Steve Jobs has guts - enough guts to speak his mind about what he thinks is wrong with public education even at the risk of harming his business interests.
In a speech on Friday, the chief executive officer of Apple and Disney honcho declared: “I believe that what’s wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way.”
The problem with unionization, Mr. Jobs argued, is that it has constrained schools from attracting and retaining the best teachers and from dismissing the less effective ones. This, in turn, deters quality people from seeking to become principals and superintendents. “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,’” Mr. Jobs said. He concluded by saying, “This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.”
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. â€¦ 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.
Of the 300 million people living in America, including children, there are more than 3 million teachers currently employed in public schools. Among households with college-educated adults, a very large proportion has a current or former public school teacher residing there. And almost every college-educated person has a relative or close friend who is a current or former public school teacher. Teachers are powerful.
But there is hope for reform and a reason for Mr. Jobs to think he was not foolish in challenging unions. Not all teachers share the agenda of the unions that claim to represent them. In particular, the most effective teachers have little to gain from union protection since their skills are likely to be more recognized and more richly rewarded without the unions.
The single salary schedule, which is the very heart of unionization in education, arguably harms those teachers with excellent skills by requiring that they be paid the same as less effective teachers.
Moreover, teachers are also taxpayers and parents who want to improve the quality of education. Like the rest of us, self-interest and union dogma may cloud teachers’ perception of how to best reform education.
If they are presented with solid evidence and persuasive arguments, teachers can be a powerful force for education reform - not for the status quo.
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.