Intel's Craig Barrett: "Let's Get the Teacher Comfortable"
The chipmaker's boss calls for a national emergency mobilization to improve education

A key reason computers haven't had a greater impact on our schools is that most teachers don't know how to integrate them into their classes. Under CEO Craig Barrett, Intel has become a leader in tackling this problem with a $100 million "Teach to the Future" initiative. The goal is to train 100,000 U.S. teachers -- and 400,000 worldwide -- how to bring technology into the classroom. In a recent interview with Business Week's William C. Symonds, Barrett discussed the problem of getting teachers up to speed. What follows are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: Why is teacher training important?
If throwing technology at kids and the classrooms was the answer, the U.S. would be fat, dumb, and happy. We have more technology in the classroom, and more Internet connections, than anyone else. If you're a pessimist, you'd say the more technology [you have in schools], the worse you do. I don't really think that is the case.

I think the situation is that we know roughly 80% of the teachers are uncomfortable with the technology and don't know how to incorporate it into a classroom. When a 10-year-old knows more about something than you do, it takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of that 10-year-old and make a fool of yourself. So our thrust is, let's get the teacher comfortable with the technology.

Q: Why have teachers had such a problem with technology?
I think there's a great desire among teachers to get involved, but it's like learning anything new. When I sit down at a cocktail party with people of my generation, I find out many are PC-phobic. The teachers [we have now] are what we've got, they're in the system, and wouldn't be there if they didn't enjoy what they're doing. Our job is to make them comfortable.

Q: That raises the broader issue of attracting quality teachers to the schools.
At Intel, we're very invested in math and science teaching. But 25% [of the nation's math and science teachers] are not accredited to teach math and science. And in poorer districts, that goes up to 50%. The average career of a teacher just starting out is four years. So people going into this area are bright and aggressive, but they last on average four years.

Q: So what's the answer?
If you want to attract and keep people, you have to reward them accordingly. The median price of a house here [in Silicon Valley] is $500,000 to $600,000, and the starting salary [for teachers] is in the $30K range. So where are they going to live? [One problem] is that most master contracts prohibit merit pay. That doesn't mean you can't give merit pay, but you have to do it outside the system. But in this day and age, it is inconceivable that you have a system where...the job you do has nothing do with the compensation. This is a real structural issue. The whole recognition, compensation and performance-reward system [for teachers needs to change].

Q: How do you assess the overall quality of our schools?
The kids at the top of the heap are smarter than ever, but they're a decreasing slice of the pie. You can argue whether we rank 17th, 18th or 20th out of 20 countries in math and science comprehension among our 12th-grade kids. The longer they stay in the system, the worse they get. Who could [and should] tolerate such a system? [It's almost as if we said,] "Let's take a generation of our young people and legislate them into a system where the longer they stay in [school], the worse off they are to compete in the world's economy." This is bloody crazy.

Q: What kind of national effort will it take to improve our schools?
I would hope both Bush and Gore would take it one step beyond debate. Do we agree that the high-tech world is the driving force in the economy? It is pretty obvious. Should we be graduating more people who can help fuel this fire? The answer is: Sure we should! But are we graduating more computer engineers, electrical engineers, etc? No, it is down about 20%.

So I want Bush and Gore to move beyond debate to do something. This country does great when it gets focused. We mobilized to put a man on the moon. So declare an emergency, do something about it. There can't be a better time to do it. The economy has never been stronger, and the No. 1 issue on everyone's agenda is education. You can't get many more planets lined up.

Educators in foreign countries get this, but this country does not. India says they are going to become the software capital of the universe, and are going to train people. But do you hear anyone in the U.S. say we are going to maintain [our role] as the software capital of the universe by making these investments [in education]? I don't hear that at all.

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