Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Take this Steve Jobs and Shove It

Two of Steve Jobs’ major points in his recent speech about education were technology, not surprisingly, and the issue of unions. The (oversimplified) comment about unions was that they were detrimental to schools because administrators (read: CEOs) were unable to fire underperforming teachers (read: employees.) The major attack on Jobs is that companies exist to make money, and that schools exist to educate everyone. There are plenty of students that are a bad investment, but they cannot be dropped the way a poorly selling product might.

There have been a great number of opinions offered about this diagnosis. Here’s mine.

I teach at a small private school, I attended a small private school and I spent my four years of undergrad at an Ivy League school. That alone disqualifies me in the eyes of many from commenting on the issue. What blows me away is that a number of the people who would call me unequipped to have this conversation are parents of students in public schools. As a teacher, I can tell you that the least informed group of people in the high school G4 are the parents. They are followed closely by the administrators, who are followed by the teachers, and then the students, who are far, far from uninformed. These positions are generalizations, obviously, and the best administrators in the country are those who are so good at their job that they are at the head of this race.

If those fantastic administrators were able to hire and fire all of the teachers they wanted, as Jobs suggests they should, the problem would not be solved. That’s because the best teachers in the country do not want to work in the atmosphere that exists in the worst schools in the country. However, in order to put the best teachers in the areas that need them most (or even put adequate teachers in these situations) the administration must be able to hire and fire their employees. That’s what teachers are, employees. Don’t try to tell one of them that, because teachers believe that they should be entirely autonomous and free from someone suggesting that they are not doing a good job.

High school teachers are one of the most arrogant groups of professionals around, largely because they need something to go home with in place of a paycheck. Many of us choose “feeling better than everyone else” paired with a side of “I’m underpaid, too, in case you were curious.”

The best way to change the problem of bad teachers in bad schools is to find the best teachers, and offer them higher salaries than they would receive in the suburban schools supplemented with achievement based financial rewards in underperforming schools.

2 problems:

a) Financial: Yeah, I’m a democrat. Raise taxes or quit bitching about the public schools.

b) Achievement based: Standardized testing doesn’t suggest that the teacher is actually better, just that they can get their kids to pass standardized tests. I have no problem with this. When people complain about schools, they often forget about the absolute bottom. When schools with fewer than 10% of their students are passing standardized tests exist, the goal should be to get them to the point where 70% or 80% are passing, and then worry about whether or not the students are fully able to analyze literature through their “own lens.”

Everyone jumps all over Jobs because he’s commenting from his ivory tower of free market business, and is not thinking about the worst kids. Most of those who complain about schools aren’t thinking about the worst kids either. They’re thinking about their kids. The reason parents shouldn’t control schools is the same reason that a product designer shouldn’t make a company’s final decision on what goes on sale. Just because you’ve put in a lot of time doesn’t mean that your product is worth more than all the others. The goal must be to have as much success possible with as many students as possible. If that means your student succeeds less than he or she could, in order that four or five other students can succeed more, refer to John Stuart Mill.

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