Jobs to bad teachers: You should be out of JOBS!

I’m still digesting Steve Jobs comments about educational reform that will likely prove to be controversial. My first reaction is to say amen – he’s talking good stuff and I can only hope educators listen up. Jobs is suggesting two key pieces of educational reform. One is the elimination of textbooks in favor of free online content, regularly updated by experts in the field. Gee, I’d have to say that one is pretty much a no brainer, though I’m worried this won’t be clear to many teachers, too many of whom fear the online educational cornucopia rather than embracing it. This idea is more provocative than it appears at first. Textbooks are part of the insulation we have between the “real world” and school. Online interactive instruction would break this down in very positive ways, not to mention save money and bring unprecedented levels of expertise to students. Textbook: $55. Getting nobel prize winners to interact in real time with high school students across the country? Priceless. I say bring it on, Steve!

The second suggestion is to make it easier to fire bad teachers. I certainly and strongly agree with this in principle, though I’m not sure in practice this style works well in the public sector because it can reduce the morale and productivity of the good teachers and I’m not convinced there are a lot of “bad teachers” out there, especially in the K-12 programs. I’m the son of two teachers, the spouse of a teacher, and friend and relative to perhaps a hundred teachers across the country (I have a very large extended family). Teachers, in my extensive experience, are a good group of hard working folks who almost to a person are primarily and overwhelmingly interested in helping kids.

So, will firing the few bad apples help or hurt? In my talks with teachers it is always striking to me how different the perceptions are of good, hard working folks in the public sector compared to those of us in the private sector. Like Steve Jobs I’m gung ho on the benefits of kicking some major ass when needed. Incompetence should be “rewarded” with a swift boot out the door. However the private sector has this expectation where the public sector does not. Bringing the fear of firing to the education sector could bring unintended consequences such as forcing the good teachers to process more paperwork to “prove” their worth and thus diminishing their ability to teach. I’d want to see proof that “firing bad teachers” will do a lot of good before we go to far in this direction, though clearly we should help put pressure on *all* systems to allow for dealing with incompetence swiftly and mercilessly. That is not ruthless at all because the alternative is far worse as it lets a single bad worker ruin hundreds of children’s lives or thousands of products.

24 thoughts on “Jobs to bad teachers: You should be out of JOBS!

  1. Easier to fire bad teachers is great. So would firing the bad clerks at the DMV. Unfortunately, no matter how much the politicians talk, neither ever happens.

  2. “Online educational cornucopia” is a pretty bloody sore spot around here. Di was at the Concord Consortium, — they produce some absolutely wonderful math and science material. Why is Di no longer there? Because they ran out of money and went through a contraction phase. This, mercifully, appears to be ending; we saw some of the CC folks in January and they were upbeat about getting new funding — but the virtues of a book, which cannot go away, are perhaps being given short shrift here.

    There is also the matter of reading books vs. reading online material. I recall that these two processes are much alike but not identical. It would be interesting to find some reasearch on children’s leaning patterns with similar material in the divergent formats.

    And teachers’ unions are a definite force to be reckoned with, as are the administrators and their innate conservatism. Getting rid of good teachers is a laudable goal, but who defines “bad?” Someone teaching evolution? Sex ed. that goes beyond the boundaries of what some pressure group doesn’t like — or doesn’t go as far as a competing pressure group desires?

    Rewards… hmm, I like that. In my experience (helping put technology in schools in western NY), and Di’s experience with several educational non-profit organizations, I’d say that a good, targeted, evidence-based funding system would work wonders. We got a lot of good things done when we showed school districts in NY that we could actually make a difference.

    In fact, I remember going to an heavily Amish district down near the PA line — they were among the most evidence-based and reasonable decision makers I ever encountered.

  3. research on children’s leaning patterns with similar material in the divergent formats

    Yes! Certainly called for. I would suggest there has been an ongoing informal “experiment” = massive increase in video game consumption, that suggests this format is probably superior to books because it tends to engage many in a more compelling way. But also possible that compelling and *educational* games are not a realistic goal.

    However my favorite part of Jobs talk is something everybody should agree about – that we could do a much better job of bringing the online environment into the classroom and connecting experts and students formally and informally. Some teachers have begun this process in their own rooms by simply visiting educational websites. My daughter’s 3rd grade class followed the Pandas at the San Diego Zoo thanks to web cams and it was one of her most memorable learning experiences. No big plans or big money needed – just GET … KIDS … CONNECTED!

    Ha – You don’t want creationists screening all the science teachers? How about if we let Mountain Gorillas on the nomination committees?

  4. We are falling behind other countries in education – we need to do something and not an incremental change but a major shift in entire education process!!!

  5. You can even take courses at MIT (online) for free now…of course you won’t get credit nor will you have access to their “network” of contacts. πŸ™‚

  6. Glenn I agree that fundamental changes are called for. In fact I think if we don’t get busy we could eventually see America lose it’s place as the effective global seat of higher education. Personally, I’m not sure that would be all that bad, but most seem to think it would.

  7. Joe, I think your point that young people today are more exposed to technology is a good one. Not all of them, but an increasing fraction. I wonder how that will alter the book vs. screen learning equation.

    Glenn, I have looked at some of the MIT course material and I was not overly impressed. This was a few years ago, back when it first came out, so it’s quite possible it’s been greatly improved. At the time it looked like the profs’ handouts had been posted without much context. I never learned Jack from the notes, to be honest. Interacting with the prof and the other people in the class is what really gets me going. A good system for doing that will be wikkid! πŸ™‚

  8. Interacting with the prof and the other people in the class …

    Plus people *outside* the class such as experts in the field.

    I think you are right that they may need to make the human interaction the core of the teaching technologies if they are to succeed.

  9. I also think mobile enabled class content for students to review if they have missed a class, online and mobile based homework schedules…

    Bird of a feather flock together capability facilitated by mobile would be hit especially with students (i.e. study groups, etc).

    Even test previews, sample questions, etc… and other inspirational, motivational mobile messaging should be a hit with the students.

    Tharwood for me, since most of my stuff was CS it was mostly hands on in labs, etc…the lectures really didn’t do much for me anyway. In fact I used to hold sessions with my professors to teach them my windowing techniques on both PC’s and DEC Regis back then. Ansi based windows used to be the rage back then! πŸ™‚

  10. The essential point is that teachers have tenure and re-defining tenure as being subject to some determination of ‘bad’ is unlikely to make much of a change at all.

    We could have enshrined buggywhip makers as valued positions and given them tenure, it would not have stopped the Model T.

    We no longer live in a world where books are rare, parents unable to read or too exhausted by farm chores to teach their kids. Its time to re-evaluate the social costs of schools and teachers. (health, crime, boredom, etc.) Homeschooling for a very brief time will keep students fully even with an eight hour day of tax-supported schools.

    After that, maybe we can reform the DMV too!

  11. Well, fools gold, you have some interesting points. I have many friends who homeschool. They usually do it for reasons of religion but some do it simply because the public school system is like a 747 with 3 engines out headed toward Mt. Everest.

    I do disagree with your comparing the Tenure process with enshrining buggywhip makers. I have worked in Schools for 8 years now. Far and away the biggest cause of these problems that I can see is the utter breakdown of a consistant societal family norm. Everyone looks at the schools and teachers to findout why the kids are coming out all screwed up. It is high time that parents took a look at themselves. Most of the truly responsible parents are already looking for Private or Home school alternatives. Public schools are left with kids from homes that care far less, and the schools ability to act as a surrogate parent has been almost completely taken away. So, kids come to school ill behaved, the school is not allowed to instill any form of moral base, the kids leave and are still ill behaved.

    We try, but don’t blame us for the bad kids out there. that is the parents fault.

  12. The advantage of some of the private schools is that they can select poor students but can also reject the problem students. Public schools are indeed dumping grounds, but where else are you going to put the kids. They are too young to go to prison…. yet.

  13. Fools Gold not sure that description fits the bill. Our kids are now in public schools and up until about 3 years ago they were all in private schools.

    In our particular area the public schools are doing quite well with the students…every year they are building additional new facilities. Every student has an iBook and for their reports they do full multimedia presentation and the parents are invited to attend when the student is in front of class presenting.

    The gifted programs are within the same school and it is integrated into their daily school life…it really is amazing.

    What they are doing as 7 and 11 year olds really blows my mind. They are far better equipped for our evolving society than I thought a public school could produce.

    It isn’t all roses though – there are problems and I do agree the problem students are kept and not properly disciplined – that is an issue.

  14. It is high time that parents took a look at themselves.

    Right! We’ve really been very impressed with our local Elementary and High School teachers, almost without exception. My wife subsitute teaches and so we know them better than most . I’d agree with Brewdude that most of the troubles are with home life rather than school issues.

  15. It is amazing what they let kids get away with now…and it is always a reflection of things at home.

    At least our children come home and tell us even if we don’t want to hear it. I cannot believe what children are allowed to do at home in regard to watching movies or surfing the net without supervision!!!

    Some of these parents are setting up their kids for a very sad future with the images they allow them to absorb through music, film, etc.

    I don’t have a problem with adults listening, watching or doing anything they want but these kids need to be protected from it.

    Most of the stuff is so demoralizing especially toward girls and woman.

  16. Glenn I’m struggling with the issues of how to deal with TV, Internet, Media imagery and kids. The kids seem to be handling the confusion pretty well, but I agree that the treatment of girls and women, esp. in music videos, music industry, online industry, is really questionable. I’m worried how youth – teens especially – process all the graphic material that new media tosses at them. However I should say when I ask my son and friend about this I’m impressed with their thoughtful replies and the fact they seem to make a big distinction between the real world and the virtual one.

  17. 20: Timely perhaps but totally irrelevant and utterly worthless to the question of a good or bad teacher.

    The only sexualization of JonBenet Ramsey was by the media who altered the images and repeatedly used ‘glamor shots’ despite the availability of the far more numerous ‘ordinary shots’ that filled the family album and actually depicted what her real life was like rather than a few beauty pageants that she chose to enter.

    One state tried quite some time ago to weed out underperforming teachers but the test was so easy that it just weeded out the illiterate teachers.

    One study of a few subjects who took a math test while wearing a swim suit is hardly persuasive of anything and quite frankly I think any girl in a swim suit who is suddenly confronted with a math test should indeed be suspicious and distracted (as well as probably a bit chilly).

  18. One state tried quite some time ago to weed out underperforming teachers but the test was so easy that it just weeded out the illiterate teachers.

    Well you do have to admit, that is a pretty darn good first step. I say fire all of the illiterate teachers…. πŸ™‚

  19. Actually brewdude, I agree with you despite the fact that in a very poor area the few teachers who were functional illiterates but had been concealing it very well were indeed good teachers. I do think getting rid of them was correct however. It is just that when teachers unions make the “test for good or bad” such a low hurdle that it becomes more of a silly joke than anything else.

    Books are cheap these days compared to when this country was developing and often the investment in technology in a school is a poor metric if the technology is underutilized.

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