Steve Jobs: America’s schools are dying

“He was a college drop-out and at least a bit of a rabble-rouser during his own school days, but Steve Jobs held and expressed passionate opinions on the urgent need to transform America’s declining public-school system,” Bob Evans writes for Forbes.

“His ideas are of particular importance in the context of this country’s ongoing shortage of students entering the critical STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. And the irony was certainly not lost on Jobs — a remarkabl(y) astute observer of social norms, cultural dynamics, and the behavior of young people—that a country with a ravenous appetite for technology must figure out some way to increase the production of it,” Evans writes. “Some of his most pungent comments about U.S. schools reveals his unmistakable belief that our public-school system is broken, that the customer has been forgotten, and that radical new approaches and thinking are called for.”

In [public] 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… But far less painful I think than the kids going through the system as it is right now. – Steve Jobs, April 20, 1995

Read more in the full article – recommended – here.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “Fred Mertz” for the heads up.]

Related articles:
Steve Jobs met Obama to talk education, energy, job creation – October 22, 2010
Will Steve Jobs’ blast against teacher unions hurt Apple? – February 26, 2007
Teachers union demands apology from Apple CEO Steve Jobs – February 23, 2007
A clearer picture of Steve Jobs’ thoughts on public education and teacher unions – February 21, 2007
Steve Jobs & Rush Limbaugh agree: U.S. public schools are ‘unionized in the worst possible way’ – February 20, 2007
Apple CEO blasts teacher unions, says US schools are ‘unionized in the worst possible way’ – February 16, 2007

80 Comments

  1. Public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child’s education follows that child into the school the parent chooses. The school is charged with the responsibility of educating the child, and must have the resources and management authority to deliver on that responsibility. They must also report to the parents and the public on their progress…

    Our schools can and should compete to be the most innovative, flexible and student-centered – not safe havens for the uninspired and unaccountable… We should let them compete for the most effective, character-building teachers, hire them, and reward them.

    If a school will not change, the students should be able to change schools… Parents should be empowered with school choice to send their children to the school that can best educate them just as many members of Congress do with their own children… It’s beyond hypocritical that many of those who would refuse to allow public school parents to choose their child’s school would never agree to force their own children into a school that did not work or was unsafe. They can make another choice… That is a fundamental and essential right we should honor for all parents.

    [The idea is to] place parents and children at the center of the education process, empowering parents by greatly expanding the ability of parents to choose among schools for their children… All federal financial support must be predicated on providing parents the ability to move their children, and the dollars associated with them, from failing schools.

    John McCain, McCain-Palin Education platform, 2008

    Next time you vote, pay attention to the issues. The last guy elected president in the U.S. is a union sycophant who campaigned on “change” yet only perpetuates the dismal status quo that Steve Jobs hated so much.

    The U.S.A. would be far better off today with John McCain as President.

    1. With Democrats controlling government, you’re right, the American education system will be held hostage to the Unions. These unions ensure all teachers are equal, rather than allowing only the very best to educate our children. Try to fire an underperforming teacher today – it’s almost impossible.

      In towns that have moved to vouchers and non-unionized charter schools, education standards and results have improved dramatically. Case in point, New Orleans after Katrina.

        1. Like many business people long removed from the reality of the lives of the majority, Steve Jobs thought what works in an authoritarian business environment (Apple v2) would be workable in a democracy.

          Conservatives fall for the trap that being good in business translates to being good at democratic (small d) governance. Many probably have good intentions, but the track record of putting carnivorous business practice in public institutions is not good.

          Jobs model works in a walled garden- the deferential walled garden of Apple, Inc. The realities of public education are very different. I’d love to see Superintendent Jobs at a Board meeting with a bunch of Christian NeoCons trying to take evolution out of the Biology texts. He throw them out of the meeting and they would fire his ass.

          1. Steve Jobs wasn’t advocating privatization. He was advocating individual choice of school, public and private both. He wouldn’t sit on the board of a school that denied evolution. He would simply not send his child there.

            1. @RDF – If you’re being paid by the government to teach in a school or administrate a school you have not been “effectively privatized” just because parents can choose to put their kids in another school, regardless if the other school is public or private.

              And billionaires, especially the self-made kind, would love the new value proposition of a competion-generated quality education with government funded resources.

          2. In a free market, you would be able to take your kids out of a school you felt was dominated by “neocons.” Since people on my side of the spectrum think schools are more dominated by your side, we would also have that freedom.

    2. To all those who find F2T2’s sycophantic republican rants inserted in every possible and even unrelated topics, please put up your hand!

      Cripes guy…get a life.

  2. This part is nothing new; Jobs already talked about his view on education in detail in some of his rare interviews.

    However, some nuances in his opinion could have changed, so while it is not new, it is not useless to read — especially for these who might influence the education system.

  3. While I think there should be some diversity in education to better customize it to individual students’ needs, I would hope that Steve would be smarter than to jump on the “privatize everything” bandwagon that so much of our country has jumped on, and that he would realize the damage and the widening class disparity that would cause.

    1. You need to learn how to read. That’s not what Jobs (or McCain for that matter, as quoted above) were saying at all. Both Jobs and McCain wanted parents to have choice and the ability to take the money they pay for public education with them if they found a better school.

      Such competition would naturally increase education quality.

      1. I don’t necessarily want schools “competing” for my kids education. What’s best for your kid might not necessarily be best for mine. I would much rather public school districts diversify their offerings so each school can say, “We specialize in teaching students this way” and have parents make the best choice for their students needs and interests. It’s not all about a school saying “We’re #1!” in order to get the largest student load possible. (In actuality, having too many students could be a detriment, as it would increase class sizes.)

        1. Exactly. Like banks and other corporations have been doing in this globalizing world, schools would then start to merge to cut costs, increasing class sizes and making management more remote to their “customers”.

          1. And why do you think that’s not happenig now?

            – Bigger class sizes? Check.
            – Consolidating school districts because of funding? Check.
            – Management remote from their customers? Double Check.

            The primary point is that without competition and freedom of choice for the customers, the providers have no incentive to improve. The only real threat that parents can make is to change the make up of the school board, which if course is limited in its actions dealing with school bureaucracy and teacher unions.

            Monopolies are bad for the consumer, regardless of whether they are private or public monopolies. And we are dealing with a public monopoly here.

        2. If the #1 School get’s too many students, it’s no longer #1. Students are free to go to a better school. So, #1 doesn’t become overcrowded.

          Give your head a shake.

    2. So let’s dumb down America so the “less fortunate” dont feel so bad. There is no hope if we stay on that trajectory.

      So let’s close our eyes and pretend there is no “widening class disparity”. Eventually we will be enslaved by those who got the better education because the “widening class disparity” is growing while we think it is not. Is the Obama “class” going to public school? I think not.

      Privatizing is the only way to create quality education at an affordable price.

      1. “Privatizing is the only way to create quality education at an affordable price.”

        No it is not. Deregulation and LOCAL control are some of the keys to success in schools. Flexibility of curriculum, community support, and ending cookie cutter approach. Most of what is bad in schools is pushed down by feds, or state boards ALL OF WHICH are compromised by outside lobby interests.

        NCLB is train about to reach the blown up bridge at full speed. It is naive and misguided. This coming year is the year schools are to have every kid up to 100% of reading and math standards. NOT HUMANLY POSSIBLE. Some students are simply not capable of performing at these levels, yet they are included in the schools scores, bring the whole facility down by adding to watch lists, requiring a whole new set of hoops to jump through to still not achieve the un-achievable. Ultimately closing schools and costing good people jobs.

        Too much meddling and mandating in schools. Local control and community involvement are the things that will save American Schools. Everything else is a money/power grab..

        1. To add to this, those student that aren’t capable get the most money per pupil spent on them too, more money flows to special needs students in public schools than regular or gifted pupils. This is assbackwards IMHO. This federally and state mandated throwing of money at problems is eroding regular ed and is insane.

          I’m not inhuman, I feel for them, but the harsh reality is they are only going to do so much in life. I think they should be in special or private schools with a voucher or some sort of credit for the equivalent amount spent on the average kids coming from the gov.

          I

  4. “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”

    It would actually be worst. Jobs was assuming that each parent would spend the money wisely, which wouldn’t necessarily happen. I believe the vast majority of parents are honest. However, some others would drink or gamble the money for instance. Others would only half spend it for their kids education and save the rest for other things like paying the mortage, etc… What do you think some unemployed parents would do with the money?

    “schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students”

    This is good and also bad. The wrong side is that in the end they would be behaving like Fortune 500 corporations. It would be all about profits for them.

    The current system is not perfect. You could even argue it’s going down. However what Jobs proposed is not the right alternative IMHO.

    On the other hand I like his idea of getting “twenty-five year old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy” involved. We should find a way to do so. Why wouldn’t open it to top graduates to spend 2 years teaching in public schools before joining firms like McKinsey Consulting etc? All this could be financed by the government. It would also make a lot of future leaders aware of certain realities…

    1. Even if the voucher could only be used on school, the whole “privatize everything” bandwagon is certainly not the way to go. I don’t necessarily want my kids’ school behaving like a Fortune 500 company, constantly looking for the bottom line at the expense of the education of my kids. We should be looking at ways to improve public education, not scuttle it.

        1. Let’s assume for a moment that your claim that the “US public school system is the worst” is true. Why not look at what Japan, South Korea and Germany are doing? Their students test among the highest in the world. I can tell you that they didn’t privatize their schools.

          1. Bingo. Thank you.
            This ludicrous ideology that claims the “Free Market” will fix everything is driving the US into oblivion.
            If you look at the rest of the world, without chauvinism, you could learn something.
            Many of these countries have learned from the past successes of the US and have built on them while you squabble amongst yourselves.

          2. actually, Japan schools require entrance exams.
            US schools…. just live in the area. and the school will take as much money as they can to keep you there.

            Money is not the answer if the schools can’t teach correctly.
            it’s why homeschooling kicks the crap out of public schools in testing etc.
            look at the NYT school system a while back, they had a voucher test system for girls. the school excelled…. the Unions shut it down and claimed it failed.

            the US school system used to be good, but look at it now.. throw more money at the problem? hardly. it’s not money… it’s complacency.

          3. You went there before I could. South Korean and Japanese school aren’t as good as they sound. Much of What Steve said is what happens in Korea and Japan. Student compete to get into the schools (high school and university) with the top reputation. But the only thing high schools and universities look at are a students Exam scores. The reason Korean and Japanese Kids school do so well on standardized tests. is because thats basically all they do. Thats what they learn to do. The test is more important than the actual information. In Korean schools extracurricular activities like sports, music, drama basically don’t exist at the average school. Students either work ALL DAY studying (memorizing) for their exams or they have given up. In the Japanese system students usually can only apply to one college a year because most colleges hold their entrance exams at the same time each year. The systems in Korea and Japan are just as broken if not more broken than the US system. We do not want to become and exam oriented school system like them. Although I am aware many states and areas are trying for exactly that. I like the way the German system works but I don’t think many Americans would go for it due to cost and higher taxes. I also here the Canadian System is pretty interesting to.

          4. I can speak for Japan. You write entrance exams… for Junior HIGH! All the tests are standardized across the entire country and happen on the same day for public schools. If you fail your entrance exams you have one option… take private school tests one month later. Private schools aren’t extremely expensive but it still costs. Thus, there’s a financial and educational pressure that’s put upon the students and parents.

            It also means you group the smart kids and slower kids together. It also means it’s really difficult to get into a top-notch university if you go to the wrong Junior High, or High School.

            BUT remember, we can’t just take a system used elsewhere and apply it here. Their culture allows this because the pressure to act as a group is very strong. It’s one of their strengths, but can be a weakness.

            Much of the ingenuity in the Japanese is, by American standards, glacially slow. They move slower as they value small refinements… and rely less on “the big monumental idea”. It’s intrinsic in their business culture and even in their patent system… which allows for “improving” upon an idea as something patentable (you patent the improvement, not the idea)

            It’s also why their quality is usually top-notch.

            Oh, and another thing… their company structure is more linear. The CEO doesn’t make 100 times more than the factory worker… it’s closer to 10x. This means that there isn’t a huge gap.

      1. Eric,

        Either you are a shining example of a failed school system or you are a paid up member of a teacher’s union.

        If the private schools are constantly looking at the bottom line, they will not be the schools getting the students.

      1. Tired and empty, but true. I see it all the time. Other countries are pumping out many more PhDs than the USA with public education. It is more a social problem, than a teacher problem.

    1. i’d disagree, it’s a parenting problem AND a teacher problem.
      parents send the kids to school and really don’t get involved with their education (most parents) and the system is afraid to fail someone… wouldn’t get the bonus or the accolades if they did. (example: Atlanta school system)

      Some parents actually do pay attention, and some teachers do care more about the students instead of themselves. but that ratio is dropping.. sadly.

      Half the crap I see kids do in schools… If we did that back in my school… my parents would have killed me. and turned me in themselves.
      I will tell you that back in my High School days.. If I had a Phone and was texting/talking/emailing/etc like is allowed in schools today… any one of my teachers would have yanked the phone and threw it on the floor and stomped on it.
      and my parents would have stood next to the teacher and said, thats coming out of your pocket son. (after they stomped on it as well, just to make sure I understood…)

      Part of the problem is parents, part is the system. Unions have a big part of the blame on the system’s side.

  5. Number 1, the US is a big country. Public schools in some areas are doing great, others are doing poorly. To paint everyone with the same brush doesn’t make any sense.

    Number 2, I’m involved in my kids schools and I do feel that I’m spending not only my money, but the money of everyone else in the community. I see the schools and the school board being very thoughtful and diligent with how they spend the publics funds.

    Number 3. Generally, the kids who are doing poorly in schools are the kids with parents who are not involved in school. For education to work, the parents need to have a strong commitment.

    Number 4. I don’t like schools marketing themselves to attract studnets. I’d rather see the money invested in education or given back to the tax payer.

  6. We have proof of Jobs information technology and animated feature acumen, but as far as social engineering and education vouchers, Steve has no track record. His thinking is likely very “customer centric” with himself as the consumer (employer) of the product (students) and this may create a rigidity in thinking that does not allow for students to “find themselves” – rather they would be tracked from a young age into a public/private mixture of academies and vocational schools. This educational marketing mix would create a dystopian society like something out of Brave New World.

    1. As both Steve Jobs and John McCain would likely say, dddd, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

      What does your name stand for, the results on your usual public school report card?

      1. Lay off the republican rhetoric’s and quit insulting others!!!! Keep the political comments off MDN comment boards!!! Geesuz! First we have you who speaks so highly about republican John McCain and then you go insult others on here! Remember you are the face of your party, now your party disgust me!!! Grow up!!!

        1. I second that emotion……

          F2T2…do everyone a favour and get lost. I suspect most republicans also think you are an A-hole and are embarrassed to be associated with a condescending, immature name calling, person like you.

          1. some of what he says I agree with (i’m a conservative not a republican)
            other stuff he says… I agree with you on.
            Half the time I see his gravatar, and just skip over it… I know it will be a firestorm so why bother.

            but, there are those on the “left” here that are the same way.. so it does go both ways.

            1. I suppose I should skip over it too but sometimes it is just like a sore on the inside of your cheek…you have to go touch it every now and then with your tongue

    2. Apple didn’t have any track record with consumer electronics before the iPod, nor track record with cellphones. Those turned out OK.

      The ease of dismissing new ideas for educating our children out-of-hand, citing some hysterical “dystopian society” output, is the major reason why our public school system is a global embarrassment.

  7. I don’t think Stanford graduates more than 200 students a year, so the number of students on an entrepreneurial school track wouldn’t be more than a handful. Anyhow, Steve’s wife Laurene can remake our public schools, since she went to Stanford B-school and is active in public education and has $7B at her disposal.

  8. Each year I pay $1,200 in property taxes on my home. Property tax in our state funds public schools. My older daughter graduated Suma Cum Laude from a State University with a Doctors degree in Pharmacy. My son is currently in the National Guard, moving up in rank while serving in Kuwait, and my younger daughter was just accepted into Nursing School. Each of the kids were the beneficiaries of a public school education at the cost to me of $2.22/day for each child. I’d say that was quite a bargain. Opportunity can still be found in Public Schools with union workers.

    Steve Jobs was a wonderful visionary. He was unquestionably a successful man who made our lives better. We can forgive him for not knowing everything about education.

    1. Sure it was a bargain for you because everyone in your district also had to cough up money to send your kids to school, whether they had any kids in the program or not. In Louisiana it costs taxpayers twice as much per student per year in public schools versus what I pay in private tuition. And I’d venture to say the quality of education cannot compare. The fact that your kids are successful is more attributable to how you raised them than their public school education.

  9. You cannot make chicken salad out of chicken shit and that is what many of our public schools are being asked to do.

    Kids who are not well nourished, well fed, well rested or prepared with the discipline for school will generally not flourish. Charter schools and private schools get to pick and choose the student body while the public schools HAVE to take whatever wanders in the door.

    Add a half century of middle class and wealthy flight to areas outside of city limits to avoid property taxes and you have a financially starved system that has to take the least well prepared students. It’s not exactly a formula for success.

    If Steve Jobs had been put in a similar situation he would have failed as well. One of his tantrums in a staff meeting or school board meeting and he would have been discharged. It’s easy to sit back and bitch about what you do not understand or are not willing to understand.

    Our public schools have been set up to fail and that is exactly what many of them do. What is amazing is how many actually learn in the environment. Our dysfunctional politics have FUBAR’d public education and it’s only getting worse.

    1. I agree. Look at CA pre-proposition 13. An exceptional education system. Now, not so much.

      I remember sitting in a PTA board meeting after the California Lottery money started rolling in. The additional money schools were going to get above the budgeted amount suddenly gave the legislators the incentive to cut the school systems budget.

    2. I’m jumping onto this thread because it seems thoughtful; sometimes a rarity. I’m a teacher, so I’ve thought about this a lot but don’t have any shiny answers, just some opinions.

      I think one of the major problems facing education in the US is that it is not valued very highly. How can we make *anything* both mandatory and free, and still have it be considered valuable?*** There are, of course, exceptions. Doctors’ and lawyers’ (yeah, this is a stereotype — insert your favorite well paid and educated career here) kids tend to get a strong parental push towards education. But in the poorer segments of the population, many of the families that value education are from first or second generation immigrants, with strong memories of free education *not* being available which makes it more valuable in their eyes.

      If you figure that kids are sleeping about 8 hours of the day (though it should be more!) then they spend about half of their waking hours in school. How do the messages they get about the importance of education from school compare to the messages from home/outside school? I think one of the reasons that the KIPP schools are more successful is due to their longer hours; not necessarily because the kids need more time in school (they spend less time in school in the Scandinavian nations, and do better), but because that limits the amount of time the students have to get mixed messages that maybe education isn’t that important after all.

      Another problem facing our schools is that we expect kids from all segments of society to do equally well in school, while funding schools with local property taxes. (Yeah, let’s think about that for a minute…) If you take a map that has the average wealth of the population in color code and another map with the average academic achievement of the population, there will be a tremendous correlation. Not only do schools with more money tend to offer more exciting extension programs and have more up-to-date textbooks and supplies, not only do parents with more money (who tend to be better educated themselves) offer more enriching experiences to their kids when not in school, but also it’s pretty damned hard to focus in school when your basic needs aren’t being met. I think all our talk of education reform is a joke if we continue to ignore the effect of social inequalities on education, as if that will somehow make them (both the inequalities and their effects) go away. Which opens up another huge can of worms, because obviously how to address those problems is one of the biggest issues facing the US right now.

      *** I’m not saying we should charge for education — that would cut off the kids whose parents are too poor, or whose parents just don’t think education is worth the $$, creating an uneducated lower class through no fault of their own.

      I’ve got some serious doubts that the voucher system would work. So the parents who care about their kids’ education do the painstaking research and pick the very best school for their kids. Maybe they have a few fallback schools just in case. But then what about the leftover kids? The ones whose parents don’t care, or don’t understand how the system works, or whatever? I guess they end up at the “public” school, except now it’s the leftover school. And the public school can’t refuse to take kids, because education is mandatory (whether the kids want it or not) and so they have to try to provide an education for all kids, including kids who will do anything to derail the educational process, because they despise the fact that they have to “waste” half of their waking hours on something they don’t value. You can’t educate someone who doesn’t want to learn, which means that in reality, although they put in the time, some of these kids have no education.

      As a parent, I don’t want my kid stuck in a classroom with somebody who is doing their best to disrupt the process (call it a form of protest against the system, but it sucks for the other kids and the teacher). As a teacher, I don’t want to be stuck teaching the kids that don’t care. As a humanitarian, I have to ask — what the hell are we supposed to do for our leftover kids??? Cause what we’re doing right now isn’t working, and consigning them to a school for leftovers isn’t going to work either.

      How do we address the issue that education simply isn’t valued by a large segment of our population? Can we provide an honorable alternative (trade school or something similar), with the possibility of going back to school later in life if they change their minds? Can we change the way we educate our kids so that more of the population can see the value in it? Seems to me that our current education system (if you really excel in it) does a great job of preparing you to be… a professor. Over the years, school has been designed by the people who were themselves successful in school. The status quo is reinforced. Meanwhile about 1/3 of the kids in our country don’t end up graduating from high school. If a successful education system is defined as one which graduates high school students (setting the bar pretty low!), America is earning a 66% D. Does every student need to go to college? What could the alternative look like? What can we do to change education so that it addresses the needs of more of our students? I don’t think more testing is the answer; I think we need to address a much more fundamental problem with our educational system and make some much more profound changes.

      1. “I’m not saying we should charge for education — that would cut off the kids whose parents are too poor, or whose parents just don’t think education is worth the $$, creating an uneducated lower class through no fault of their own.”

        DEAD ON!! I think in the end this is exactly what happens with the privatization of schools. And quite frankly the upper class sees no incentive to help the lower class achieve. Poor, poorly educated slaves work cheap and are easily oppressed. The leftover schools will see constant turnover due to lower wages and lack of resources, leading to lack of continuity and progress and they will be forever sliding backwards. All maintaining the status quo for those at the top.

  10. “When school children start paying union dues, that ‘s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Albert Shanker, original President of the Teacher’s Union from 1964-1984 and AFT teacher’s union president from 1974-1997.

    Unless you go to a private institution, what you pay for education (through taxes, etc.) does not equal cost.

    Second, there are already thousands of private schools that are turning out well prepared graduates with high achievement scores so the private/public argument is a non-starter.

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