OPINION: If only Amazon.com ran public schools
"Many of the problems we face have no textbook solution, and so we -- happily -- invent new ones." -- Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon.com
If only most of our public school leaders felt the same way about textbooks and innovation. The kind of free-thinking entrepreneurs Bezos values most on his "Amazonian" campus might do poorly on the standardized tests that public school students are force-fed.
"Have backbone, disagree and commit," Amazon encourages. In all but the very best high schools, that kind of attitude is often quashed. And once quashed, it's hard to get back. Obedience to the point of subservience, rote learning -- that's what passes for success at many public schools. In a number of big cities, including Washington, some schools have even been accused of teaching to the tests.
I mention Amazon because President Barack Obama gave a jobs speech at the company's warehouse in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Tuesday. He picked the warehouse because that's where Amazon has job openings, and that would seem a suitable place for the president to call for more jobs and job training.
But the warehouse also has a symbolic downside: The kinds of jobs being offered are perfectly suited for the work-by-rote mind-set that many public schools end up inflicting on students. To work at one of Amazon's "fulfillment centers," as warehouses are called, you must be able to read, lift up to 49 pounds, work at heights of up to 40 feet, walk or stand for up to 12 hours and "be willing and able to frequently push, pull, squat, bend and reach," according to the company website.
The job has robot written all over it. And while it beats unemployment, there is no future in it. It's an $11-an-hour gig. At that rate, you could work a 40-hour week for 52 weeks straight and not make half of the $60,000 or so a year that constitutes a middle-class income for a family of four.
Obama would have done better to pick one of the company's innovation and technology departments as a backdrop, especially since he wants to create "good-paying jobs in high-growth and high-demand industries . . . for today and tomorrow."
Jobs in those departments -- where the motto is "Invention is in our DNA" -- require creative thinking and a willingness to take risks, not a hallmark of today's public school education.
In the first in a series of his "Better Bargain for the Middle Class" speeches last week, Obama cited education as essential for a strong middle class.
"If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century," he said during the speech in Galesburg, Ill. "If we don't make this investment, we'll put our kids, our workers and our country at a competitive disadvantage for decades. So we must begin in the earliest years. That's why I'll keep pushing to make high-quality preschool available to every 4-year-old in America -- not just because we know it works for our kids, but because it provides a vital support system for working parents."
High quality, mind you, not just more of the same.
To Bezos, solutions to complex problems are often arrived at in a "messy" way, so he encourages tolerance for teamwork that often appears "chaotic."
In many public schools, students never get a chance to experiment with such styles of problem solving. Many schools no longer offer art. No instrumental music, no choir, no theater and no debate. There's no money, or no room in the standardized curriculum.
After 12 years of that kind of creative repression, a student is hardly prepared for more than servitude on the bottom rungs of the American economic ladder.
Many studies have found that the best predictor of future economic status is the wealth of the parents, not educational achievement. If so, we must make education No. 1 again.
"There is no physical analogy to describe what Amazon is becoming," Bezos tells his employees. "You have the opportunity to help create the future for one of the world's most innovative companies."
If Bezos can provide opportunities for employees to create a future for Amazon, then we ought to be able to provide students with opportunities to create a future for themselves.