The Policy Shaper
By Maureen Nolan
In the 1990s, technology, as ever, was advancing apace, and the corporate and education sectors each were pondering a concern: Were public schools preparing students to succeed in a world dominated by information technology?
Barbara Stein K’72 has devoted much of her career to answering such questions, and she’s had a hand in shaping technology policy that’s influenced schools around the country. But first she had to unite factions. For instance, two of the players were the National Education Association, Stein’s employer, and Apple, whose co-founder Steve Jobs would sometimes opine against teacher unions.
Stein led NEA initiatives in technology, and to that end she needed to build partnerships with corporations, the federal government, and other entities. The education policy expert remembers working closely with Apple education staff on big-picture issues of schools and technology in 2007 when Jobs declared in a speech that teacher unions were what’s wrong with education today. Her phone started buzzing. “Everybody was crazed,” she recalls.
But because her working relationship was solid with the Apple education people, they worked through the turmoil. “There was enough trust and enough accomplishment together that when a crisis arose, it wasn’t such a big issue,” she says.
Stein led the NEA in developing online learning, working with a divergent group to encourage innovation and quality. “The world expected us to be knee jerk against it, but instead I led an effort to get us involved from the perspective of establishing quality criteria,” she explains.
The goal was not to be distracted by the areas where we didn’t agree but be very laser focused on the areas where we did agree.
Throughout her career, Stein would bring together unlikely allies and help them identify areas of common concerns. A big one was that education was mired in the past rather than looking toward the future. In the mid 1990s, Stein worked with the NEA to launch a collaboration called the CEO Forum on Education and Technology. She says it was the first business-education coalition to look at the issue of technology and what it meant for schools and for industry in terms of employees.
The forum found that schools were adopting technology ineffectively and in isolation — a school would get computers but not be wired for the Internet or teachers wouldn’t be trained to use them. To counter such issues, the forum created tools for schools and districts to assess how effectively they used technology.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills grew out of the CEO forum in 2002, and Stein was involved from the beginning. Rather than focusing on technology itself, the partnership addressed the skills students would need. Now called the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, the organization is a leading advocate for student readiness, with some 20 states as partners. Stein was its partnership program director from 2011 to 2017 and now works on special projects for the organization.
Early on, the partnership and Stein worked with the George W. Bush administration to ready students for the future, even as the NEA battled some of the president’s education initiatives. Stein wouldn’t let these disagreements derail their work.
“The goal was not to be distracted by the areas where we didn’t agree but be very laser-focused on the areas where we did agree. And that’s what we would do together. For instance, I did some presentations with a policy leader from the Bush administration, and the two of us would go out and be sort of like a cat and dog presenting together — and that would somewhat shock people. But we were fine with it,” she says.
It’s become more difficult to bring disparate groups together in the age of social media, Stein observes. “It’s so much easier to rally people with harsh rhetoric now,” she says. But she’s seen progress, albeit spotty, in how U.S. schools use technology and prepare students to become global citizens.
“Policy has been gradually encouraging schools to focus more on skills and equipping kids in how to take in new knowledge, how to deal with technology. So that’s been a change,” she says. “And the prior work in building coalitions across domains and ideology has set a good pathway to move forward in education even during these tumultuous times.”