Steve Jobs on teacher unions

by Russ Roberts on February 21, 2007

in Education

Steve Jobs, speaking at a conference on educational reform, sacrifices a few future dinner party invitations with a moment of intellectual honesty. The AP reports:

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs lambasted teacher unions Friday, claiming
no amount of technology in the classroom would improve public schools
until principals could fire bad teachers.

Jobs compared schools to businesses with principals serving as CEOs.

"What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you
told them that when they came in they couldn’t get rid of people that
they thought weren’t any good?" he asked to loud applause during an
education reform conference.

"Not really great ones because if you’re really smart you go, ‘I can’t win.’"

In a rare joint appearance, Jobs shared the stage with competitor
Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Inc. Both spoke to the gathering
about the potential for bringing technological advances to classrooms.

"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."

At various pauses, the audience applauded enthusiastically. Dell sat quietly with his hands folded in his lap.

"Apple just lost some business in this state, I’m sure," Jobs said.

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Sam Grove February 21, 2007 at 11:29 am

I recommend Thomas Sowell's "Inside American Education" for the ultimate lowdown.

Speedmaster February 21, 2007 at 12:11 pm

I commented on the story here. Jobs is taking a beating in much of the press over this.

Brad Hutchings February 21, 2007 at 2:18 pm

There's another problem in education… Not only can principals not fire the bad performers; they can't offer back dated options to the good ones. (Inset cymbal crash here…)

All kidding aside, this is the kind of thing that give Silicon Valley liberals the political credibility they have. They are pretty libertarian but with social justice leanings. The Valley does not work without free trade, immigration, and IP. It has a strong entrepreneurial ethic that persists in its biggest long term successes (HP, Apple, Cisco, etc.). But on the social justice angle alone, they line up with the Dems. It's weird.

Ravi February 21, 2007 at 5:08 pm

Good one, Brad!


Just curious why you didn't mention Michael Dell's follow up! Not that I agree with him — I do think that was one of the lamest explanations CEO of a major corporation can make. Wonder if Dell allows unions to protect his employees from himself.

just the messenger February 21, 2007 at 5:33 pm

Brad – Wait, what? How does drubbing a labor union line up with the social justice views of Dems? Am I missing something here?

Bumbler February 24, 2007 at 12:47 pm

"How does drubbing a labor union line up with the social justice views of Dems?"

It's called not being an ideologue. One can side mostly with one political party, as Jobs does with the Dems, yet still critisize thier policies when warranted. Jobs obviously thinks the Dems are mostly right, just not in this instance.

Peter March 27, 2007 at 10:36 am

Steve is right. I read a couple articles, which i can't find now, last year about how New York city schools are littered with bad teachers (ie: the abuse students, act inappropriately, have bad recrods, etc) and even have a 'school' that they go to because they can't fire them. This 'school' is just a holding pen to keep them away from students. But they keep getting paid and do nothing all day long.

The red tape that the union has instituted for firing a teacher makes the process last years. As a teacher you can literally get away with most crimes short of causing a death of a student before you are ejected from the system, and even then it could take years.

The system breeds a level of mediocrity and allows the worst of the lot to stay in the system while the good teachers continue to get crappy salaries and leave the profession altogether.

Hippy March 27, 2007 at 10:46 am

I think it is an interesting opinion that Mr. Jobs believes the public school systems are failing because of the lack of "good teachers". In my opinion (at least in my area) the teachers are generally well qualified, but it is the parents who are the majority of the problem. They have transformed the job of teacher into that of surrogate mother/father and babysitter. Mind you I am not saying all parents are like this, but there is a huge problem with parents taking little or no responsibility for their child's performance. When their child then falls behind, the parents point the teacher for blame. Teachers are being given less and less rights in the classroom and they are being forced to teach not a subject, but in preparation for some absurd state mandated exam. In a school district in the state of Virginia (which I will leave unnamed), in order for a teacher to prove that he or she has done everything in his or her power to aid the child, they must offer their after school time to aid the child, record the date and subject of all conversations with the parents, keep records of all email contacts (with some parents asking for daily reports), and schedule several group meetings with the family to discuss this problem. This sounds semi-legitimate until you realize a single team of teachers is dealing with hundreds of students, and unfortunately in the current educational system, there are an exaggerated number of students requiring this level of attention. Either you need to think about paying teachers a larger salary to reflect the responsibilities that have been thrown upon them, or you need to re-evaluate the goals of the public school system, which should lie in the realm of educating the youth, not raising them.

I have had friends teaching in low income urban areas who have expressed the concern of the adequacy of the teachers, but I feel that not all of the blame can be pushed on the teachers. It is time for the parents to stop "passing the buck" and take responsibility for their offspring.

Shard March 27, 2007 at 11:22 am

I think this also ignores the other half of this – teachers need to be able to fire bad principals. The administrators in a school can cause a significant amount of problems for the school since they have so much unrestrained authority (especially if they have friends on the Board of Education). They can even move to get the good teachers fired if they disagree with their methods.

This was a major problem at the high school that I went to – some of the best teachers in the state and they were quitting and retiring every year because they couldn't stand being under the administration. The principal was also constantly defunding and trying to mess up or remove any extracurricular group that was not involved with the athletic teams, even though a third of the school was in the drama club.

The reason that teachers need things like unions and tenure is in order to fight back against this tyranny.

Jim Jones March 27, 2007 at 11:28 am


Look, the school system can't control the parents but they can control pay (by influencing legislation) and personnel (if the unions were realistic about competition amongst teachers).

If the school system could fire bad parents, I think they would (admittedly, that would solve the biggest issue). But the second biggest issue is bad teachers, and if they could gain a foothold on the problem and only get the best in front of the students, then we may have a chance.

RunFatBoy ( – An exercise plan generated for you.

Anon March 27, 2007 at 11:50 am
Tim March 27, 2007 at 12:14 pm

One size fits all curriculums and too much emphasis on standardized testing are causing a lot of problems also.

It my district we had some really good teachers who were teaching specialized classes within their field (ie. Nuclear Proliferation and Thanatopsis), until the district forced them to stop teaching the classes because other schools in the district didn't have anyone who could teach them.

Standardized tests (just like any artificial benchmark tied to incentives) just encourage people to game the system. Teachers will teach to the tests, and not teach children how to learn.

j.c. March 27, 2007 at 12:17 pm

Jobs comments would only be valid if the schools could offer decent salaries to hire "good teachers". You get what you pay for.

Anon March 27, 2007 at 12:53 pm

The problem with schools today is definitely the teachers… and the principals… and the school boards… and the parents… and the voters… and the media.
Good schools are a fine balance. Teachers that cannot be fired are as dangerous as teachers that have no security. You pay crappy wages to teachers that work obsessively long hours teaching classes that are over crowded without the needed resources and administration that is apathetic, dealing with parents that are hostile about the sociopathic tendencies of their spoiled little angels with antagonistic co-workers that can't be fired. Anyone see something that needs to change? The fix for this isn't as simple as "yeah! those crappy co-workers need to be fired!" Ask anyone why they don't make a difference and go teach? Then the reasons come out: not enough pay, couldn't deal with the kids, I've met the principal/admin/secretary/schoolboard/etc… and I couldn't work with them-they are idiots, curriculum sucks, couldn't deal with the parents, etc…
If you wouldn't teach, what kind of people are teaching? You want to make a difference? make the schools an environment that you would want to teach in.

Jonathan March 27, 2007 at 12:58 pm

I think the real problem are the kid's attitudes. Granted, "bad" teachers need to be removed, but it doesn't matter when teachers are expected to be baby sitters and counselors for the problem kids.

If kids actually wanted to be there. If they actually felt it was important to them to do well. You would see a marked change in the efficacy of American education.

Just check the Indian school systems. There's only so many spots for colleges. If you don't do well, you're sweeping streets the rest of your life.

Meg March 27, 2007 at 2:04 pm

I am a teacher and a union representative for teachers. Teachers can be fired IF the administrators go through the proper channels (watch the teacher actually teach, evaluate them on a timely basis, etc.) I have a principal and vice principal who have tried to fire teachers without ever watching them teach a class because they didn't want to deal with parent complaints or student referrals. Why were their parent complaints? Because kids didn't get the grades they wanted, because 13 year olds lied to keep themselves from getting in trouble, because it's easier to blame a teacher than to take responsibility for crappy parenting. Why were students given referrals? Because one threatened to kill another, because emotionally disturbed students were thrown in a room together without support because there wasn't enough money to provide them sufficient support, because a teacher that holds them to high behavior standards has an uphill battle.

If people want to see how their child's teacher is doing, they should volunteer… in all grades, not just early elementary. I'm so tired of hearing that teachers are bad from people who have never tried it. Sitting in a classroom when you were a kid does not make you an education expert anymore than watching TV makes me a good director.

What about Georgia? March 27, 2007 at 3:11 pm

Georgia doesn't have teachers unions.

cranky March 27, 2007 at 3:18 pm

Amen Meg!

Doug March 27, 2007 at 3:33 pm

Steve Jobs should stick to comment on subjects that he knows something about. Like selling cheap plastic crap that people don't need.

Red March 27, 2007 at 4:26 pm

Schools are successful. Its the system that's the problem.Schools are not for the kids. Schools are for the government. Their goal is for children to be docile, compliant, predictable citizens. If you don't believe it then I suggest you learn more history of American education. Because the men who designed, funded, and implemented America's formal educational system in the late 1800s and early 1900s wrote about what they were doing. Schools were conceived to serve the economy and the social order rather than kids and families — that is why it is compulsory.

William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, wrote:

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.

Lisa March 27, 2007 at 5:02 pm

Bad teachers and teacher's unions are easy scapegoats in a very complex situation. I have seen an excellent teacher taken before the board of education because a child made a false claim and the parent was an attorney. Just the fact that she was an attorney, or maybe it is true for all parents, made the every person up the administration chain throw this teacher under the bus and no one lifted a finger to support her except her union.

Today, principals are afraid of parents (and lawsuits) and children lie to their parents (what else is new) and today parents side with their children rather that the teachers. Back in the day parents believed the adult rather than the child. The tide has definitely turned on this count. But I digress…so teachers are caught in this nowhere zone where they are hung out to dry and blamed for so many circumstances that they have no control over. Particularly those saints that work in low-economic, low-performing areas. If their principal doesn't support/back them up with an emotionally overwrought parent…they better have someone who will.

This is one of those situations where you really have to walk in a teacher's shoes to understand the complexity of what they are up against. I didn't realize it myself until watching several bright, dedicated close friends of mine try to make a difference. I now am in awe of what they do every day.

Fred March 27, 2007 at 5:49 pm

How many of Apple's products are made in the US? I'm betting zero.

How many teachers in China are fired over poor performance?

How many Ipods are sold in China?

If he is so worried about the education of American children, then he ought to start with the real problem. The breakdown of the nuclear family combined with unbeleivably low paying jobs.

Let's not forget how many trillions are squandered on death and destruction throughout the world with our f'd up defense/war budget.

Hey Jobs…….your products are over-rated.

brianary March 27, 2007 at 9:54 pm

Yeah, it sure sucks that workers at the poverty line won't give up all of their job security. I wonder why that is?

Hey, did you see they tried to raise our property taxes by like $50/yr? The nerve! Yeah, I'll have the usual Venti triple-shot carmel latte. Can I get one of those CDs, too?

Ross March 27, 2007 at 11:30 pm

Why were their parent complaints?

I think you mean:

Why were there parent complaints!


Dictionary Boya March 28, 2007 at 4:46 am

Actually schools fail not because they can't fire the bad teachers, but because they can't pay the good students! :)

Peter March 28, 2007 at 12:38 pm

This article is just more manufactured news designed to distract and confuse the mass of readers.
Jobs’s comment is yet another example of recycled black-and-white thinking.
What makes Mr. Jobs an expert on education? What does the ruler of a large U.S. corporation know about public schools? How can he know anything about them? I’m sure his kids (if he has any) go to private school, anyway.

As usual, it is a case of shirking responsibility and searching for scapegoats to carry the blame:
• Teachers are poorly paid, and their noble and crucial profession is now held in low esteem, unfortunately.
• Most organizational problems ultimately stem from bad management. Therefore, we should put the spotlight on principals and school boards.
• Most parents have little involvement with the education of their children. The result is not surprising.
• It’s tough to teach indifferent kids whose primary interest is following the consumer trend machine.

Shane March 28, 2007 at 12:54 pm

I agree completely with Peter. Teachers are under paid and overloaded with responsibilities. There is a general lack of respect for the teaching profession.

I live in Canada and my fiance is a teacher. Lately there was a strike and the news stories were rife with ignorant parents basically referring to teachers as spoiled baby sitters who shouldn't have the option to strike because it 'ruins there routine'.

Yeah, so does having a salary that barely supports you. If I weren't also working, we would be bankrupt in under a few months, and we do not lead an extravagant life style.

Shane March 28, 2007 at 12:57 pm

ok… thats weird… why was my comment put under 'peter'?

leftteaching April 1, 2007 at 12:08 pm

I left teaching after many years because of poor pay, uninterested administrators, poorly-trained principals, and parents who did not care about the children they so easily created.

Woeful April 1, 2007 at 7:36 pm

As a municipal employee, I can honestly say that although there are some bad teachers, the problem (and expense) is mostly administration. Teachers aren't well paid, yet Board of Education budgets eat up most of our tax dollars… This money goes into the administrator's pockets (layer after layer of them). Flatten those layers, compensate teachers better, and subsequently alleviate a lot of the problems.

givemeabreak December 5, 2007 at 6:04 pm

I'm teacher and a single mother of a newborn child, who's father just passed away. I love my job, and I dedicate a lot of my time planning and making sure I have differentiated instruction so my lessons can be productive and approachable for all of my students.
I work hard and now I'm asking myself why? I wake up early in the morning leave my baby and come to work an hour early and leave and hour after the final bell and for what? I cannot afford a decent home for my child, I have to make choices either buy a home or provide medical insurance for my child….It is just so ridiculous that the state nation focus on teachers when the situation for many teachers are unberable… We have overcrowded classroom, administration sucks!!! low income how do you expect good teachers to stay in their profession.
I don't count on my husband's income anymore and it is hard to make ends meet, and yet I am in my classroom everyday for many hours, because I care for my students, but in all honestly I care more for my son and he needs more and sadly this profession is not giving me and my son what we need economically.

TakeMyMoney January 16, 2008 at 12:22 am


Now there is a worthwhile undertaking ;)
Wouldn't it be better placed in a lit class rather than given a place among the un-dead subjects like algebra and history?
And they want more funding . . .

Moises Villalpando March 16, 2008 at 11:02 pm

I grew up in a school system that did not fit my needs. During my elementary school years, in San Diego I was immersed into an “all English classroom”, were I was pulled for an hour a day with a bilingual teacher. I felt that I went to school for only that hour. I also transitioned to a classroom where all the newcomers and emergent readers congregated for a dose of reading out of a basal. I have always been reserved in places where I felt insecure and that reading group was one of those places. Being a coy student, I never volunteered to read. Once I did however, I knew that English sounded different than Spanish but I just wanted the teacher to know that I could decode swiftly in my language. So I volunteered and decoded the chapter instantly but using Spanish phonemes. Needless to say many peers from my group smirked but I proved my point. The rest of my day I had some grammar work, looked up definitions from a spelling list, wrote them “five times each”, copied others’ sentences, and on Fridays I would ace the spelling tests. After working with twenty vocabulary words for the whole week the only thing I could do is to spell them on the “spelling test”, but never used them in context.

Moises Villalpando March 16, 2008 at 11:03 pm

I grew up in a school system that did not fit my needs. During my elementary school years, in San Diego I was immersed into an “all English classroom”, were I was pulled for an hour a day with a bilingual teacher. I felt that I went to school for only that hour. I also transitioned to a classroom where all the newcomers and emergent readers congregated for a dose of reading out of a basal. I have always been reserved in places where I felt insecure and that reading group was one of those places. Being a coy student, I never volunteered to read. Once I did however, I knew that English sounded different than Spanish but I just wanted the teacher to know that I could decode swiftly in my language. So I volunteered and decoded the chapter instantly but using Spanish phonemes. Needless to say many peers from my group smirked but I proved my point. The rest of my day I had some grammar work, looked up definitions from a spelling list, wrote them “five times each”, copied others’ sentences, and on Fridays I would ace the spelling tests. After working with twenty vocabulary words for the whole week the only thing I could do is to spell them on the “spelling test”, but never used them in context.

Moises Villalpando March 16, 2008 at 11:03 pm

Why was that? Cadeiro-Kaplan, an Associate Professor in the Department of Policy Studies in Language and Cross Cultural Education at San Diego University, comments that “the ways which written language is taught always reflect a particular ideology about what constitutes appropriate literate behavior. (Cadiero-Kaplan, 2004, p. xvii) So reflecting back to the 1980’s what seemed to be the political ideology? And how did it affect the school’s approach on literacy education?
During the early 1980’s Ronald Reagan was the President of the United Sates. In that very year when I embarked my new life in a new world, with a new language, and a new culture, the Reagan administration released a report called A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform which claimed the poor quality of schools had failed the nation. “No Child Left Behind’s mandate for states to create educational standards can be traced back to the 1983 report a Nation at risk” (Spring, 2005, p. 49) Needless to say, I was immersed in a one-size-fits-all type of policy. My parents were not given the option to place us in an alternative classroom setting that accommodated my needs. A year later, in 1984, the Bilingual Education Act was reauthorized; funding allowed for developmental bilingual and “special alternative” (all-English) programs. A year later, the Reagan administration induced districts that had initially adopted Lau Plans to renegotiate these agreements. The implication was obvious. Those who wanted to eliminate native-language instruction could now do so with blessings of Office for Civil Right (Crawford, 2004, p. 125-126). In the midst of my young educational life and this political agenda, our school only offered English Only curricula.

Moises Villalpando March 16, 2008 at 11:04 pm

I remember having to do the same routine every single day as I mentioned earlier. Some might argue that routines are essential in the classroom. Nonetheless, the types of routines I engaged in appeared to be very mechanical. My new educational world had fallen into a type of ideology that had been influenced from a political agenda. I believe that I was immersed in a functional literacy ideology. “Functional literacy ideology is reflected in a curriculum that teaches students the skills deemed necessary to participate in school and society successfully. (Cadiero-Kaplan, 2004, p.5) Cadiero-Kaplan cites a passage from Miles Myers on the definition of functional literacy ideology. “The functionally literate curriculum was originally defined under the premise of English for All and focused on “sequential reading skills, grammar skills, and some of the ‘basic’ cultural information usually found in literature with an emphasis on decoding and analyzing parts of texts-as objects” (Cadiero-Kaplan, 2004, p. 5) I worked out of basal readers, worked diligently on drill-and-kill worksheets, and this is how I became functionally literate.

Moises Villalpando March 16, 2008 at 11:05 pm

Much has occurred from when I was a fifth grade student to now that I am actually a fifth grade teacher. Many political agendas have influenced teacher pedagogy. I believe that No Child Left Behind has pressured what goes on in the classrooms today. For example, at our particular school, we have adopted a web based program that, “is organized into topics covering all of the California Content Standards that are tested on the state-mandated California Standards Test (CST) and California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in grades 2 through 8 and high school”.(Study Island, n.d.) My students have been working on this program as requested by our administration. Additionally, our administration has also purchased grammar workbooks that teach students how to read and write via grammatical rules. More recently, our reading recovery teacher and a few classroom teachers have received training on a program called Voyager that teach how to read and write through repetition. . The administration has been in my classroom to “model” math lessons. These lessons used the concept of banking as discussed by Paulo Freire (1970), instilling solely algorithms without the focus of the concept. I believe that this was strategically done for one reason; the CST. Again, the concept of functional literacy is conspicuous (but in Mathematics).

Moises Villalpando March 16, 2008 at 11:06 pm

I most certainly have a different view on language policy and educational ideology which ultimately affect, as mentioned earlier, educational curricula and teacher pedagogy. First of all, I don’t believe in an ideology that accentuates cultural hegemony which I believe is juxtaposed with functional literacy. “Cultural hegemony involves the denial of the cultural knowledge valued by other cultures as well as the exclusion of valid knowledge about other cultures that gives them legitimacy”. (Hollins, 1996, p. 88) On the contrary, I believe in a language policy that underlines a curriculum that acknowledges the repertoire of knowledge that children bring in from their home-culture. We now live in a world that is culturally diverse and the way we teach language should reflect an understanding of this phenomena. Hollins (1996) explains that a child’s language should be used in the classroom as a basis for new learning. “The curriculum designed for culturally diverse school settings, as well as one intended to develop global awareness and intercultural understanding, must be simultaneously particularistic and inclusive. The particularistic aspect of the curriculum extends and validates the learner’s culture and the learning already in progress”. If culture is as Hollins (1996) explains “the essence of who we are and it is acquired through experience and observation” then culture must have a direct impact on what, how, and where we breath, see, smell , touch, sense, listen, speak, share, and, express. We must consider all of the above as we reflect on language policy. However, with any language policy we must perceive every single child as capable beings. I believe that a classroom should be well balanced with a combination of one of the four Cadiero-Kaplan’s (2004) literacy ideologies with Hall’s model of policy of pluralism .

Moises Villalpando March 16, 2008 at 11:07 pm

Cadiero-Kaplan (2004) quotes Ursuala A. Kelly in defining critical literacy. “The ideology of critical literacy is one “of social transformation in which the ideological foundations of knowledge, culture, schooling, and identity-making are recognized as unavoidably political, marked by vested interests and hidden agendas.” When presenting information from a constructivist paradigm, students will be able to express and critique the information provided by the teacher while validating what students bring from home. I feel that this would give students something far beyond cultural capital; it will cause students to analyze and question the world. For example, once we were reading our fifth grade history book and we came across the Latin phrase, e pluribus unum. The students understood that this phrase was adopted as the motto for U.S. (cultural capital) and its meaning, however, they felt that in this day in age we are not one out of many. My students felt that the government was being hypocritical because they felt “that the U.S. can be racist”. E pluribus unum needless to say, became the topic of a 30 minute conversation.

Moises Villalpando March 16, 2008 at 11:12 pm

I feel that the policy of pluralism is an adequate policy to have here in the United States. In this country we have a plethora of cultures and languages. I am an advocate of those who oppose the assimilation approach, “which encourages subordinate groups to adopt the language of the dominant group as their own”. (Hall & Eggington, 2000, p. 15) Pluralism, on the other hand, as stated by Hall (2000), encourages linguistic and cultural diversity. This language policy shift at a national level would definitely allow for a more humanistic approach in school programs, curricula, ideologies, and pedagogy. It would create a culturally aware society were everyone respects and learns cultures and languages. If the United States would advocate for all groups including, subordinate groups and human equality, this country will be one step closer national unity.

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