Steve Jobs: Teachers Unions Cripple American Education

Everyone seems to recognize that the public education system in the United States is a joke, and that teachers unions are a major part of the problem. That “everyone” included Steve Jobs:

[Steve] Jobs also criticized America’s education system, saying it was “crippled by union work rules,” noted Isaacson. “Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year.

Jobs’ specific idea about increasing the quantity of school time will be good for students from dysfunctional (“low socio-economic status”) families. For everyone else, just moving past a point where we trust teachers and principals to set education policy will be a big improvement.

Steve Jobs was a liberal, and that he (and Bill Gates, another liberal) are convinced that American education is broken in part because of unions shows how only a few knee-jerk bloggers even care about the teachers unions any more. One member of the knee-jerk crew writes at Daily Kos

If you were into the whole Steve Jobs cult of personality, hey, that’s great. But let’s lay off the hagiography for a second. Steve Jobs was just another wealthy douchebag who fancied himself an expert on education, just like his wealthy douchebag buddy Bill Gates:

Stay classy!

Related: The U.S. Economy and Public Education, by Bill Gates

15 thoughts on “Steve Jobs: Teachers Unions Cripple American Education”

  1. This is getting to be so obvious that argument is no longer possible, and only vilification and intimidation are left.

  2. I have been around too long and seen too much: MA, JD, teaching for 7 years full time long ago and substitute teaching most of my life, as a duty not as an income.

    The public schools, where I stopped “subbing” two years ago, are broken beyond repair. Unions are a problem, sure, but the entire system is inbred and arrogant about it. Curricula are designed by bureaucrats who use it to promote amorality, political correctness, and an inability to think critically. God help you if you quote science to express doubt about the global warming creed.

    Sending you child to a public school beyond the fourth grade is child abuse. For my part, I stopped teaching when children found they can negate teachers by claiming they were touched. That claim results in an instant reaction against the teacher by the principal, who statistics show is likely a former gym teacher.

    I saw enough that I did not want to take part in the chaos. There is no fixing it. The best bet is to reduce its cost so taxes decline permitting one to use private schools.

    BTW: Steve Jobs was interviewed by wired some time ago and said he sent his child one of the best private school in the world – it cost some $700 more than the local public school system. Enough said.

  3. I can see one potential way of dealing with problem union locals: Insist on turning firing duties over to a vote of the union’s working membership. The folks who’re tired of carrying the work load of substandard members will probably be more than happy to be rid of the dead weight!

  4. Lexington,

    The system needs to be blown up. Nearly any move to destabilize it is a positive one, because we’re at one of the worst equilibria imaginable.

    Gene,

    “For my part, I stopped teaching when children found they can negate teachers by claiming they were touched. That claim results in an instant reaction against the teacher by the principal, who statistics show is likely a former gym teacher. ”

    Very true, and very dispiriting.

    Michael,

    Unions exist to protect workers, not turn them against each other.

  5. Yes and no. Some categories of offense- like criminal investigations- need to be done by outsiders. Forcing unions to take the role of Internal Affairs would smack of a witch hunt and would make relations worse.

    But you said the key word yourself; “Unions exists to protect WORKERS”. A union leadership that protects teachers who are chronically absent or ineffective does no favors to the other members who have to deal with students who are thus unprepared for their classes. It creates more work for people who are already up to their eyeballs in work as it is!

  6. Hey Michael,

    I posted some thoughts on the role of unions in the political economy of education reform which I think could be insightful here [1,2].

    “Relations,” of course, is code for the friendliness of the current union leadership to other stakeholders. I think a wiser strategy might be breaking the unions rather than kowtowing to them, for the little good they have done

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2011/12/19/how-science-works.html#comment-1017691
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2011/12/26/the-political-economy-of-education-reform.html

  7. I was thinking more of relations between the rank-and-file teachers and other stake-holders, actually.

    Lets put it another way. A corrupted union can be quite similar to a hollow state in that a handful of people are able to undermine the wider groups’ effectiveness– those groups being the union as a whole and the school itself. Just as attempts to deal with Hezbollah or Hamas are hindered by their non-sovereign status within Lebanon or Israel, respectively, attempts by society to deal with bad unions are hindered by their contracts and back-door relations with their employers. Furthermore, attempts by the employers themselves to deal with unions gone bad are hindered by the ability of corrupt leaders to use the union as a whole as a shield–much in the same way tyrants the world over use their populace as human shields.

    The blunt force method of dealing with such situations is to attack the larger group as a whole– the hollow state, the geographic region where the corrupted group concentrates, the tyrannized state, the employer or union. This assumes that the abused portion is either complicit in the crimes of the corrupt leaders or that they will logically side with the attackers in hopes of throwing off their yoke. Examples of this approach are innumerable, as are examples of the results–the above problems are ignored and wider group loyalties drive the abused to side with the abusers.

    A better approach is to target the abuse specifically. In foreign policy, this can mean targeted sanctions, promotion of democratic reforms, asylum for the abused and emphasis on internal abuse in propaganda–see recent events in Libya. In dealing with corrupt unions, this means something like the approach I mentioned in previous comments. Union leaders who concentrate on money issues to the exclusion of all other factors aren’t just rent-seekers on the employer and wider society, they are potentially neglectful of the needs of their own membership for better working conditions. Similarly, leaders who provide cover for well-connected, underperforming members don’t just abuse the trust of their employers, they put more work on the shoulders of the members who don’t shirk their duties. Worse, they potentially create a situation where members who fall out of favor from the leadership can find themselves vulnerable to losing their job or benefits on the slightest pretext.

    Democratic reforms like the ones I proposed can therefore benefit everyone and start the process of bringing union members back into the fold of wider society.

  8. Michael,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and well-written comment. I think I agree with most of it, so let me jump right in the critical parts:

    “Union leaders who concentrate on money issues to the exclusion of all other factors aren’t just rent-seekers on the employer and wider society, they are potentially neglectful of the needs of their own membership for better working conditions”

    Yes, this is absolutely true. For convenience I’ve used rent and money interchangeably, but clearly rent can be extracted in the form of work rules, as well. Indeed, most workers generally prefer this, as a lot of time is spent at the workplace, and workers naturally want this time to be as idyllic as possible.

    “Similarly, leaders who provide cover for well-connected, underperforming members don’t just abuse the trust of their employers, they put more work on the shoulders of the members who don’t shirk their duties. ”

    This I think is our central disagreement: why do you think this is true?

    “Worse, they potentially create a situation where members who fall out of favor from the leadership can find themselves vulnerable to losing their job or benefits on the slightest pretext.”

    This is why teachers really around ‘due process’ — it creates a torturous process that minimizes the risk of dismissals of any sort.

  9. “This I think is our central disagreement: why do you think this is true?”

    I was thinking specifically to the stories about districts who can’t lay off teachers who show up drunk or are chronically late or absent. One doesn’t have to make special assumptions about the character of teachers to see where that must be galling to coworkers who show up on-time and sober. To the extent that the students of such teachers are worse behaved and/or ill-prepared academically for their follow-up classes, they also make more work for other teachers and are potentially ill-prepared for productive membership of society as a whole. Offering members of a union local the right to revoke the tenure- or even to fire outright- individuals who make their jobs harder thus potentially benefits society and themselves. Such a process also creates an opening for the concept that a properly-designed testing regime can help them spot subtler burdens.

    More cynically, it also puts corrupt union leaders in the awkward spot of trying to persuade everyone that democracy is a bad idea and that they benefit from leaving the well-connected drunks in place. Some particularly skilled individuals may be able to salvage their power, but others will not.

  10. “Yes, this is absolutely true. For convenience I’ve used rent and money interchangeably, but clearly rent can be extracted in the form of work rules, as well. Indeed, most workers generally prefer this, as a lot of time is spent at the workplace, and workers naturally want this time to be as idyllic as possible.”

    While I’m inclined to agree, one needs to be careful not assume that more work always equals better results. A couple of examples come to mind:

    1. My aunt is an elementary school teacher in Aurora (you pass within a few miles of her every time you layover at DIA). Her main complaint about her job? Butt-covering bureaucrats who add functionally duplicate paperwork to her work load. While some paperwork can be good for teaching (keeping track of students’ problems and progress), a lot of it is not. Greater care in assigning paperwork would, while reducing her workload, probably not harm her students’ performance.

    2. Back when I frequented Slate’s Fray, I saw a comment from an elementary school teacher who wished she could sent the boys in her class out to play or run laps or something before class so they wouldn’t be hyper during the class. While one could argue that sending her students outside would constitute an extra break, it also (by her thinking–you’re a better judge than I) allows her to more efficiently cram knowledge into their heads when they’re in class. She would be working smarter and getting better results.

  11. Hey Michael,

    Thanks for clarrifying — sometimes I can be dense! 🙂

    Cases like teachers showing up drunk are enraging — they make us mad and do happen — but my intuition is that they are not the ‘real’ problem: as a fraction of the workforce there are not that many teachers that bad, and teachers that careless tend to make themselves easy target in other ways.

    The bigger problem from the perspective of Districts are teachers who are simply mediocre or slightly below mediocre. These teachers show up on time, show up sober, lecture, get grades on time — but aren’t as effective in improving student outcomes as better teachers are. These are the teacheres who really should be let go, because they contribute to a substantially worse labor culture without doing anything obviously bad. Without standardized testing, it is impossible to identify these teachers.

    In other words, without standardized testing, the threat to teacher solidarity is removed — only obviously terrible teachers are given the boot, not simply teachers who are not very effective.

    Using modern terms, we might say that below-average, average, and above-average are all part of the “99%,” while the lone oddball is simply a weirdo who can be excluded from the Occupation because of drinking, violence, or whatever else. Other actors want to break this workforce solidarity, so that above-average teachers can kept, average teachers can be improved, and below-agerage (yet not terrible) teachers can be given the boot.

  12. Michael,

    Thanks for your second comment — sorry I was tardy in posting my first reply!

    The question of whether teachers should be given flexibility in order to achieve their objectives depends on two things, I think

    1. Whether the teacher workforce is professional, that is, of high enough skill to be able to prioritize its own work, and
    2. Whether the outcome is measureable, so that administrators can judge teachers by results, if they can’t judge them by process

    The answer to the first question, at least I think for the time being, is no [1], though that could be turned around if there was the will [2]. The answer is to the secondis not yet, though good testing could change that.

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2011/12/31/the-lobotomy-of-low-wages.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2011/12/22/how-professional-teachers-should-be-evaluated.html

  13. “In other words, without standardized testing, the threat to teacher solidarity is removed — only obviously terrible teachers are given the boot, not simply teachers who are not very effective.”

    This comes back to my comment in the How Science Works thread. The ability to get rid of obviously terrible teachers opens the door to consideration of assessment in general–a door that can be slammed back shut if the assessment measures are poorly thought out. This applies equally to needless paperwork in my Aunt’s case or to testing that is statistically flawed or irrespective of standards.

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