Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Teachers and Technology in the Classroom

Catching up on my blog reading, via Joe Malchow, I find Steve Jobs taking issue with teacher unions in K-12 education:

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.

Jobs compared schools to businesses with principals serving as CEOs.

"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?" he asked to loud applause during an education reform conference.

"Not really great ones because if you're really smart you go, 'I can't win.'"

In a rare joint appearance, Jobs shared the stage with competitor Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Inc. Both spoke to the gathering about the potential for bringing technological advances to classrooms.

"I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way," Jobs said.

"This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy."

I think Jobs has missed the mark here, in two ways.

First, the part of K-12 education that is off-the-charts crazy is how little choice there is for consumers. When did we decide that sending our children to education factories with hundreds or thousands of students was a good idea? With more choice and thus more competition, parents and students could better hold K-12 educators accountable for the quality of the services they provide. Bad practices--if unions and lifetime employment contracts are bad practices--wouldn't survive vigorous competition in the product market. Education reformers should be focused on expanding the choice of provider in education. Almost everything else would fall into place. The prospect of losing "economies of scale" in education doesn't scare me a bit. It shouldn't just be the rich and the religious who have choice, and we shouldn't be using our political system to actively undermine and restrict choice.

Second, as a wise man once said, "there is more to life than increasing its speed." I think the benefits of technology in the classroom are overstated. The best things to put in a classroom to promote a student's education are good instructors and good peers. The props are very much secondary. The best lecture is a conversation, not a slideshow or a video.


SomeGuyInDC said...

Yes, competition between schools for students would be good, because competition generally creates better outcomes then a monopoly. Unions generally oppose it because the proponents of school choice generally try and make the new alternative schools non-union. If you want school choice, the path of least resistance would be to promise unions that the new schools would be unionized and have a low student to teacher ration, thus ensuring more union members while creating school choice.

Having a fair way to fire ineffective teachers would also good. No one wants teachers who don’t teach, especially their co-workers who resent them and their abuse of union protections. But teachers, especially science and math teachers, are woefully underpaid compared to other similarly educated professionals. (You generally need a masters degree in order to get tenure in most public schools, at least in my area).

The best way to extract higher wages for a large similarly skilled group of workers is through collective bargaining. Union teachers make far more money then their non-unionized private school counterparts.

So if you want to be able to fire teachers, you have to create an alternative non-union incentive structure that clearly benefits good teachers. Being economically rational, teachers will choose the non-union option that offers them more money, as long as the extra money outweighs the benefits of other union protections. But this will cost taxpayers a lot of money, so economically rational voters may decide that unionized teachers aren’t such a bad idea after all.

But simply decrying the strength of union protections or the lack of school choice while praising market forces is short sided, in my opinion. If you want to create school choice or weaken unions, you have to be willing to pay for it. If you’re not willing to pay for it, what incentive do unionized teachers have to accept your proposals? If teachers are not mobilized in favor of an educational reform, what chance does that reform have of passing or being effectively implemented?

Tom said...

Steve Jobs makes nice devices. His expertise in those devices does not carry over to education. The first thing I would ask him is, "Does your business require serving every customer in the country to the extent they demand to be served without control over how much it costs you to do the service?" Let's see how good he is at running Apple when I can demand 17 Ipods while smoking crack in his factory and also have control over his expenses. He should stick to devices

Anonymous said...

that wise man is Gandhi