Book Notes: Steve Jobs Blasted Teachers’ Unions, Planned Digital Textbook Feature for iPad

By Anthony Rebora — November 22, 2011 1 min read
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Apparently Bill Gates isn’t the only personal computing pioneer to have expressed strong concerns about the ability of America’s public schools to prepare students for the economic future—and to lay a good part of the blame on teachers’ union regulations. Toward the end of his bestselling biography on the late Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson recounts a private meeting between Jobs and President Obama that took place in the fall of 2010. At one point, Jobs—never one to hold back his opinions—brought up the subject of education. Isaacson writes:

Jobs also attacked America's education system, saying that it was hopelessly antiquated and crippled by union work rules. Until the teachers' unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform. Teachers should be treated as professionals, he said, not as industrial assembly-line workers. Principals should be able to hire and fire them based on how good they were. Schools should be staying open until at least 6 p.m. and be in session eleven months of the year. It was absurd, he added, that American classrooms were still based on teachers standing at a board and using textbooks. All books, learning materials, and assessments should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.

On that last point, incidentally, Jobs had a personal business interest. Toward the end of his life, Isaacson notes, Jobs was taken by the notion that the iPad could ultimately, in effect, replace students’ heavy backpacks. He saw the textbook industry as “ripe for digital destruction,” and was planning to hire top textbook authors to write alternative, digital versions for the iPad. These iPad-specific textbooks would be free and, in Jobs formulation, allow schools to “circumvent” state adoption processes.

It’s not clear from Isaacson’s book whether this project ever went anywhere, but it’s something teachers may want to keep an eye on: Jobs obviously had a pretty good track record on sensing well before everybody else which way the winds were blowing.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.