Steve Jobs knocks teachers unions

19 Feb

Apple CEO Steve Jobs took a heavy bat and clobbered teachers unions the other day in Texas. He argued that no amount of technology in the classrooms is going to improve schools if they can’t fire bad teachers. And, of course, what makes that hard to do is the unionization of teachers.

Let me make a few things clear. I think unions are good things. If left to their own devices, many managers would just dump on the workers left and right. Lousy wages, lousy conditions, lousy benefits. The unification of the employees’ interests helps level the playing field. My grandfather was one of the original trustees of the union at Studebaker. I have a lot of respect for unions and think they do more harm than good.

But Jobs is also right, in part. There are bad teachers out there, and bad teachers produce bad student performance. I also need to mention here that I went to public schools until college, and I had some great, great teachers. I also had a few duds along the way. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law both work in public education, and they work hard (well, my mother-in-law is retired now, so she’s not working as hard at school, but she’s as busy as ever). Anyway, public schools need a way to get rid of the bad teachers. A former colleague of mine once said that unions preserve mediocrity. I can’t always argue with that mindset. When a workforce is unionized, it’s a lot harder to get rid of the bad employees. So on that point, Jobs is right.

But a problem arises when trying to identify a “bad teacher.” Some teachers can get their lessons across very well to some students but not to others. Some students learn better under a particular teaching style. Someone I think is a very good teacher may be seen as just average by someone else. So at what point do we all agree that a teacher is doing a bad job? How do we measure that performance?

Some suggest standardized tests, but I can tell you that method produces a very strong incentive for teachers to teach what’s on the test and nothing more. That can take a good or great teacher and make him or her mediocre. Testing might be one factor, but it can’t be the sole one.

Jobs has only thought this through part-way (which is unusual for him). But he raises an important point without realizing it. We need to have a solid national dialog on what we expect from our public schools, how we’ll pay for it and how we’ll measure our progress. Money alone isn’t the solution, but you can bet that better qualified candidates would be more attracted to teaching if the pay was better. We do, however, need to come up with a way to fund our educational goals and a way to ensure that those goals are being met. Until we do, our public schools will continue to have the sometimes-deserved reputation of being only average.

Of course, it’s more than just teachers. We have parents in our society who do not value education. When they don’t value education, their kids don’t value education. And that doesn’t help teachers, whether they are good or bad.

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