Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc., criticized the impact of teacher unions on education, and Michael Dell decried education’s often hidebound nature at an exclusive education summit on Feb. 16.

In a rare joint appearance, Jobs and Dell, whose namesake company, Dell Inc., is the world’s No. 2 computer manufacturer after Hewlett-Packard Co., sat down with a small group of educators and policy makers in Texas to discuss attitudes on education and talk about ways schools can better embrace technology to improve learning.

Both entrepreneurs, whose companies rely on schools for a significant share of their business, said technology can have a profound impact on improving the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

But the discussion, part of the Texas Public Education Reform Foundation’s Statewide Summit, quickly turned controversial when Jobs sharply criticized the nation’s teacher unions for crippling innovation and hampering the leadership of school administrators.

According to Jobs, no amount of technology can hope to improve schools, until principals and superintendents have the ability to make personnel decisions independent of union oversight. If schools really want to perform like businesses, Jobs said, the first step is for administrators to start acting more like CEOs, and less like bureaucrats. “What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them [sic] that when they came in they couldn’t get rid of people they thought weren’t any good?” he asked.

“I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way,” Jobs said. “This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.”

Aware that his remarks were likely to cause a stir among many in the audience, Jobs later said: “Apple just lost some business in this state, I’m sure.” When contacted by an eSchool News reporter about Jobs’ remarks at the summit, Apple said it didn’t plan to release any further statements.

Despite Jobs’ comments, the event wasn’t all pyrotechnics. Both men spent considerable time talking about the importance of school technology in preparing students for 21st-century challenges.

Before his comments on teacher unions, Jobs told the crowd about his vision for textbook-free schools. In the future, he predicted, traditional textbooks will be replaced by online resources that can be updated constantly, much like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

“I think we’d have far more current material available to our students, and we’d be freeing up a tremendous amount of funds that we could buy delivery vehicles with computers, faster internet, things like that,” Jobs said. “And I also think we’d get some of the best minds in the country contributing.”

In his remarks, Dell said today’s “Internet Generation” is poised to leverage technology in revolutionary ways, but must ensure they can translate the technical proficiency from their personal lives to their schoolwork–and later, to their careers.

Like Jobs, he, too, criticized schools for being slow to adapt.

“All too often, walking into a modern-day classroom is like teleporting back to the 1950s,” said Dell. Rather than use technology to expedite old methods of teaching, Dell encouraged educators to embrace more innovative approaches and to think of the role educational technology can play in cultivating new skills.

Dell discussed the importance of such competencies as information and communication technology literacy, teamwork, and so-called “figure it out” skills necessary to compete in today’s global economy.

To further that dialog, Dell announced the creation of IdeaStorm, a new web site where Dell customers, including educators, can go to submit ideas about how best to improve Dell products and services. The most popular ideas, including education-related tips, will be used to create future Dell products and services, he said.