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Steve Jobs on Education: Technology & Teacher’s Unions

March 17, 2007 Education 19 Comments

Steve Jobs, the charismatic co-founder & CEO of Apple, Inc. is considered by many to be pretty liberal, with healthy contributions to democratic candidats. Al “Inconvenient Truth” Gore is on Apple’s board of directors. Jobs, a self-made man, is ranked #132 on Forbes’ recent list of world billionaires with an estimated $5.7 billion to his name, not bad for a college dropout.

Jobs spoke last month at an education reform conference in Austin Tx, from an AP story:

Jobs told the crowd about his vision for textbook-free schools in the future. Textbooks would be replaced with a free, online information source that was constantly updated by experts, much like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

“I think we’d have far more current material available to our students, and we’d be freeing up a tremendous amount of funds that we could buy delivery vehicles with — computers, faster Internet, things like that,” Jobs said. “And I also think we’d get some of the best minds in the country contributing.”

But Jobs is not one of those that thinks technology alone will solve our educational problems, from the same article:

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs lambasted teacher unions today, claiming no amount of technology in the classroom would improve public schools until principals could fire bad teachers.

“What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in they couldn’t get rid of people that they thought weren’t any good? Not really great ones because if you’re really smart you go, ‘I can’t win.

“I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way. This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.

Ouch, not exactly towing the liberal line here huh? As you might expect, Teacher’s unions all over the country have been critical of Jobs’ statement. But does he have a point?

Have unions become so big and so controlling that they themselves are the big bully in need of controlling? Unions originated to protect workers against tactics of managment but who will protect both the workers and management against the union bosses?


Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. john says:

    It is not just the teachers’ union and its bosses out of control but also unions covering government workers, especially police and firemen. These are the BIG problems for the StL area given the number, stength, power, and pervasiveness of such here.

    With too many governmental units (a City, a County made up of over 90 municipalities, plus other surrounding counties), progress whether it concerns zoning, transportation, education, etc. is held hostage to powerful unions. STL has always been known to be this way and that largely explains the exodus of many corporations, jobs, depopulation, and the relative decline in the general economic welfare of this area.

  2. Daniel says:

    Well, I tend to listen to Steve Jobs when he talks – the guy is a visionary. I am open to the argument but I am just not convinced that Teacher’s Unions are the educational obstacles they are often made out to be. I just haven’t seen any studies to back this up.

    For instance, I saw this argued recently some where and it made a good point — nationwide public schools are not all unionized. The most unionized school systems tend to be in the Northeast and the least unionized schools tend to be in the South. Now you can say what you want to about unions preventing schools from moving forward but how does one explain the performance of a heavily unionized school system in say Massachusetts or Connecticut compared to that of the non unionized public schools in Arkansas and Mississippi? And in a broader context, how does this argument fit internationally?

    Could it be that rather than rebuilding Baghdad’s electrical grid we invested more resources, energy and a higher priority in our own schools that they might have a better chance for success?

  3. Jim Zavist says:

    While it’s easy to beat on the unions (which I generally agree with), in the public schools, unions are the least of our problems. When you have an environment where children can’t learn and are not supported at home, failure is highly likely. Blame the lawyers for taking away the ability of teachers and administrators to maintain discipline in the classroom. Blame main-streaming for forcing teachers to focus an inordinate amount of time on students with special needs, at the expense of the much-larger population of “average” children. Blame busing for allocating resources away from the classroom. Blame mandatory testing, where too much time is spent on improving the curve instead of actually educating the whole child. Blame the parents who abdicate child rearing to the TV and computer games. Blame teen-aged single parents, who aren’t much more than children themselves, and don’t have the resources to raise a child. Blame a culture where single motherhood is perfectly “acceptable”. Blame a street culture that education ain’t cool while being a rapper or a drug dealer is. Blame micro-mangement by school boards and parents – let teachers teach the basics, don’t create twenty or thirty or forty “shades of grey” when it comes to curriculum. Blame a culture where a pill can solve every problem. Half our kids don’t suffer from ADD and need Ritalyn, they need to go to the gym or the playground and burn off that energy, not just be sedated. Blame teaching immigrant kids in their native languages – multiple parallel programs sap resources, and the sooner kids learn to speak English (through immersion!) and function the in the mainstream society, the better we all will be. And blame a society where every classroom needs a computer for every kid – that’s a great way for Jobs to sell his products, but it’s a huge hit on the budget. There’s a still a place in the world of education for textbooks and motivated teachers!

  4. Jimmy James says:

    St. Louis would be better off as a right-to-work state: more competetive on a number of levels, including education.

    Unions, from the employees standpoint have a place. Their work to ensure high quality health care and decent benefits, for example, are very useful. But I find that many Unions, through their prefered payscale encrouage workers who strive for less than their best. If how much you get paid is based largerly on how long you work somewhere, then a worker need only put forth the effort needed to maintain a job. This is then only compounded when unions make it virtualy impossible to fire someone. This is not a way to encourage high quality work in any industry, whether it be a grocery store, a factory, or a school. The best, brightest, and highest quality teachers should be freely rewarded for doing well and the worst should be fired letting all employees know that a higher standard of sucess is required.

    But alas, in MO we will never get the right-to-work status needed to make these changes. Tell me again why someone who wants to work, but doesn’t want to join a union shouldn’t have that right?

  5. LisaS says:

    Well, I’ll start with the fact that I’m from Arkansas, where unions are regarded as communist plots as best, even by the working class families (like mine) who would have been helped by them most by having a decent paycheck, good health insurance, and some kind of plan for retirement (impossible to save for while living paycheck to paycheck raising a family). Although I was raised saying, “Thank God for Mississippi”, when I came to Wash U for graduate school I realized that the education I received in the public school system prepared me for life in the real world much better than my East Coast, prep school alum colleagues because I was more resourceful at finding information without expecting someone hand it to me on a plate. One of my great disappointments about living in the Show-Me State is that I’m still saying “Thank God for Mississippi.”

    I think Jim has most of the big factors nailed. I’ll just comment on a few:
    -The biggest problem I see with single parent families is that most lack the means or skills to pursue further education, and are too busy making ends meet to participate very much in their child’s education–or in some cases, even thier life because of the 24/7 demands of most service jobs.
    –Trying to mix students with too many challenges (mainstreaming, different languages, etc.) while still expecting one classroom teacher to manage. 30% of the students at my daughter’s school last year spoke a language other than English (a total of 8 different languages at that) and there was no separate system for those kids. It would be interesting to be able to correlate the number of non-native English speakers in our schools with the MAP performance, which is of course measured only in English.
    –Busing does indeed take money away from the classroom. But given our penchant for living in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods, and the mandate that we have at least some kind of racial balance in our schools, it’s not really an option to discontinue. Add to that the increasing unwillingness of parents to allow thier children a single unsupervised moment (i.e., walk to school) and the fact that all the schools within walking distance in more integrated neighborhoods were closed, sold, and/or turned into magnets … well, I don’t see how we fix this one.
    –There’s no time to burn off energy on the playground or even at home after school. One of the answers to increasing acheivement (on the tests) has been to lengthen the school day and cut recesses. My first grader has less than 45 minutes of recess in a 7-hour school day, and a 40-minute gym class 2 days a week. Many SLPS students leave home before 8 and return after 5. Also, folks, despite common perceptions that Ritalin is some kind of tranquilizer, it’s really a stimulant, a controlled amphetamine, and if the kid isn’t legitimately ADD it makes the problems worse. It’s like giving a normal kid an expresso or a Red Bull. Yes, it would be better to teach these children to manage their lives without chemical support, but frankly that costs more money and takes more time.

    Finally, our culture values money more than knowledge. That is a fact all of us live with every day whether we recognize it our not. We discuss it a lot on here in terms of lowest common denominator, lowest initial cost building design. The street culture is just another reflection of this–drug dealers, basketball players, and rappers make lots of money while those who offer legitimate service to the society mostly do not.

  6. Chris Grant says:

    The Superintendent of Riverview Gardens makes, what, $140,000, plus benefits, and still sees the need to bully his Board of Education for more. And, the problem is teachers’ unions?

    It’s nice to think that, without teacher tenure, administrators would fire bad teachers and hire good ones. Or, do you think they would fire good and bad teachers to make room to hire their friends and family? Because prior to the Teacher Tenure Act, that’s what happened.

    And, my favorite sound bite – “union bosses.” Steve Jobs is right, we’re better off lionizing CEOs who make millions off their workers’ backs.

  7. Jim Zavist says:

    Union members CAN be fired. How easily depends a lot on management, the management that agrees to the terms of any union contract. I don’t hear a lot of whining in the industrial sector about not being able to get rid of “problem” employees. Yes, you have to follow the steps outlined in the greivence process, but no one is guaranteed a job for life. What’s different in the government sector is the incestuous relationship between “management” and labor. Between campaign contributions and “coming up through the ranks”, it should no surprise that many managers are more sensitive to the wants of the workers and their unions than they are to the wants of their “stockholders”, a.k.a. the taxpayers!

  8. Matthew Murphy says:

    i would only point to the fact that there are many high-performance districts in Missouri and nation-wide staffed by unionized teachers. When looking at low-performing/failing urban districts, it is tempting to point to one or two factors when searching for a cause, but the reasons are far more complex.

    Parkway and Rockwood, for example, are top-rated school district, both of which have teachers represented by the NEA. I doubt their locals are any less protective of their members than the AFT, which represents the SLPS teachers.

    There are so many other factors that can supersede an individual teacher’s ability that merely pinning the blame on an inability to fire teachers whose students don’t perform well is an exercise in futility.

    Structural issue within schools, faulty administration, lack of basic supplies, environmental factors, kids home life and what they face to and from school all play enormous roles in the effectiveness of education.

    Many factors have to work together properly for modern education to function well. There are no individual factors you can single out as the key point.

    The union issue is a canard. There aren’t any “bad” teachers outside of the SLPS?

    Some of the SLPS students who transfer to high-performing schools outside the district do somewhat better than their colleague in the city, but they still underperform their classmates. They are given equal resources; the “best” teachers, the “most stable” administration and school boards, and certainly benefit from some of the greatest financing. So why are they not matching their peers?

  9. bev says:

    Somewhere, somehow, someone needs to close an italics tag. Then these old, future-teacher eyes might be able to read it better. Ahem.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Thanks for the heads up, I’ve fixed the problem.]

  10. Jim Zavist says:

    Now here’s a concept – treat school boards like boards of directors and superintendents like CEO’s. Instead of awarding bonuses to “good” teachers, award big bonuses to the top managers. That way the unions maintain their control of the rank-and-file, while management really gets motivated to deal with all of the non- and under-performance issues, instead of sniping at each other! Imagine what a “Get a $10,000 bonus for every percentage increase in test scores!” for each board member would do for the SLPS system . . .

  11. Andrew says:

    I’ve always said that education is the one area where normal proponents of personal responsibility are happy to pawn it off onto someone else.

    A student does not sit in a chair as an empty vessel and let a teacher pour information into his empty head after which he is then educated.

    Education is a two-way street. While difficulty in firing poor teachers may be a problem, a bigger problem, imo, is the inability to cut loose dead weight students who are disruptive and just don’t care to be in school.

    What is the share of our nation’s student’s responsibility for their own educations?

  12. Jim Zavist says:

    But isn’t everbody’s kid “special” and “above average”?!

  13. john says:

    So obvious and so true, liberals can’t be honest about unions. Since most of their political power is union based, being honest means being critical, demanding more, but also potential alienation. Union membership has been declining for decades, for good reasons, and now is a fraction of what it once was.

    The only areas that union strength is growing and expanding is in government. Do we really want our governmental units to be less accountable and more resistant to change? Liberals lacking in common sense and honesty are their own worse enemies.

  14. Seth says:

    My mother is a union teacher and my father is the director of a charter school for the arts ( http://www.ts4arts.org/ ), so I have been a party to this union discussion many times. My dad’s charter school has left the local public district (Toledo, Ohio) in the dust in terms of test scores and almost any other measure of achievement. While part of this success may stem from his ability to fire teachers, I think a much more important component is the cooperative relationship between the teachers and the school administrators. The teachers are not unionized (they still have to meet certification standards), but are involved in every aspect of the school’s decision making process, including hiring. In this model, the teachers and administrators can focus on doing right by their students without the trouble of the inherently adversarial worker/management relationship. Think more Whole Foods and less GM.

    On behalf of the younger among us, I wanted to briefly say that rap music and youth culture are not issues worth discussing as real problems. Baby boomers were flooded with messages encouraging drug use, dropping out of school, and having a lot of casual sex. Miraculously, most of them turned into functional adult members of society. There is also a racial component to this discussion that is impossible to ignore. If Susie Ladue is going to her seventh year of art school in London, she is a “creative type”, “finding herself”, but if Joey Northside is eeking out a rap career, he is somehow doing himself and his community a disservice? It doesn’t seem fair. If a disproportionate percentage of inner city kids dream about athletic or entertainment glory, it is only because the reality presented to them is so bleak. If kids are given legitimate alternatives that seem within reach, the culture will change itself.

  15. Craig says:

    I think that most of us can agree that teaching is not attracting enough of the best and brightest. There are many reasons for that. One reason is pay.

    Unions insist that teachers are paid by seniority — not by their ability to teach or by the performance of their students.

    This compensation structure won’t be found in any of this country’s successful industries. Whether you are talking about the software industry, medicine, finance, or law, people are largely paid based on merit.

  16. Teachers are bureaucrats therefore one is going to have conservers, who do the bare minimum, instead of going beyond the requirements. One can also have teachers who do not do the minimum requirement, thus should be fired. Really though, this is a problem in the entire public sector, not simply education. Raise the standards then judge bureaucrats to the higher standards, although this requires a political will.

  17. Jim Zavist says:

    Pursuing a career in “art”, be it rap, drama, ceramics or tagging, or in athletics, is betting on a dream, on being successful in a field where many try but few are truly “stars”. This may be one reason students today are both frustrated and unsuccessful – we need to educate most students to function well in the boring world of 9-5 jobs, where they CAN succeed. Educating is more than pandering to whatever a kid finds interesting. Many times it means teaching and learning boring stuff like multiplication tables, conjugating a sentence, trigonometry, physics or chemistry. So, no, I don’t think this is a racist discussion. There are just as many african americans who are fed up with their kids being shipped out of their neighborhoods as there are whites who vote with their feet and move their kids outside the city. SLPS, for better or worse, and likely worse, is tainted with (a perception of) racism in every decision they make. Is it all fair? Probably not. But the real question is why so many students do so poorly in the city system, whether they’re black white or brown?

  18. Seth says:

    Believe me, I am NOT endorsing the idea that so many kids should focus on “making it big” in music, athletics, etc. I am simply saying that a kid who grows up in a neighborhood devoid of doctors, scientists, lawyers, and business leaders is very likely to look elsewhere for a role model and that this is not a new phenomenon. Are the kids looking up to Nelly and Albert Pujols any different from those who tried to emulate Chuck Berry or Bob Gibson in the past? In other words: the rappers aren’t the problem, but rather the lack of other role models. I agree that the basics of education are of the utmost importance and are too often neglected. On the other hand, I think that given the level of competition in the global economy, the basics alone aren’t enough. People need to be critical, creative thinkers IN ADDITION to having mastered the basics. Most people will never make a living as an artist or basketball player, but these things can help a student become more engaged with his/her education and are not simply some kind of silly distraction.

    Also, I didn’t mean to accuse anyone of racism, I just think that sometimes our society expects a poor person to be busy pulling up his boot straps all day while indulging every flight of fancy of a wealthy person. Just the way of the world I suppose.

  19. Mr. Bean Counter says:

    If you want to have a real discussion about what Steve Jobs credentials are as a manager/employer lets look at what some articles about apples corporate culture is.




    Some highlights

    – a significant number of other employees complained about a lack of bonuses, raises, and stock options. Said one Apple product manager, “$59k a year with a 60 hour work week minimum. No bonuses. No stock options. No cell phone expense. Not what I would consider industry standard.”

    -Another employee said “When I started it felt like Apple knew my name and what I did,” the employee wrote, “but now am nothing more than employee XXX.”

    Does any one remember that apple was almost bankrupt in the mid 90s..? “The irony, Mace said, is that the company was full of brilliant people. “It’s not like they were losers,” he said. “But all together, as a group, they really had trouble getting stuff done. It’s interesting that so many bright people got together and failed to succeed.”

    Ultimately, lets not forget that under Jobs management Apple still has less than 5% market share of the personal computer world and 64% of the MP3 player world. Jobs runs a business suited to a niche market. Education of our children has to work for all children! I don’t think Jobs has the qualifications to tell America how to run its schools.

    P.S. Has any one tried to replace the battery of an I-pod? Who builds a portable electronic device without the ability to change out the battery… Steve Jobs.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Yes, Apple was nearly bankrupt in the mid 90s — when Steve Jobs was not there.  Since his return the stock price has gone through the roof as have revenues and profits.  Ditto for Pixar which he sold to Disney.  Under Jobs’ leadership many people have gotten together to create some brilliant products, such as the iPod. 

    So your point is we cannot learn from a niche business?  Yes, Chevy cannot learn how to build a better car by looking at BMW?  Sorry, not buying it.] 


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