John Wilson is the executive director of the National Education Association, the 2.7 million-strong teachers union based in Washington, D.C. And as of Sept. 1, he will become the chairman of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a consortium of technology companies working to create methods of teaching the skills needed by the American workforce of the future.
As such, he is in the thick of the effort to transform how public schools use information technology for both instruction and administration. CIO Insight chatted with Wilson recently about the state of IT in the nation's schools, and its critical importance in a rapidly globalizing world.
CIO Insight: What's the current state of IT in the public schools?
Wilson: We've got a long way to go to be state of the art. The federal government seems to have lost interest. In fact, the only funding available for education technology coming out of the federal budget was deleted by the Bush administration. That was very disappointing. Still, we've done a good job of wiring the schools for Internet access.
Unfortunately, while there are some islands of excellence in the schools, there is a substantial difference between the affluent schools and poor schools of America.
What would state of the art look like?
We believe every child should have a laptop computer they can take home. That's the basic tool. It's like having a textbook. In addition, a lot of schools need technology for special-needs students, especially for blind students and students with reading disabilities.
Is the technology industry doing a good job supporting public education?
I think it wants to. Companies such as Dell, Microsoft, Intel, Apple Computer and SAP have really stepped up to the plate and tried to position themselves as advocates for education technology and strengthening public schools. It's not just good business for them; they also understand that the kind of worker they need in the future must have the appropriate skills.
What's holding schools back?
Here's an example. In South Dakota, the governor wired all the public schools. Then the NEA partnered with a company called EdVision to create 21st-century assessment tools, which allowed teachers to test students on what they had been taught, and get the results in six seconds. That allowed teachers to organize their classrooms into those who mastered the subject, those who needed remedial help and those who hadn't gotten the help. The assessment process truly drove instruction.
The irony of the plan was that the federal government declared that the program didn't meet the testing standards of "No Child Left Behind."
But a lot of the school systems in the state kept the program anyway, because it was so effective, while adding what I call the 19th-century way of assessmentmultiple-choice questions, bubble sheets and the rest. Not only do students need training to prepare them for the world of tomorrow; bureaucrats do too.