Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, criticized the impact of teacher unions on education, and Michael Dell decried education’s often hidebound nature at an exclusive education summit on Feb. 16.
In a rare joint appearance, Jobs and Dell, whose namesake company, Dell Inc., is the world’s No. 2 computer manufacturer after HP, sat down with a small group of educators and policymakers in Texas to discuss attitudes on education and talk about ways schools can better embrace technology to improve learning.
Both entrepreneurs, whose companies rely on schools for a significant share of their business, said technology can have a profound impact on improving the quality of teaching and learning in schools.
But the discussion, part of the Texas Public Education Reform Foundation’s Statewide Summit, quickly turned controversial when Jobs sharply criticized the nation’s teachers unions for crippling innovation and hampering the leadership of school administrators.
According to Jobs, no amount of technology can hope to improve schools, until principals and superintendents have the ability to make personnel decisions independent of union oversight. If schools really want to perform like businesses, Jobs said, the first step is for administrators to start acting more like CEOs, and less like bureaucrats.
“What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them (sic) that when they came in they couldn’t get rid of people that they thought weren’t any good?” he asked.
“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.”
Aware that his remarks were likely to cause a stir among many in the audience, Jobs later said: “Apple just lost some business in this state, I’m sure.” When contacted by an eSchool News reporter about his remarks at the summit, Apple said it didn’t plan to release any further statements.
Dell, who reportedly stayed quiet during most of Jobs’ commentary, later said he felt that teachers unions were created for a purpose, mainly because “the employer was treating his employees unfairly and that was not good.”
He added: “So now you have these enterprises where they take good care of their people. The employees won; they do really well and succeed.”
Despite Jobs’ comments, however, the event wasn’t all pyrotechnics. Both men spent considerable time talking about the importance of school technology in preparing students for the challenges of the 21st century.
Before his comments on teacher unions, Jobs told the crowd about his vision for textbook-free schools. In the future, he predicated, traditional textbooks would be replaced by online resources that could be constantly updated, much like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
“I think we’d have far more current material available to our students and we’d be freeing up a tremendous amount of funds that we could buy delivery vehicles with computers, faster internet, things like that,” Jobs said. “And I also think we’d get some of the best minds in the country contributing.”
In his remarks, Dell said today’s “Internet Generation” is poised to leverage technology in revolutionary ways, but must ensure they can translate the technical proficiency from their personal lives to their schoolwork–and later, to their careers.
But like Jobs he, too, criticized schools for being slow to adapt.
“All too often, walking into a modern-day classroom is like teleporting back to the 1950s,” said Dell. Rather than use technology to expedite old methods of teaching, Dell encouraged educators to embrace more innovative approaches and to think of the role educational technology can play in cultivating new skills.
Dell discussed the importance of such competencies as information and communication technology literacy, teamwork, and so-called “figure it out” skills necessary to compete in today’s global economy.
In efforts to further that dialogue, Dell announced the creation of IdeaStorm, a new web site where Dell customers, including educators, can go to submit ideas about how best to improve Dell products and services.
The site, described as a marketplace of ideas about technology and societal trends, encourages Dell’s community of users to interact with each other as well as with members of the company’s product and services teams.
Dell encouraged educators, students, and parents to log onto the site and post their ideas on how technology can continue to improve today’s education system. The most popular ideas, including education-related tips, will be used to create future Dell products and services, he said. The site is available worldwide so that educators, students, and parents can contribute ideas and learn from each other.
Suggestions posted to the web site — www.dellideastorm.com — include manufacturing all laptops with built-in web cameras and voice recorders, and having Dell sponsor an internet contest in which customers would be challenged to design a line of laptops for home and consumer use.
Users vote on ideas and each vote bumps up an idea’s “score” by 10 points. The more well-received the idea, the higher it appears on the site’s “Most Popular” page.
Dell executives and managers monitor IdeaStorm to gauge which ideas are most important and most relevant to users, and will occasionally weigh in on discussions or ask for additional input on ideas, the company said.
Dell talked about recent philanthropic efforts as well. Specifically, he mentioned three projects the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation are focused on in Texas, including a $261 million dollar public/private partnership focused on improving graduation rates and increasing college access for students in urban areas and along the Texas-Mexico border.
Ensuring that all students have access to technology does come with its challenges, Dell said. “This is new territory for many of our schools. I’m the first to say that Dell doesn’t have all the answers for making it happen, but we recognize that we’re an important part of figuring it out.”
Dell invited summit attendees to “engage in candid discussions to turn this into an opportunity.”
The Statewide Education Summit is a one-day education conference that provides a forum for dialogue so that key stakeholders can discuss school improvement initiatives and form working partnerships. TPERF, according to its web site, is a nonprofit group founded in 2001 that aims to strengthen the Texas public education system.
Besides Dell and Jobs, speakers at this year’s summit included former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Texas Public Education Reform Foundation