A workshop to help train computer science teachers.

Anne Todd Leftwich

Filling the pipeline for computer science teachers

It’s not easy to teach a subject in which you have no training. But Kristen Haubold, a computer science teacher at James Whitcomb Riley High School in South Bend, Indiana, was up for the challenge.

Haubold arrived at Riley 5 years ago as a math teacher after graduating from Indiana University in Bloomington. A year later, Indiana began developing a new computer science requirement for elementary and high school students, and Haubold signed up for the course that the state was offering. She also began looking around for resources to create a curriculum that would meet the new standard, which Indiana officials finalized earlier this year.

The course, Computer Science Principles, debuted in 2014. This fall she’s added a second course: Computer Science A. But Haubold remains the only computer science teacher in the 18,000-student district.

Her isolation is not unusual. As state and local educators adopt new computer science requirements for their students, they are stymied by a lack of qualified teachers. “There is a need to get at least one [computer science] teacher in every school in this country, [but] right now there’s usually only one in a district,” says Cameron Wilson, chief operating officer and president of the Code.org Advocacy Coalition in Seattle, Washington, which promotes computer science education.

Wilson says that the only way to provide districts with enough computer science teachers is through specifying funding for computer science education and teacher training.

Last week President Donald Trump took a small step toward changing that picture. In a 25 September memorandum, Trump directed the U.S. Department of Education to make teaching computer science a priority in supporting high-quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in schools across the country and in postsecondary training. The department should set a goal of investing $200 million a year in such activities, the president declared, giving Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos the job of “helping districts recruit and train [STEM teachers], focusing in particular on computer science.”

At least 10 states and a number of cities, including New York City, have adopted standards that call for exposing students to some type of computer science instruction starting in kindergarten and running through grade 12. It’s part of a broader effort to train workers to fill computing-related jobs across the country. But finding teachers can be tough.

“It’s really hard to convince a computer science professional to give up a job that pays up to three times more to pursue teaching,” Wilson says. “And I don’t think we should.” Instead, his group and others are pushing states “to think about allocating funding so they can take in-service teachers and prepare them to teach computer science.”               

However, it can be a lonely path, says Jennifer Smith, a computer science teacher at Digital Harbor High School, a public magnet program in Baltimore, Maryland. “Usually you’re the only computer science teacher in your district, so it’s hard to find co-workers you can relate to.” And the task of creating a curriculum can be difficult. “Other subjects have had decades of curricula to draw from,” she says. “The obstacles we face are vastly different than what someone might experience teaching math or English.” Smith has formed a community through Maryland’s chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association, where she met computer science teachers from other school districts.

To help prepare teachers, school officials in some areas have turned to short training programs, including workshops offered by Code.org. The National Science Foundation also funds activities through the federal Computer Science for All initiative, which the Obama administration launched in 2016. For example, New York City teachers can attend a 2-week course on basic computer science principles as part of an initiative by Mayor Bill de Blasio to introduce computer science classes into all schools. The goal is to train 5000 teachers to serve all 1.1 million students by 2025.

Even if New York City meets such an ambitious goal, it will probably need outside support for teachers to remain computer literate. “We need targeted funding specifically for computer science education,” says education researcher Anne Leftwich of Indiana University. “If we don’t have targeted funding, school officials won’t feel inclined to invest in computer science education.”

Trump’s memorandum does not provide the department with any more money for computer science courses or teacher training, nor does it call on Congress to appropriate additional funds for those purposes. It simply tells DeVos to assign a higher priority to competitive proposals covering STEM education, leaving the department to decide how to implement the directive.

At the same time, the president’s 2018 budget now pending before Congress calls for the elimination of a program that school districts could use to support computer science and a range of technology initiatives. The program is authorized at $1.5 billion, and congressional spending panels are poised to give it roughly one-third of that amount.

Wilson sees the presidential memorandum as a step in the right direction but he’d like to see what types of program the department will emphasize. Code.org is now working to get targeted funding ensured for the various state initiatives. With the expected cuts to the Department of Education’s budget, Wilson said targeted funding, especially for teacher training, is crucial to make sure computer science takes root in the nation’s classrooms.