Steve Jobs on Education

Everyone is talking about Steve Jobs this morning.  The acknowledgement of how he improved the human condition while also making billions in profits for himself and others almost makes the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award unnecessary this year.  Steve Jobs embodied the entrepreneur as humanitarian — not because he gave away his wealth as if to cleanse himself of the sin of having earned it, but because he created and promoted consumer items that significantly improved our lives while justly generating enormous wealth for himself, his employees, and shareholders.

In addition to embodying the spirit of “The Al,” Jobs had quite a lot of smart things to say about education reform.  I’m grateful to Whitney Tilson for reminding me of this.  Here are some selected remarks from Steve Jobs on education:

[On Unions]

I’m a very big believer in equal opportunity as opposed to equal outcome. I don’t believe in equal outcome because unfortunately life’s not like that. It would be a pretty boring place if it was. But I really believe in equal opportunity. Equal opportunity to me more than anything means a great education. Maybe even more important than a great family life, but I don’t know how to do that. Nobody knows how to do that. But it pains me because we do know how to provide a great education. We really do. We could make sure that every young child in this country got a great education. We fallfar short of that…. The problem there of course is the unions. The unions are the worst thing that ever happened to education because it’s not a meritocracy. It turns into a bureaucracy, which is exactly what has happened. The teachers can’t teach and administrators run the place and nobody can be fired. It’s terrible.

[On Vouchers]

But in schools people don’t feel that they’re spending their own money. They feel like it’s free, right? No one does any comparison shopping. A matter of fact if you want to put your kid in a private school, you can’t take the forty-four hundred dollars a year out of the public school and use it, you have to come up with five or six thousand of your own money. I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for forty-four hundred dollars that they could only spend at any accredited school several things would happen. Number one schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students. Secondly, I think you’d see a lot of new schools starting. I’ve suggested as an example, if you go to Stanford Business School, they have a public policy track; they could start a school administrator track. You could get a bunch of people coming out of college tying up with someone out of the business school, they could be starting their own school. You could have twenty-five year old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they’d start a school. I believe that they would do far better than any of our public schools would. The third thing you’d see is I believe, is the quality of schools again, just in a competitive marketplace, start to rise. Some of the schools would go broke. Alot of the public schools would go broke. There’s no question about it. It would be rather painful for the first several years

DM: But deservedly so.

SJ: But far less painful I think than the kids going through the system as it is right now.

[On Digital Learning]

The market competition model seems to indicate that where there is a need there is a lot of providers willing to tailor their products to fit that need and a lot of competition which forces them to get better and better. I used to think when I was in my twenties that technology was the solution to most of the world’s problems, but unfortunately it just ain’t so… We need to attack these things at the root, which is people and how much freedom we give people, the competition that will attract the best people. Unfortunately, there are side effects, like pushing out a lot of 46 year old teachers who lost their spirit fifteen years ago and shouldn’t be teaching anymore. I feel very strongly about this. I wish it was as simple as giving it over to the computer….

As you’ve pointed out I’ve helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world and I absolutely convinced that is by no means the most important thing. The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can. The elements of discovery are all around you. You don’t need a computer. Here – why does that fall? You know why? Nobody in the entire world knows why that falls. We can describe it pretty accurately but no one knows why. I don’t need a computer to get a kid interested in that, to spend a week playing with gravity and trying to understand that and come up with reasons why.

DM: But you do need a person.

SJ: You need a person. Especially with computers the way they are now. Computers are very reactive but they’re not proactive; they are not agents, if you will. They are very reactive. What children need is something more proactive. They need a guide. They don’t need an assistant. I think we have all the material in the world to solve this problem; it’s just being deployed in other places. I’ve been a very strong believer in that what we need to do in education is to go to the full voucher system. I know this isn’t what the interview was supposed to be about but it is what I care about a great deal.

(Source: Smithsonian Institution Oral and Video Histories)

The above interview was from 1995, but it is clear that Jobs did not significantly change his mind over time.  In 2007 he reiterated that unions and lifetime employment for teachers were at the heart of the problem.  This is from PC World:

During a joint appearance with Michael Dell that was sponsored by the Texas Public Education Reform Foundation, Jobs took on the unions by first comparing schools to small businesses, and school principals to CEOs. He then asked rhetorically: “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.’ ”

He went on to say 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.”

After Steve Jobs made these comments I wrote an op-ed for the NY Sun, which stated:

There is a price to be paid for this kind of frank analysis and Steve Jobs knows it. “Apple just lost some business in this state, I’m sure,” Mr. Jobs said. Of course, Apple sells a large portion of its computers to public school systems. By taking a stance against school unionization, Mr. Jobs may lose some school sales for Apple.

Sharing the stage with Mr. Jobs was Michael Dell, the chief executive officer of Dell, a competing computer manufacturer. By comparison, according to the description of the event, Mr. Dell “sat quietly with his hands folded in his lap,” during Mr. Jobs’ speech while the audience at an education reform conference “applauded enthusiastically.”

Mr. Dell followed Mr. Jobs by defending the rise of unions in education: “the employer was treating his employees unfairly and that was not good. … So now you have these enterprises where they take good care of their people. The employees won, they do really well and succeed.”

Whether Mr. Jobs or Mr. Dell is right about the role unions have played in public education, one thing is perfectly clear – attacking the unions is a controversial and potentially costly choice for corporate CEOs.

The safe thing is to make bland declarations about the need to improve the quality of education without getting into any of the messy particulars that might be necessary to produce a better education. Changing the status quo in education almost certainly requires ruffling someone’s feathers, but doing that is almost certainly bad for business.

In part this is why we see highly successful entrepreneurs who survive in a world of ruthless competition abandon these business principles when they turn to education philanthropy. People who would never endorse the idea that businesses should be granted local monopolies, offer workers lifetime tenure, or pay employees based solely on seniority, embrace a status quo public system that has all of these features.

While some CEOs may sincerely believe that education is somehow different from the rest of the world in which they live, others have been cowed into submission. Teachers are a very large, well-organized, and relatively affluent consumer and political bloc….

Steve Jobs has embarked on a perilous path, but with solid evidence and persuasive arguments, he can move all of us toward higher quality schools. He should be applauded for having the courage to say out loud what scores of other business leaders are too sheepish to say.

Unfortunately, Steve Jobs will no longer be with us as we try to advance on this perilous path of education reform.


(Edited somewhat for brevity.  See Jobs’ full interview at Smithsonian Institution Oral and Video Histories)

10 Responses to Steve Jobs on Education

  1. […] He also had education policy opinions, saying teachers are unionized “in the worst way.” (Jay Greene) […]

  2. Daniel Earley says:

    “I’ve been a very strong believer in that what we need to do in education is to go to the full voucher system.” Whether a voucher or some other device, it’s clear that he believed in (and personified) the power of unfettered competition to swiftly transform any product or service.

    Perhaps in his new role of the posthumous Obi-wan, he might begin to have some influence over his Jedi peers who still seem to naively place hope in devising central master-plans with the emperor.


  3. […] 12 years earlier. You can read more of those comments via a great compilation put together by Jay P. Greene, but if there’s one takeaway from all of his comments on education reform, we think […]

  4. Patrick Gibbons says:

    After that Dell-Jobs debate I told myself my next computer would be an Apple. It took a few years but my next computer was an Apple. 😛

  5. Holly Korbey says:

    This is very interesting, but Steve Jobs is an American entrepreneur – competition and choice is at the very heart of what he does, and rightly so. But does he know about educating all kids? Has he ever done that? And, if not, why are we asking him how to solve public education’s problems? Wouldn’t it be fair to say that if you ask a priest for the answer to education’s problems, he would say the answers could be found in the Catholic church and the Bible? Would he also be right?

    I’m a public school parent and I’ve spent a lot of time at school. Anyone who spends a lot of time at their local public school understands that the problems have little to do with the lack of market competition. The principals are dealing with pressures from administration and the extreme lack of funding for the most basic expenditures (classroom parents bought our class books this year); teachers don’t have any autonomy to teach anything interesting; the curriculum is muddled and murky at best, all the most interesting parts taken out because we’re afraid of them; and we’ve set the bar so incredibly low in order for all children – all of them – to pass that test, the kids are bored to death. Ever done one of those pre-state-mandated-test workbooks? Try it sometime. No wonder they are dropping out in droves – just like Steve Jobs did.

    Holly Korbey
    Parents for Educating Texas

  6. Holly — I want to make sure I understand your position. Are you saying that the only people to whom we should listen about education policy are those who spend a lot of time in schools by working or volunteering in them? Would you be willing to apply this same principle to all areas of public policy? Would having gone to school, having to pay taxes for schools, having read about schools, and having thought about it count as relevant experience?

    Also, contrary to your priest example, Steve Jobs, who was an expert on technology, did not recommend technology as the solution to education ills. Maybe people can know and understand a variety of issues without having directly experienced them. If not, why would we allow people to vote for government leaders? Most voters have never led government, so what qualifies them to pick our leaders. By your theory only existing government leaders have the relevant experience to qualify them to vote for new leaders.

  7. Holly Korbey says:

    Thanks for responding to my comment! No, that’s not at all what I’m saying. I don’t have a position or a theory, but want to start a conversation; I was pointing out that in your piece you held Steve Jobs up as an example of someone who believes that school choice, vouchers, and free-market education would definitely work. But how do you know that it will? Is there room for other points of view? Are any other countries in the world with a top-notch, successful education system using this model? I’ve seen statistics in several places that here in Texas, most charter schools are in no way outperforming their public counterparts. As a concerned parent, I’d like to know more.

    Since we parents and teachers are in the schools with the children every day, I do believe our thoughts and opinions matter. We parents have nothing to gain except a bright future for our kids – we are where the rubber hits the road, right? I do not claim to be an expert, nor do I think we should do away with all policy-makers. But a seat at the table? Absolutely. (We are wary of complete trust in policy-makers, because a lot of the policy is not working…) I do wonder if things would improve if we’d stop worrying about how schools are organized and start looking at teacher quality, curriculum quality, less testing, more options in the arts, vocational and technical programs, and making sure students are ready to learn when they get to school. I’d like you to speak to that directly if possible. I am not naive enough to believe there are no problems with how schools are organized, I’m only sharing my experience – but my experience is the exact one you are trying to shape, isn’t it?

  8. Hi Holly,

    In your earlier comment you wrote: “But does [Steve Jobs] know about educating all kids? Has he ever done that? And, if not, why are we asking him how to solve public education’s problems?” That sounded like you thought that only people with direct experience would have valuable opinions to offer about education policy.

    In your more recent comment, you say only that you and other parents should have a seat at the table and different opinions should be heard. If that is all you meant by your earlier comment, then I have no disagreement with what you suggest.

    As to whether market systems have worked in education, you might want to read Andrew Coulson’s Market Education, James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree, and Charles Glenn’s various works on the extent of choice and competition in European education systems.

  9. I am not suprised by his remarks, in that Jobs is a self made man. He doeesn’t understand the complexities of creating educational systems, and frankly doesn’t care. He wouldn’t waste one minute of his precious time on a panel with bonafide experts, because he doesn’t believe in them either. Here we have the arrogance of someone speaking on an issue of which he knows very little about and who is is highly disrepectiful toward teachers and their unions. Can we please leave these discussions to people who really care?

    Bam bam you’re hired, you’re fired, the government will give you a voucher for a “good school,”and everything will be just dandy. Really?

  10. steve jobs leadership…

    […]Steve Jobs on Education « Jay P. Greene's Blog[…]…

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