Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Steven Jobs, School Reform, and Choice

Warning: opinions appear below. :)

I guess I was surprised to see Steve Jobs put one leg so directly into the bear trap of criticizing teacher unions at the 2007 Statewide Education Summit in Texas, sponsored by the Texas Public Education Reform Foundation; and then put the other leg right into the trap of asking for schools to act like businesses.

Not that there probably isn't a lot of room for discussion on the union issue, but those who are vendors to schools (and I include myself in that category), I think, have to be careful when pointing the finger of blame at any other group in public education. Just go to the exhibit hall of any educational technology conference, and you have to ask yourself if there isn't something fundamentally flawed with the idea of seeing schools as a "market." Huge amounts of money have been spent by schools on technology solutions that are often hard to tie to true benefits. How many other programs have been cut in order to purchase computers over the last 20 years?

Michael Dell was wisely a bit more circumspect on the topic at the same event. It's not that we shouldn't all have a voice in trying to help in education, but it does seem a little suspect for someone at the top of the financial pyramid--who got there in part by selling products to schools--to criticize an institution designed to protect the rights of those who are mostly at the bottom of that same pyramid. At least, that's how I see my teacher friends reacting.

And why would Steve Jobs believe that schools should be run like businesses? Hello!? I'll save that topic for someone who knows all the rebuttals, but I wouldn't trade the devoted teachers and principals that I know for their business counterparts. They live in different worlds, and for good reason. Both are worlds that could use improvement, but Steve--get real. Business is cutthroat. Education should not be.

I also think that it is all too easy to seek for simple answers to complex problems. At the heart of the dialog about education is a very simple fact:

Very smart, committed, thoughtful people have very different views about education, and how to best help our youth in their most critical and formative years.

K-12 education is not ready to be as quantified as medical school, or law school. As a society, we don't have a consensus agreement as to what constitutes a good K-12 education--any more than we have general agreement on politics, parenting, religion, or psychology. And so a large, public educational system is going to have a lot in common with the government of a democratic society: flawed, messy, wasteful, but ultimately balancing the interests of all.

Which is why I have been recently so interested in the charter school movement. Why don't we agree that we don't all have to agree on what constitutes the best practices for education. Let's allow some choice, so that those who want their children's school to act like a business can have that, and those who want a science-based education can have that, and those that want a religious education can have that. But I think this idea is generally met with a negative response (just as home-schooling often is).

Here's why I think that is scary to most of us, even if we don't realize it: the world is a bit more comfortable when schools are all relatively the same. All the fish are basically swimming in the same direction. Hey, it is like working in a factory--but the world our kids face after school is no longer like a factory. Choice would be much, much harder. As parents and as a community, we'd have to be much more involved with our schools, and in helping our children learn, and in making decisions about what we think is important for them. It would be more work, and we'd also be worried that we might make a decision that would ultimately be negative for our child, since that responsibility would now be more ours, instead of being able to blame the system. Am I on target here?

On the other hand, that's the great thing about choice: there will still be a regular, acceptable path for those who like that. I can't see that going away.
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