People Who Know Nothing About Schools Telling Us How to Fix Them

Today's rash of quick fix answers started with Steve Jobs telling us the teacher unions are broken in the worst possible way. Principals can't get rid of poorly performing teachers. Plus Jobs says we need online books that are updated like Wikipedia. Brilliant job of stating the obvious and repeating things everyone in education knows. Yes, teacher unions help protect the jobs of poor teachers and yes textbooks are not being updated fast enough. I have yet to meet a teacher, a principal or a school board member who doesn't agree with those statements.

Don Dodge jumps in to support Jobs and to add that the other part of the problem is that principals have no way to reward top performers. Is there someone in education who doesn't know that this is a problem? It is a problem hardly anyone wants to fix though because it depends on people being fair and no one respects principals enough to give them a job like that. Robert Scoble agrees with both Jobs and Dodge and suggests that teachers need to be paid more. And he should know because he used to be married to someone who used to be a teacher. They all mean well but the problem is bigger than they think it is. In fact it is much too large to cover in a blog post. One of these days I'll write a book.

Heaven save us from experts. They all seem to have one thing in common - they think that teachers are, if not the only problem, the largest problem with American education. By my reckoning there are several groups that are a much larger problem. They are:

  • Government officials and the rules they lay down

  • Parents and the lack of support they give education

  • Students and their lack of willingness to do their part

  • Voters for not supporting the needs of good education

Yes there is work that can be done to improve teaching and teachers (let's start with schools of education by the way) and also school administrators. No question that there is room for improvement. But for the most part we are looking to fix large problems by fixing small things. Look at it like trying to fix a car by putting new tires on it while ignoring the fact that the engine is missing.

Every time the subject of school vouchers comes up someone tells me "schools that receive vouchers should have to follow the same rules that public schools do." Let me translate that to English. "Schools that receive vouchers much be required to fail." The government creates sets of rules with fairness as a theoretical goal but with a practical effect of making money for lawyers and life hard for teachers. It's not really about education as much as it is about control and covering peoples rear ends. It is about taking the easy way out regardless of results.

Take some of the aspects of no child left behind for example. If a school is failing the principal will be replaced. Will the new principal have any more power to effect change than the person they replace? Good grief no! That would be wrong. Is it any wonder schools don't improve. Or better yet, if the school doesn't have enough resources to do a good job let's take some of those resources away until they do a better job. Yeah that makes sense. If the board is too short cut it again.

Parents? Oh you don't even want to get me started on parents. Help a teacher control their child in class? Oh no that is the teacher's job. And oh by the way the child has heard the parent say that they don't respect teachers because people who make that little don't deserve their respect. And the parent who explains that the reason their child's report is word for word the same as the article in the Encyclopedia is coincidence? What about the parents who take their kids out of school for a week (or more) for a family vacation and demands that the teacher make it up when the child returns? Ask any teacher and you'll get stories like that for hours. How do we hold parents accountable for helping their children learn?

What about the student who refuses to do the work? Or who is disruptive in class on a regular basis? Why do we hold a teacher responsible for a student who thinks that filling in the bubble sheet (for a standardized test) in a pretty pattern is more fun than actually trying to figure out the answers? Or the student who comes to class to sleep because they were up late watching their friends play hockey? Or they worked late earning money for designer jeans and a new iPod? My father believed my job as a school aged child was to be a student. That's what I told my son his job was. In some parts of the work that is still the case. Not in the US of A though. Fix that problem Steve Jobs! No, you're not interested because it would cut back on iTunes sales wouldn't it!

I hear a lot of talk from voters about school issues. Cut the budget. Books out of date? Too bad. Computers old? Too bad. Teachers can't afford to live near work? Too bad. Cut cut cut. Do more with less!

Now I'm not a real expert. Yes I did teach in the classroom for nine years. I only spent one year teaching in elementary schools though. Although I did teach every grade from kindergarten through eighth grade that year I spent most of my teaching in a high school. I did serve six years on a (private) school board and another six years as an elected member of a public school district's budget committee. My wife and son are both public school teachers. My son teaches special education BTW. So I think I understand a little bit about how schools work. But I'm sure people will be happy to tell me where I am wrong.

The problems are huge. The need is for a complete restructuring of our education system. We need more choices for students and more responsibility placed on them and their parents. We need a way to remove the kids who refuse to learn and extra support for the students who want to do more (that means for gifted and for special needs both).

We need a new culture that values education above sports. We need teachers who are trained to teach using technology and who are provided with the resources (including paid training like most other professionals get) and the chance to be rewarded for doing a good job. We need principals who can get rid of bad teachers, reward good teachers and deal in a fair way with problem students and parents. We need testing that is reasonable but we need to lose the idea that we can test quality into the system. We need to teach the things that are hard to test. Things like creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and initiative. We need parents and other adults who lead by example - being life long learners and putting their time and money into education for themselves and their children.

As hard a problem as Steve Jobs may think fixing education is in actual fact it is harder than that.

Comments (35)

  1. Richard Erich says:

    As a former high school techer and current adjunct faculty at a large university, I say bring on the criticisms.  One of the worst characteristics of school systems is the entrenched thinking.  The unions do support that in their current configurations.  Terrible teachers are kept on, side-by-side with excellent instructors.  

    The education system needs to be shaken up radically to turn a corner.

  2. Oh the discussion is great. And I agree that there is too much entrenched thinking in schools. I would like to see people like Steve Jobs putting some of their money where their mouth is though. Bill Gates has been doing so and while there hasn’t been the success he and others would like I am more impressed with actions than just words.

  3. Aaron says:

    Every one wants a simple problem with a simple fix.  The truth is that this issue is so mind numbly complex no one probably can understand it.  But the idea that there are some bad teachers that cause all the problems and that the unions are responsible for keeping them employed. That is easy to buy into.

    My wife is a teacher, I hear her stories.  I don’t know if there is a answer.

  4. April Castro: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..

  5. James Robertson says:

    About your title:

    "People Who Know Nothing About Schools Telling Us How to Fix Them"

    Change "schools" to "politics", and "them" to "government".

    Hmm – doesn’t seem nearly so intelligent a catch phrase now, hmm?  For the same reason we have civilian control of the military, we need to have non-educator control of education.

  6. Stephen Rahn says:

    James, we have always had non-educator control of education for the most part in this country. Any idiot can get elected to the local school board. That hasn’t really worked out, now has it?

  7. Tim says:

    Umm, Steve was discussing the problem with school unions back in Feb. 1996 with an interview with Wired – he was still working at NeXT at the time.  I quote the interview (

    "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."

    So, Steve is being consistent in voicing his opinion about the educational system.  But, he’s being inconsistent when it comes to his view’s on technology solving the problem of education – as of recent he cites Wikipedia has one solution to the problem, but in the Wired interview he chides technology as solving very little:

    "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."

  8. Eric Blade says:

    Unions are completely unnecessary in this day and age.  They served their purpose in the early to mid 1900’s, and are now completely useless.

  9. Buddy Lindsey says:

    I recently sat down to think about the school system, as a person that recently got out of public school.  And yes the problems are vast and there are huge holes everywhere.

    I have to agree with the overall theme of the post that it isn’t a simple fix.  To fix the school system things accross the board have to change, not just in public education.  

    To truly change things in the education system almost ever aspect of our lives needs to be examined and broken down to fundamental parts and analyzed as to what is working and not.  When we find a part that isn’t working fix it reanalyze the situation until the fundamentals of how our society "thinks" about education is change for the better.

    Right now a lot of people think that education system is a lost cause or that public school is a government funded daycare, have actually heard people call it that in complete sincerity.  It would probably take a complete book to write out how to effectivly change the school system because the problem doesn’t just lie in the school system i lies in how we view the world around us.

  10. Katherine says:

    Eric, please cite your reasons for this broad statement. How, exactly, are they useless as a concept? As a special education teacher for 10 years, our union was barely able to keep ahead of the abuses that made us unable to perform our jobs correctly on a daily basis. My union had its problems, but it was FAR from useless. I would have burned out 7 years before I did had it not existed. Are you a teacher? If not, you have no right to make such a silly statement in response to a post regarding teacher unions. You, much like Jobs, have no idea what you’re talking about. And if you are, I certainly hope you open your eyes.

  11. Peter Kennedy says:

    Alfred Thompson has, so far, made the most intelligent comments on this topic. It is easy to blame the teachers union, but a big share of blame must lie on the number of mind numbing politically correct rules and regulations that teachers have to cope with. When i was at school, the teacher was allowed to give me the odd whack around the head to get my attention (it worked!). Now he has to beg me! That hardly ever works, wastes time, and results in less learning.

  12. Unions are a sign of poor management not a cause of it. Where unions have outlived their usefulness is with companies that try to be fair to employees and the unions try to over reach. While that happens (unions over reaching) in education, with protecting bad teachers being the one big example, there is still the matter of protecting teachers from arbatrary and often unfair treatment by political administrators and unreasonable work rules. If we treated teachers fairly unions would fade away quickly as many teachers do seem to object to the bad sides of them.

  13. David says:

    " If we treated teachers fairly unions would fade away quickly as many teachers do seem to object to the bad sides of them."

    In other words, teacher unions remain vital.

  14. Chris says:

    As a current high school teacher and _not_ a university professor (take it with a grain of salt, folks, but the tension is there), the issue isn’t so much teachers who are in rut in their thinking, it’s the idea of this article: folks at the top make a lot of decisions and have been for lots of years.

    Teachers, though, are left to make it look as though they are making some of the changes of the current 5-7 year cycle, but at the same time continue to do what they, as professional educators, know to be the best thing for students and parents.

    It amazes me that the same people who are making education the whipping boy of society’s problems were educated under the "old and imperfect" educational system.

    If you really want to change society (which is what really everyone wants to do, for some reason) change professional journalism. Sounds silly, but watch 5 minutes of local news and then try to stomach the 24-hour news, and you will see where and what our thinking as a society has gone.

    Don’t blame it on your 3rd grade teacher, or your high school English teacher who made you read and write; go after the shapers of what we talk about during the day in the name of "importance."

    Now, I need to figure out how OJ is connected with Anna Nicole.


  15. HG says:

    What a defensive title.  Obviously everyone knows something about schools.  We’ve all had to endure them.

    You should pay heed to someone like Mr. Jobs who obviously thinks outside of the boring four-wall classroom setting.

  16. Robert John Ed says:

    I sincerely dislike this aficianado self representation of bloggers such as yourself.  I am not saying you aren’t knowledgable; but your knowledge is limited to your perspective, as is mine and Steve Jobs’. To say he or I know nothing about school is so ludicrous and yet there it sits.  I went to school for thirteen elementary years and four secondary.  What can you tell me about school?  A teaching perspective.  What can I tell you?  A student perspective.

    It seems to me a teacher would understand the value of all vantage points in righting the education ship?  There are certainly holes, but not so many that we are to let this vessel sink.  What should we do?  I would very much consider everyone’s point of view and come to a logical conclusion through the best means we have possible (unfortunately, that runs through the most difficult of roads; politics).

  17. Well I’m sorry that people are getting worked up over the title of the post. It was of course intended to attract attention but not to distract as much as it obviously has for some.

    There are a lot of people who believe that being a student gives them some knowledge and perspective on schools. And of course to some extent it does but it is very limited. Like wise someone who has only been a teacher and a student doesn’t see what administrators see. And often administrators do not see what polititians see. We do need to look at the problem from all angles. We need to think outside the box and frankly that is something I pride myself on doing.

    There is little new in what Jobs is saying BTW. In teacher meet-ups and blogs you will read the some complaints about unions and the same suggestions about ebooks and wiki-style authoring. Other than attention, which has some value, Jobs is not bringing much to the table. If he has new ideas they did not make it to the articles I have read.

  18. Michael says:

    You seem to know the real problem, but don’t want to come out and say it. Public schools cannot work. You mention all the problems with lack of choice and motivation for teachers and principals, and it’s pretty obvious how private schools address those problems. You mention bad kids in school. Their parents need to be held responsible. That can’t happen at a public school. At a private school, parents have an investment thus they are much more motivated to get a return on their investment. Parents with no investment will have less interest and are much more likely to be tolerant of poorly behaving children that ruin school for other kids and make teachers’ jobs impossible.

  19. John Durler says:

    You obviously don’t have children, or you’ve home schooled your offspring(Typical.)  I am so tired of calling my daughters Teachers.  They have nothing but excuses.  Our guidance counselor really feels for us and the problems that nobody is willing to help in any positive way.  It will be Kudos for a non Teacher Supervisory panel that can at least weigh the percentages of our poor non-educated children.

  20. My son was not homeschooled. He only attended one year of public school and the rest private. He teaches in a public school though and works very hard to meet the needs of his students. As does my wife who also works in public school.

    A lot of the problems teachers have are caused by non-teacher supervisors already. While I agree that there is a need to non-teachers in school governance that is far from a complete solution.

  21. Peter says:

    I believe that parents hold the brunt of the blame here.  It used to be that parents wanted their kids to have more than they did, to always do better than them.  They worked with their kids after school on homework, projects, etc.

    Now parents have no time for their kids, leaving it up to afterschool programs or sports to babysit their kids.  Who instills the desire to learn?  Who is supposed to be proud of their child’s accomplishments?  Who is supposed to encourage kids to try harder when they fail?  This is not the teacher’s job, per se.  Sure many teachers do perform these functions, but the kids need role models and encouragement from home every day.

    The TV needs to be shut off, video games and computers put away and books opened for learning.  Public school worked when there were few distractions and parental expectations of success.  I was going to drop the "one parent should stay at home for the kids" bomb, but flexible schedules should allow for parents to spend some quality educational time with their kids.

  22. As someone who rather recently finished college… I do have a somewhat up-to-date impression of the sate of schools in the US…. it’s messed up.

    I see the problem as something very deep within, something that just throwing money, or a few new regulations won’t begin to fix.  The problem is that good teachers don’t want to work in schools, and people who shouldn’t teach find the profession attractive.

    What?  Let me explain.  95% of teachers fall into the following categories.

    1.  Younger people who needed to get a job to either pay for graduate school, or just the rent.  They either want to move on to a better paying career or simply hold a job while having summers off, as well as winter/spring break.  Off early enough to even have a little free time in the late afternoons.  Often have minimal classroom experience, and little (most often 0) real world experience in the workplace or discipline they teach.  This accounts for the majority in most places.

    2.  Dedicated individual, typically older, though occasionally fresh out of college.  Often had careers but gave them up because they weren’t rewarding enough, or they didn’t enjoy it.  They will spend countless extra hours helping students, extra activities, tutoring (to help make up for loss of income), etc.  Many have either 20+ years of teaching, or less than that, but many years out in the real world, and bring the insight they learned from their careers into the classroom.  This accounts for about 5-7% of total teachers.

    The problem is that people who are potentially falling into the 2nd category don’t want to teach.  While people that fall into #1 are encouraged to do so.  This system is completely contrary to what the system should do.  The job done by most of these teachers could be done by a computer with equal results.  Both can read out of a book, grade a test, and run on auto-pilot.

    Perhaps requirements to join a union should require you meet the quality of #2.  Fail to live up to those requirements?  Termination.  Meet/exceed them?  Rock on.

    There are some great teachers out there, I’ve had them.  But there are many who really don’t deserve their paycheck.  They do nothing a computer couldn’t adequately do as good (if not better).  These individuals are the core problem.

    I’d personally like to see schools required to publish and be evaluated based on the following:

    – Average # of years teaching for teachers

    – Average # of professional years in work env. for teachers.

  23. David Latimer says:

    I enjoyed your post. However, how is "a way to remove the kids who refuse to learn" different from "if the school doesn’t have enough resources to do a good job let’s take some of those resources away".

    It sounds like you might be more willing to give a struggling school a chance than a struggling student.

  24. David, I think that every student should have a chance but I am not sure that it is always a good idea to keep a student in a mainstream classroom. Is it in society’s benefit to reduce the learning of 25 students by say 40% to improve the learning of one student by 5%? I think that is the trade off we sometimes make in the wrong direction. I think we need more alternative ways (teachers, classrooms, even schools) to teach so that more students get an environment in which they can succeed. So when a child refuses to learn I am not suggesting they get less by any means. What I am suggesting is that they get ‘different.’ And that we allow the other students to get what they need without the distraction. Win-win as I see it.

  25. David Latimer says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Alfred. I’m with you 100%.

  26. Mocha says:

    I can’t comment on everything here. It’s simply too much and yet so important. My problem with NCLB and reform efforts and failing schools has to do with what you mentioned about responsibility: where is the responsibility of the parent and child? Where are those addressed?

    One of my favorite parts of the KIPP program is that parents who send their children there are required to sign a form that states: "I and my child are responsible for their behavior." Amen. It’s not me. It’s not any other educator. It’s not any other person. THEY need to be culpable. It just can’t always be us.

    Here’s what I’d like to see the Steve Jobs of the world do: come into schools and ASK US what should be changed instead of proclaiming that they know everything we need. We actually have something to say.

  27. Doug says:

    <i>If a school is failing the principal will be replaced. Will the new principal have any more power to effect change than the person they replace? Good grief no!</i><p>

    That’s not true.  

    First of all – all that NCLB requires is that students perform at grade level in reading and math.  Just grade level – basic proficiency.  Are you saying that it is too much to ask schools to ensure every child can read and do basic math?  

    If a school misses a performance target, there are a series of escalting interventions that take effect.  

    Year 1—Students can attend another local public school (not private school).

    Year 2—Students are given the option of receiving tutoring.

    Year 3—Corrective Action

    Year 4—Restructuring

    Year 5—Alternative Governance

    States can also require more dramatic action or restructuring earlier in the process – say year 3 or 4.  

  28. Actually yes it is true. At least in New Hampshire the year three step is to replace the principal. No additional power, as far as I can tell, is given the new principal.

    BTW what other local school can a student attend if there is only one school in the whole district? That is pretty much the case in New Hampshire.

    If getting every child to basic grade level is so easy why do we need NCLB? Are you saying that schools are not trying? What about mentally handicapped students? Do you think it is reasonable to hold them to the same standards as students of average and above levels? NCLB does not allow the same sorts of accomidations that are generally used with special education students.

    It’s not too much to ask that all students reach grade level. What is not reasonable is to blame the school for things that are not under their control. What is not reasonable is to take away resources in cases where they are already lacking.

  29. "We need a new culture . . . ."

    Yup. Try teaching students who come from cultures in which teachers and education are valued and respected.

    Makes all the difference.


  30. Andrew Williams says:

    Personally, I think if Steve jobs wanted to know a little more about what he was talking about he’d try teaching high school on the wrong side of Oakland.

    That aside, I really think that the main thing wrong with schools is that people (parents, administrators, students, and even some teachers)  really don’t actually value education. They say they do, but they are pretty much lying or in denial.

  31. Mark F says:

    I think there will likely never be a perfect education system, but I do think those that want to excel, do.  I attended a very highly regarded public school.  There were many that excelled, but there were also those that just got by, and those that failed.  I am pretty sure it is the same at a poor performing school.  If a kid wants to learn and succeed, they will.

  32. Dean says:

    Check out the Wired response to Jobs, and Digg it to the front page!:

  33. The Wired response is ok. I’m not sure it is better than mine 🙂 or Don Dodge’s latest on the subject. Either mine or Don’s would be better if Digg’s to the front page. Just my opinion.

  34. RobinJ says:

    I have enjoyed reading this blog and all the posts.  I have a BSEE degree but am considering a 2nd career teaching secondary math.  I like teenagers and I believe math is so important for kids to understand, and the sooner the better.  The biggest reason I hesitate is not the abysmal salary, having to go back to school, join a union, deal with a few disruptive kids, etc.  It is having to work for a school administrator.  As a parent of four kids, I have seen the attitude and goal shifting that has gone on since NCLB.  The focus is now on getting all kids to grade level – this means achieving the 40th percentile mind you – in our state they call it "proficient".  I’ll come back to that later.  The latest great idea is to teach math for 1/2 the year in 90 minute blocks – unless you are NOT proficient.  If you are below the 40th, you get 90  minutes of math every day for the whole year.  Actually, I applaud the attempt to help those kids that are struggling.  My issue is that the  average and above average math students, the majority, will go 7 months without math.  On what planet is that a good thing?  How much review will teachers have to do for kids that have been 7 months with no math?  What about kids who transfer in or out mid-year?  No provision for letting the solid math students take two math classes in a year though.  Can’t waste resources on kids that are already above the 40th percentile!  Math teachers were not consulted, at least not any that I have spoken with about the new curriculum plan.  Many are parents themselves and share my concerns.

    Another lovely experience we’ve had with public school admin is when our 13 year old wanted to move up a level in math.  She spent 7th grade reviewing what she’d already learned in 6th grade.  Her teacher kept telling her "we’ll be starting new material next month" and by December she was beside herself with frustration.  This amount of review I was told was just part of the transition to junior high – we can’t over burden these students with too much new material when they are already going through so much change.  Agh, what bunk. So, my child was bored and asked to be moved up to algebra for 8th grade.  The school said no, because she didn’t quite score high enough on an algebra test that was given in January of her 7th grade year.  We were not allowed to see her test.  Also, her ITBS scores did not indicate that she was "gifted".  Her ITBS scores are about the 90th percentile – not gifted.  But so what?  Since when do you have to be gifted to learn algebra?  Since when is it OK not to teach kids new material in a given year?  It’s all about making sure that everyone that was behind in 6th grade could catch up before moving on.  Not only did the principal flatly refuse to let our daughter advance in math, he also told us we were pushing our daughter too hard and asked us if we’d thought about what a B in math might do to her High School GPA.  I would have laughed had I not been so angry.  Much better I guess to send kids off to college with a transcript full of easy A’s.  That great looking high school transcript will really help them succeed in the world!  Mediocrity is now the goal, although it is not stated so frankly.  Instead, 8th grade district math goals are stated as follows:

    ·         More than 86% of all 8th graders will be proficient in math (I).

    ·         More than 69.2% of all IEP 8th graders will be proficient in math (T).

    Remember that proficient means 40th percentile.  These are the only math goals listed.  Not looking at improvement benchmarks from one year to the next – just making sure we’re all above the 40th!  If my child drops from 90th down to 80th because she wasn’t taught new material for a year, that’s just fine.  She’s above the 40th, goal achieved.

  35. trophycase says:

    "The need is for a complete restructuring of our education system."

    Talk about burying the lead! You should have run with this.

    Finger pointing isn’t going to fix anything. The system itself is the problem. When one side is blaming the other, hell, you’ve got a mexican stand-off here, like a Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s time to look beyond the actors and take a look at the script.

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