IBM's Lou Gerstner: "Lots of People Seem to Be Looking for Panaceas"
The CEO of Big Blue discusses the role of information technology in the context of a broader education reform agenda

Under CEO Lou Gerstner, IBM has marshaled some of its top research scientists into an ambitious program called, "Reinventing Education." The program examines how the same computer technologies that have transformed the business world can be applied to education. This work isn't confined to the lab. IBM is also working with schools to demonstrate how these reforms can be implemented. In a recent interview with Business Week's William C. Symonds, Gerstner discussed some of the lessons he has learned. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: What is the potential for technology to transform our schools?
Well, I think that technology could play an enormously important role in school reformation, but it could also be a very weak reed that people lean on, if it's not viewed correctly. Information technology is a tool. It's not an answer...but lots of people seem to be looking for panaceas.

Everybody wants to find a silver bullet that's going to fix public education. So there are people who think vouchers are going to fix public education. There are people who think merit pay is going to fix public education. And there are people who think information technology is going to fix public education.

But what needs to be done to fix the public schools is a whole series of difficult things: defining and raising standards, having systems of measuring student performance, having better teacher training, having accountability for parents and school administrators, and students and teachers and principals, development of new curricula. So there's an agenda for a lot of systemic change.

Q: So what's the role of technology?
Information technology is the single most important tool to help us get to where we need to be in reforming the public-education system in America, if it is implemented into standards reform, measurement, accountability, teacher training, and the like. I guess there's a certain amount of hope mingled with reality in my statement because I've been working on this problem for 35 years, and it sometimes gets a little frustrating to see the lack of progress. But I really do think we have a chance this time to really create the kind of change that we need to help our children. And it's a combination of an agenda that is garnering...broad-based support from governors to union leaders to business leaders. And then we have this tool called information technology that's going to enable people to make the changes.

Q: And that's what Reinventing Education is all about, right?
Absolutely. There have been numerous requests of IBM to give computers away and pay for Internet access. And while that's a good thing, we really have no interest in participating in that elementary-level process. What we're trying to do is help school districts deal with the really difficult jobs.

Q: How would you compare where our schools are today in using technology to where corporate America is?
Oh, they're way behind. Obviously, corporations over the last decade have learned how to apply this technology in extraordinarily powerful ways. You see it in the GDP statistics, the productivity statistics, in the global competitiveness statistics. So American industry has made this a clearly important part of its agenda for achieving excellence.

But I would say there's a race between the schools and the governments in this country for being last [in using technology]...and schools really are the institutions that have lagged the most.

Q: What impact could technology have on the cost of running the schools?
I believe the savings could be enormous. If you just look at one function, procurement -- just purchasing -- I've had a discussion with a number of governors who are quite interested in the fact that each of the states sort of has [its] own system for going out and purchasing supplies and textbooks. They would love to try and find a way to avoid duplicate costs.

But it's very important to point out what we've learned in business, which is you've got to make investments up front to get the savings. And too often in our public schools...there's no resources on the margin to fund change. So what it's going to require is some tough-minded reallocation of existing funds that are supporting the central bureaucracies.

Q: How much money should we be spending on technology?
I think the question is not how much, but how effectively we're spending it. I think there's plenty of money in the public education system today. I think we need to just reallocate from old bureaucratic systems to modern information-based systems. And then we've got to make sure it's applied and used effectively.

Q: How will the emergence of a new digitally based curriculum impact schools?
I think about my children going off in the rain when they were younger to try and find a book about, you know, a space shuttle, and maybe one or two books were there. Today, kids can go to the NASA site.

The learning experience is going to be unbelievably enriched by being able to tap into these sources. And the teacher in the classroom -- he or she now has an enormous set of resources they've never had before. But they also have a complexity they never had before. They have an opportunity to be creative, to think about how to integrate, to collaborate with others. But unless we educate the teachers and help them understand how to use these new resources and knowledge, we won't get the benefits.

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