October 12, 2011

The late Steve Jobs, one of the greatest inventor-entrepreneurs in history, took knowledge and content to the masses. He said quality education was the key to equality of opportunity, and felt this would best be achieved by governments giving educational vouchers to parents, to be used in any accredited school of their choice. India should learn from him. 

"I'm a very big believer in equal opportunity as opposed to equal outcome. Equal opportunity to me, more than anything, means a great education. Maybe even more important than a great family life. 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."
Clearly, good teachers are vital. But why are they so rare? "The problem there, of course, is the teachers' 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. Nobody can be fired. It's terrible." 

Can the problem be sidestepped by using computers and electronic teaching aids? No, says Jobs. "I've helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world, and I am absolutely convinced that is by no means the most important thing. The most important thing is a person. Computers are very reactive but they're not proactive; they are not agents." 

How do we create a system with good, motivated teachers? Jobs has a clear answer: we need competition between schools in attracting students and teachers, not unaccountable government schools with a lockhold on government funding.

Jobs says, "What we need in education is to go to the full voucher system. The customers (in education) are the parents, and the customers went away. Mothers started working and they didn't have time to spend at PTA meetings and watching their kids' school. Schools became much more institutionalised 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. And that's certainly what the government school system is. They don't have to care."
The economics of state education is crazy, says Jobs. The US government spends lots on education: around $4,400 per child per year. This is double the cost of buying a small car in instalments. But such educational spending is done by the government, and is not within the power of the household. 

"When you go to buy a car, you have a lot of information available to make a choice. Everybody knows about all these cars, and they keep getting better and better because there's a lot of competition. And there's a warranty. 

"But in government schools, people don't feel that they're spending their own money. If you want to put your kid in a private school, you can't take the $4,400 a year (spent per child by the government school system) and use it. If you gave each parent a voucher for $4,400 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. You could have 25-year-old students out of college, very idealistic, full ofenergy. Instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they'd start a school. I believethat they would do far better than any of our government schools would. Third, the quality of government schools, just as in any competitive marketplace, would start to rise." 

These conclusions apply to India too. Our educational policies remain with leftist ideologues and cynical politicians who think the state must, to the extent possible, deliver all educational services. The leftists hate private schools and colleges. Politicians dare not 
Teacher absenteeism is horrific, and many students cannot do simple maths or read complete paragraphs after years of schooling. Desperate poor parents are switching their kids from free government schools to private schools with fees. But chief ministers seeking to discipline teachers' unions have invariably been foiled. 

If challenged, teachers unions will threaten to strike before the annual exams, imperilling the future of millions of students. So, chief ministers invariably surrender. Instead, they try to recruit teachers as their own political agents. 

Besides, teachers man election booths on polling days. Politicians fear antagonising teachers, who might collude with the Opposition in fiddling election results. 

So, our situation is worse than anything Jobs complains about in the US. Yet, the solutions are similar. We must use vouchers to give parents the power of choice, and encourage private competition in the educational marketplace. Enthusiastic young entrepreneurs will rush into education, just as they once rushed into information technology. All it needs is the political will to combat the unions.

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