy of education. I found the field to be absolutely fascinating. The only problem was that I never had the impression that I could get much accomplished as an educational reformer. My choice, I felt, was between being a classroom teacher (which I seriously considered as a career) and being a professional tilter-at-windmills. Sadly, I opted to go back to my old law job in 1991 and have been practicing law ever since. So much for bucket lists.
Bucket lists aren’t the only thing I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve also been thinking about education policy – and, especially, why we seem to be fighting the same fights we were fighting back in the ‘80s. I still hear teachers complain that they have little autonomy and that tests dominate and destroy the educational process. I still hear from outside observers that the graduates of teacher education programs are some of the weakest students at universities – kind of reinforcing the old saw that “those who can’t do, teach.” I still hear that educational success is 99% correlated with parental income. And what’s perhaps most galling, I even hear justifications for why teachers are among the poorest paid professionals in the workplace, if indeed we even think of them as practitioners of a “profession.”
Recently, Susana Martinez, New Mexico’s Governor and one of the most promising leaders of the Republican Party, actually suggested that teachers may be overpaid. According to a Mother Jones article, Martinez was captured privately making a remark that I find to be surreal: “During the campaign, we can’t say it, I guess, because it’s education, but I really keep going back to that . . . keeping the teachers from feeling the pain when they already don’t work, you know, two and a half months out of the year or three months out of the year but earn salaries at the same rate of people who do work 12 months a year.”
Theoretically, in a nation of 50 states, over 3000 counties, and countless elementary and secondary school classrooms, our educational system should be a laboratory of experimentation. We would have studied over the course of generations which educational techniques work better than others, how much autonomy teachers need to inspire the love of learning among students, and whether teachers should be paid more like attorneys or toll booth operators. You’d think by now that the federal government would sniff out the success stories and spread the word about them, without trying to replace the culture of experimentation with a top-down model. You’d think that our system of education would be a reformer’s dream – a place that is as dynamic as the proverbial river of Heraclitus, which was never the same from one moment to the next.
Unfortunately, for various reasons, there is no inertia quite like educational inertia. Bad teachers stick around like glue, central administrators can’t resist the temptation to throw their weight around, and state and federal politicians fall in love with standardized tests, red tape, and the cut of their own jib. What happens to the truly gifted educators? They realize that they will get neither the autonomy they need to inspire nor the pay they need to live, so they bolt hither and yon to greener and more respected pastures.
As for the would-be educational reformers who want to see those gifted teachers succeed, where do they go? Apparently, they go back to their old law offices. But not without a tear in their eyes, and a bucket list that remains stocked with one item too many.