Thursday, October 6, 2011

Think Different: A Lesson in Education Reform and Life, from Apple's Steve Jobs

"I really believe in equal opportunity. Equal opportunity to me
more than anything means a great education." - Steve Jobs
News today has been dominated by the sad passing of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who died yesterday at the young age of 56 from what, by most accounts, seems like complications from a long battle with pancreatic cancer. His wife and four children are in our thoughts today, as we reflect on the life of someone who truly had an impact on the day-to-day lives of people spanning multiple generations.

Jobs was an extremely private man (that's in part why his death yesterday came as such a surprise; few knew how ill he'd been in recent weeks), and beyond his trademark unveiling of new Apple products (and his characteristic "one more thing" line before the reveal of the big product), appearances at technology conferences, and the occasional, sometimes remarkable commencement address (the most notable being a 2005 speech to the graduating class that you can watch below), he kept things pretty close to the vest.


But occasionally, Jobs would chime in about the issues of the day, and in the same way he was an innovator when it came to consumer electronics and the computer industry, he had a a way of understanding the complexities of some of the most significant problems facing our country.

Among those was, not surprisingly, education.

During his much-discussed hiatus from Apple in the 1990s, as his kids began to grow older and his interactions with the education system became more substantive, Jobs—during a 1996 interview with Wired Magazine, then in its early years—was asked whether he thought technology could help improve American education. His answer might surprise you (emphasis ours):
I used to think that technology could help education. I've probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent. 
It's a political problem. The problems are sociopolitical. The problems are unions. You plot the growth of the NEA [National Education Association] and the dropping of SAT scores, and they're inversely proportional. The problems are unions in the schools. The problem is bureaucracy. I'm one of these people who believes the best thing we could ever do is go to the full voucher system. 
I have a 17-year-old daughter who went to a private school for a few years before high school. This private school is the best school I've seen min my life. It was judged one of the 100 best schools in America. It was phenomenal...If we gave vouchers to parents for $4,400 a year, schools would be starting right and left. People would get out of college and say, "Let's start a school..." 
...They'd do it because they'd be able to set the curriculum...God, how exciting that could be! But you can't do that today. You'd be crazy to work in a school today. You don't get to do what you want. You don't get to pick your books, your curriculum. You get to teach one narrow specialization. Who would ever want to do that? 
These are solutions to our problems in education. Unfortunately, technology isn't it...Lincoln did not have a Web site at the log cabin where his parents home-schooled him, and he turned out pretty interesting. Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology. Precedent also shows that we can turn out very uninteresting human beings with technology.
The takeaways there are fascinating. First, there's his explicit endorsement of school vouchers, and the recognition of the role special interests play in blocking such necessary reforms. Then, there's the implicit endorsement of the charter school model, too (for a system which, at the time, contained far fewer than the millions of charter schools that exist today). And, finally, he touches on what numerous organizations like Teach for America have aimed to tap into in recent years: the importance of luring our nation's best and brightest young people into the profession of teaching.

In sum, Jobs recognized long before it was popular the importance of educational options for families, freedom for administrators to construct the curriculum that best fits their student body, and the importance of keeping our smartest students in the education field and, even more ideally, in the classroom.

Steve Jobs was having some of the conversations that dominate the education reform debate a decade and a half before there was a Waiting for "Superman," long before anyone had ever heard of Michelle Rhee, and years prior to "No Child Left Behind" being more than a slogan for children to follow as they walked in a single-file line down the hallway.

And despite the fact that Jobs overwhelmingly supported Democrats and Democratic causes, it didn't matter that there weren't many Democrats back then saying the things he was saying (Jobs, after all, was a strong supporter of John Kerry and Barack Obama's presidential campaigns, and Al Gore sits on Apple's Board of Directors). Even when it may not have curried much favor politically, Jobs said what he believed—and he was usually right, even if it took people a while to realize that. When it came to all of his passions and pursuits, Jobs lived out the very slogan he coined for Apple in the company's infancy. He was able to "think different."

In the same way that the iPod, MacBook, iPhone, and iPad were pioneers in their respective fields, bringing MP3 players, ultraportable laptops, smartphones, touchscreens, and tablets into the mainstream before the ideas had entered the minds of competitors, Jobs was an education pioneer. Had he not rejoined Apple soon after this interview—thereby creating each of the aforementioned, revolutionary devices—it would not have surprised us if we'd today be paying homage to Steve Jobs, education reform innovator.

He was not a man afraid to stick to those sometimes unpopular guns even after he attained the level of fame for which we knew him, either. Just weeks after the announcement of perhaps Apple's most transcendent device—the iPhone—in January 2007, Jobs reiterated his support for the same education reforms he'd been taking about 12 years earlier. You can read more of those comments via a great compilation put together by Jay P. Greene, but if there's one takeaway from all of his comments on education reform, we think it's best captured via the following passage:
...I really believe in equal opportunity. Equal opportunity to me more than anything means a great education. Maybe even more important than a great family life, but I don't know how to do that. But it pains me because we do know how to provide a great education. We really do. We could make sure that every young child in this country got a great education. We fall far short of that...
Great minds rarely exist in a single sphere, and Jobs was proof positive of that fact. His calling was in Northern California, under the logo of a fruit in the heart of Silicon Valley, with a set of ideas that changed the way we interact with technology in our daily lives.

But his broad genius was evident long before he became the Edison of a new generation. And although he's no longer around to share his insights with the world, we should let his words, ideas, and inventions inspire us all to...

- American Federation for Children | Alliance for School Choice, MAG

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