Editor’s note: Steve Jobs, whom Apple announced has died this week, recorded an interview with the Smithsonian Institution in 1995, in which he outlined his ideas on technology and education, among other things. You can find the full interview here.
Equal Opportunity, Not Outcomes
Steve Jobs: I’m a very big believer in equal opportunity as opposed to equal outcome. I don’t believe in equal outcome because unfortunately life’s not like that. It would be a pretty boring place if it was. But I really believe in equal opportunity. Equal opportunity to me more than anything means a great education.
Maybe even more important than a great family life, but I don’t know how to do that. Nobody knows how to do that. But it pains me because we do know how to provide a great education. We really do. We could make sure that every young child in this country got a great education. We fall far short of that.
I know from my own education that if I hadn’t encountered two or three individuals that spent extra time with me, I’m sure I would have been in jail. I’m 100 percent sure that if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Hill in fourth grade and a few others, I would have absolutely have ended up in jail.
Unions Destroy Meritocracy
I think it takes pretty talented people to do that. I don’t know that enough of them get attracted to go into public education. … I’d like the people teaching my kids to be good enough that they could get a job at the company I work for, making a hundred thousand dollars a year. Why should they work at a school for thirty-five to forty thousand dollars if they could get a job here at a hundred thousand dollars a year?…
The problem there of course is the unions. The unions are the worst thing that ever happened to education because it’s not a meritocracy. It turns into a bureaucracy, which is exactly what has happened. The teachers can’t teach and administrators run the place and nobody can be fired. It’s terrible….
‘Go to a Full Voucher System’
I’ve been a very strong believer in that what we need to do in education is to go to the full voucher system…. One of the things I feel is that, right now, if you ask who are the customers of education, the customers of education are the society at large, the employers who hire people, things like that. But ultimately I think the customers are the parents. Not even the students but the parents.
The problem that we have in this country is that the customers went away. The customers stopped paying attention to their schools, for the most part. What happened was that mothers started working and they didn’t have time to spend at PTA meetings and watching their kids’ school. Schools became much more institutionalized and parents spent less and less and less time involved in their kids’ education. What happens when a customer goes away and a monopoly gets control, which is what happened in our country, is that the service level almost always goes down.
I remember seeing a bumper sticker when the telephone company was all one. I remember seeing a bumper sticker with the Bell Logo on it and it said “We don’t care. We don’t have to.” And that’s what a monopoly is. That’s what IBM was in their day. And that’s certainly what the public school system is. They don’t have to care.
Competition Sparks Excellence
Let’s go through some economics. The most expensive thing people buy in their lives is a house. The second most expensive thing is a car, usually, and an average car costs approximately $20,000. And an average car lasts about eight years. Then you buy another one. Approximately two thousand dollars a year over an eight-year period. Well, your child goes to school approximately eight years in K through 8. What does the State of California spent per pupil per year in a public school? About $4,400 [Ed: This was 1995. Now it’s around $11,000.]. Over twice as much as a car.
It turns out that when you go to buy a car you have a lot of information available to you to make a choice and you have a lot of choices. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan. They are advertising to you like crazy. I can’t get through a day without seeing five car ads. And they seem to be able to make these cars efficiently enough that they can afford to take some of my money and advertise to other people. So that everybody knows about all these cars and they keep getting better and better because there’s a lot of competition….
But in schools people don’t feel that they’re spending their own money. They feel like it’s free, right? No one does any comparison shopping. A matter of fact if you want to put your kid in a private school, you can’t take the $4,400 a year out of the public school and use it, you have to come up with five or six thousand of your own money.
Vouchers Mean Better Schools
I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for $4,400 dollars that they could only spend at any accredited school several things would happen. Number one schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students.
Secondly, I think you’d see a lot of new schools starting. I’ve suggested as an example, if you go to Stanford Business School, they have a public policy track; they could start a school administrator track. You could get a bunch of people coming out of college tying up with someone out of the business school, they could be starting their own school. You could have 25-year-old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they’d start a school. I believe that they would do far better than any of our public schools would. The third thing you’d see is I believe, is the quality of schools again, just in a competitive marketplace, start to rise. Some of the schools would go broke. A lot of the public schools would go broke. There’s no question about it.
It would be rather painful for the first several years, but far less painful I think than the kids going through the system as it is right now. The biggest complaint of course is that schools would pick off all the good kids and all the bad kids would be left to wallow together in either a private school or remnants of a public school system. To me that’s like saying “Well, all the car manufacturers are going to make BMWs and Mercedes and nobody’s going to make a $10,000 car.” I think the most hotly competitive market right now is the $10,000 car area.
It is so much more hopeful to think that technology can solve the problems that are more human and more organizational and more political in nature, and it ain’t so. We need to attack these things at the root, which is people and how much freedom we give people, the competition that will attract the best people. Unfortunately, there are side effects, like pushing out a lot of 46-year-old teachers who lost their spirit fifteen years ago and shouldn’t be teaching anymore. I feel very strongly about this. I wish it was as simple as giving it over to the computer.