Steve Jobs on Technology and School Reform

Steve Jobs

Image by acaben via Flickr

The untimely loss of 56 year-old Steve Jobs and the obituaries that followed reminded me of  what he told interviewers about technology and school reform. Jobs recorded these interviews in the mid-1990s before he returned to Apple as CEO in 1997.

Gary Wolf from Wired magazine interviewed Steve Jobs in 1996:

Could technology help by improving education?

I used to think that technology could help education. I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.

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.

I have a 17-year-old daughter who went to a private school for a few years before high school. This private school is the best school I’ve seen in my life. It was judged one of the 100 best schools in America. It was phenomenal. The tuition was $5,500 a year, which is a lot of money for most parents. But the teachers were paid less than public school teachers – so it’s not about money at the teacher level. I asked the state treasurer that year what California pays on average to send kids to school, and I believe it was $4,400. While there are not many parents who could come up with $5,500 a year, there are many who could come up with $1,000 a year.

If we gave vouchers to parents for $4,400 a year, schools would be starting right and left. People would get out of college and say, “Let’s start a school.” You could have a track at Stanford within the MBA program on how to be the businessperson of a school. And that MBA would get together with somebody else, and they’d start schools. And you’d have these young, idealistic people starting schools, working for pennies.

They’d do it because they’d be able to set the curriculum. When you have kids you think, What exactly do I want them to learn? Most of the stuff they study in school is completely useless. But some incredibly valuable things you don’t learn until you’re older – yet you could learn them when you’re younger. And you start to think, What would I do if I set a curriculum for a school?

God, how exciting that could be! But you can’t do it today. You’d be crazy to work in a school today. You don’t get to do what you want. You don’t get to pick your books, your curriculum. You get to teach one narrow specialization. Who would ever want to do that?

These are the solutions to our problems in education. Unfortunately, technology isn’t it. You’re not going to solve the problems by putting all knowledge onto CD-ROMs. We can put a Web site in every school – none of this is bad. It’s bad only if it lulls us into thinking we’re doing something to solve the problem with education.

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.

It’s not as simple as you think when you’re in your 20s – that technology’s going to change the world. In some ways it will, in some ways it won’t.


In 1995, Daniel Morrow of the Smithsonian interviewed Jobs. Excerpts follow.

DM: Some people say that this new technology maybe [the most important thing in schools]….

SJ: I absolutely don’t believe that. As you’ve pointed out I’ve helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world and I [am] absolutely convinced that [it] is by no means the most important thing. The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can. The elements of discovery are all around you. You don’t need a computer. Here – why does that fall? You know why? Nobody in the entire world knows why that falls. We can describe it pretty accurately but no one knows why. I don’t need a computer to get a kid interested in that, to spend a week playing with gravity and trying to understand that and come up with reasons why.

DM: But you do need a person.

 SJ: You need a person. Especially with computers the way they are now. Computers are very reactive but they’re not proactive; they are not agents, if you will. They are very reactive. What children need is something more proactive. They need a guide. They don’t need an assistant. I think we have all the material in the world to solve this problem; it’s just being deployed in other places. I’ve been a very strong believer in that what we need to do in education is to go to the full voucher system. I know this isn’t what the interview was supposed to be about but it is what I care about a great deal.

 DM: This question was meant to be at the end and we’re just getting to it now.

 SJ: 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….

The market competition model seems to indicate that where there is a need there is a lot of providers willing to tailor their products to fit that need and a lot of competition which forces them to get better and better. I used to think when I was in my twenties that technology was the solution to most of the world’s problems, but unfortunately it just ain’t so. I’ll give you an analogy. A lot of times we think “Why is the television programming so bad? Why are television shows so demeaning, so poor?” The first thought that occurs to you is “Well, there is a conspiracy: the networks are feeding us this slop because its cheap to produce. It’s the networks that are controlling this and they are feeding us this stuff but the truth of the matter, if you study it in any depth, is that networks absolutely want to give people what they want (original emphasis) so that [they] will watch the shows. If people wanted something different, they would get it. And the truth of the matter is that the shows that are on television, are on television because that’s what people want. The majority of people in this country want to turn on a television and turn off their brain and that’s what they get. And that’s far more depressing than a conspiracy. Conspiracies are much more fun than the truth of the matter, which is that the vast majority of the public are pretty mindless most of the time. I think the school situation has a parallel here when it comes to technology. 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.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

22 responses to “Steve Jobs on Technology and School Reform

  1. rohit2093

    Larry, I have been following your blog for quite some time, and must say, each post is really really interesting and meaningful. Thanks for all your sharing!

  2. Bob Calder

    Jobs still didn’t explicitly say that technology isn’t what people think it is.

    We can see that Jobs’ opinions on competition in schools are congruent with his management philosophy. BUT how would he propose to spread that management philosophy throughout the education industry if it didn’t in his own industry? The problem is not providing a superior education. That can be done. The problem is flattening distribution. It is being done in several locations around the world, but the driver is not competition.

    He presents a model that he thinks is capable of spreading a flexible model across the economy of education by creating artificial demand. The justification for it working here but not other countries? Missing. Meh.

    I understand that Jobs was able to comprehend his own industry thoroughly. The only other person I see with the same philosophy is Craig Newmark. The explanation of why I think that is embedded in what Jobs said above. Jobs and Newmark have put their work on the table for others to emulate for years.

  3. Ramiro Zuniga, Ed. D.

    I had not read these interviews before. I find it interesting that I have begun each of my graduate level course in administrative technology by asking my students the following question, “What is the most important thing in the world of technology?” Of course, I get the usual responses related to funding and state of the art technology. I tell my students that the human being is the most important thing in the world of technology. Great minds think alike? I’d like to think so.

  4. Pingback: Technology can't fix failed schools: Steve Jobs on Technology and School Reform | Students with dyslexia & ADHD in independent and public schools |

  5. I agree that “What children need is something more proactive. They need a guide”!

  6. Gary Ravani

    Good thing Jobs didn’t have much of an impact on education. If only the same could be said about Bill Gates.

    What he said about SAT scores was just flat wrong. On other kinds of scores he was also off the mark. NAEP scores in states with the highest % of union membership (mostly northeast quadrant)are the highest in the nation. States with the lowest teacher union membership (mostly southeast quadrant) have the worst student achievement by any measure. Strong teacher unions are able to leverage greater resources in the schools. It’s about improving teacher working conditions and student learning conditions.

    He obviously had no knowledge of the experiment with vouchers that has been going on for over a decade in several US cities. There is nothing, in terms of improved student achievement, going on in those cities. The NCES has reported on this issue. Some conservative think tanks have published press releases to suggest otherwise, but those have been easily debunked.

  7. Education is key to everyone’s future, not the just the children. I think that a course in life skills should be mandatory for all kids – like teaching them the importance of a budget or how to balance a checkbook. I know this might sound simple, but practical skills like this are often overlooked. Computers can only help so much if kids don’t grasp the theories behind the machine..

  8. SAT scores are down because MORE kids take the SAT than ever before. Back in the ’60s and ’70s only “college bound” kids took the SAT – in other words just the best and brightest. But now we encourage ALL kids to go to college – so many more take the SAT.

  9. As a teacher, I agree that technology is not “the answer.” But I do have to say that technology used appropriately is extremely engaging to children. And it is one more method for expanding our brain pathways to learning any particular subject.

    On the other hand, that word “appropriately” is the sticking point. I work in a very large district, and I can count on 2 hands the teachers who have any clue how to do much more than look at e-mail and do their online attendance. But then, I guess that gets to Jobs’ other points about teacher quality, doesn’t it?

    Betsy Weigle

  10. Pingback: Steve Jobs on Technology and School Reform | E-Learning-Inclusivo |

  11. Interesting opinions from a technologist but importantly, I think, a father.

  12. It is understandable but insufficient to use one’s own experiences to come up with solutions for solving problems. I suspect that Mr. Jobs’ daughter was a very bright, confident and curious person and would have done well most anywhere. Here is the great Mr. Jobs (and he was in his field) not even doing his homeowrk on vouchers or teacher effectiveness. The trick here is to pull up the 50% of students with less than a 100 IQ. Maybe we should try what the high school in my district did. Eliminate woodworking, small engine repair and electricity courses and replace them with poetry, pottery and languages. Eliminate world history and offer only one introductory computer course.

    • Anonymous Coward

      Eliminating world history … that’s IMO a very good explanation why US citizen have a strong reputation of being stupid in many places around the world. Especially in a world where most kids learn to use the computer on their own well before they go to school.

      You can pull up the 50% students with an IQ < 100, but you can't make their IQ go up per se – by definition, there will always be 50% students with an IQ < 100. I think especially for those students, woodworking and small engine repair are extremely useful.

  13. Yes. But what would Jobs say now that computers are more personalized and “proactive” to meeting our needs and wants and what would he say about the semantic web and it’s potential impact on education? Interesting to think about. I wonder if anyone has any recent interviews with Jobs on this topic. In the meantime, check out this provocative video from another interesting college dropout named Dan Brown — – I think his view supports much of what Jobs said in these interviews except that it is technology (as a vehicle for connecting people to content) not people connecting people to content that will end up disruptively reforming education. The confluence of the global economic stagnation and the rapidity of the development of intelligent technology will end up changing a great deal of our society in the next five years and I believe this will most likely happen for better or for worse in education.

    • larrycuban

      Gregg, thanks for the comment and the YouTube video by dropout Dan Brown. Jobs, Gates, Brown, and many more do drop out of college to pursue their dreams. Much harder to dropout of high school, however, and do the same. Dan had it correct that access to information has changed many institutional work settings; schools have shown some movement but hardly enough to satisfy reformers wanting more and better technology use in school. I do believe that Jobs had it right when he said it wasn’t about hardware or software, it was about the teachers. Schools do more than provide information–yet that is all Dan Brown focuses on in his video.

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  15. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a co-worker who has been doing a little research on this. And he in fact ordered me lunch simply because I discovered it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to talk about this issue here on your website.

  16. Pingback: The single most innovative concept in education is at least 100 years old – Quartz

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  18. Pingback: The single most innovative concept in education is at least 100 years old | RocketNews

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