The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform

The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform


These days everyone is for education reform. The question is which approach is best. I favor the Steve Jobs model.

In 1984 Steve introduced the Mac with a Super Bowl ad. It ran only once. It ran for only one minute. And it shows a female athlete being chased by the helmeted police of some totalitarian regime.

At the climax, the woman rushes up to a large screen where Big Brother is giving a speech. Just as he announces, “We shall prevail,” she hurls her hammer through the screen.

If you ask me what we need to do in education, I would point you to that ad.

At the top end, our public schools are producing fewer and fewer graduates who have the skills necessary for the world’s best jobs. At the bottom, each year more than a million Americans—that’s 7,000 every school day—are dropping out of high school. In the middle, too many American children float from grade to grade in schools that never challenge them to reach their full potential.

A high school student in Casper, Wyo., familiarizes herself with the iPad.

This is unjust, unsustainable and un-American. And it is especially galling because we have the technology to change it.

If you read the front pages of the New York Times, they will tell you that technology’s promise has not yet been realized in terms of student performance. My answer is, of course not. If we simply attached computers to leeches, medicine wouldn’t be any better today than it was in the 19th century either.

You don’t get change by plugging in computers to schools designed for the industrial age. You get it by deploying technology that rewrites the rules of the game.

Our children are growing up in Steve Jobs’s world. They are eager to learn and quick to embrace new technology. Outside the classroom they take technology for granted—in what they read, in how they listen to music, in how they shop.

The minute they step back into their classrooms, it’s like going back in time. The top-down, one-size-fits-all approach frustrates the ones who could do more advanced work. And it leaves further and further behind those who need extra help to keep up.

Teachers are likewise stunted. Some excel at lecturing. Some are better at giving personal attention. With the right structure, they would work together like a football team. With the existing structure, they are treated like interchangeable cogs.

The point I’m making isn’t about Apple. It’s about our colossal failure of imagination. The education industry bears a good part of the blame here. It continues to sell its tired wares into a failing status quo. It settles for mediocre charter schools. And its answer seems to be throwing more money at the problem.

Three decades ago, the Department of Education released a report noting that if an unfriendly foreign power had imposed our mediocre education system on us, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” In the three decades since, per-pupil spending on K-12 education has doubled—while achievement scores have been flat.

That’s where technology comes in. Just as the iPod compelled the music industry to accommodate its customers, we can use technology to force the education system to meet the needs of the individual student.

For example, say I was trying to teach a 10-year-old about Bernoulli’s principle. According to this principle, when speed is high, pressure is low. Sounds dry and abstract.

But what if I could bring this lesson alive by linking it to the soccer star Roberto Carlos—showing students a video clip that illustrates how his famous curved shot is an example of Bernoulli’s principle in action. Then suppose I followed up with an engineer from Boeing—who explained why this same principle is critical in aviation and introduced an app that could help students master the concept through playing a game. Finally, assessment tools would give teachers instant feedback about how well their students had mastered the material.

Better doesn’t have to be more expensive, either. For example, Georgia state legislators now spend $40 million a year on textbooks. They are considering iPads to save money and boost performance. Unlike a textbook—which is outdated the moment it is printed—digital texts can be updated.

Textbooks aren’t the only area for savings. Rocketship charter schools in San Jose, Calif., use a model that combines traditional classroom learning with tutor-led small groups and individualized instruction through online technology. So far the mix has brought higher performance with lower costs—savings that can be used to pay teachers more, hire tutors, and so on.

Let’s be clear: Technology is never going to replace teachers. What technology can do is give teachers closer, more human and more rewarding interactions with their students. It can give children lesson plans tailored to their pace and needs. And it can give school districts a way to improve performance in the classroom while saving their taxpayers money.

Everything we need to do is possible now. But the investments the private sector needs to make will not happen until we have a clear answer to a basic question: What is the core body of knowledge our children need to know?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on academic standards. But as a business leader, I do know something about how common standards unlock investment and unleash innovation. For example, once we established standards for MP3 and Wi-Fi, innovators had every incentive to invest their brains and capital in building the very best products compatible with those standards.

We are now seeing the same thing happening in education. Over the last few years, leaders and educators in more than 40 states have come together to reach agreement on what their students should know and be able to do in math and English—and by what grades.

They have come together because they have taken a look around the world. They know that the student in, say, San Francisco is not just competing against his classmate—or even against the kid from St. Louis. He or she is competing with his peers in Shanghai, Lima and Prague.

Steve Jobs knew all about competitive markets. He once likened our school system to the old phone monopoly. “I remember,” he said in a 1995 interview, “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.”

We have to care. In this new century, good is not good enough. Put simply, we must approach education the way Steve Jobs approached every industry he touched. To be willing to blow up what doesn’t work or gets in the way. And to make our bet that if we can engage a child’s imagination, there’s no limit to what he or she can learn.

Mr. Murdoch is chairman and CEO of News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal and a new Education Division. This article is adapted from his remarks Friday to the Foundation for Excellence in Education Summit in San Francisco.