Teaching Opinion

Making Computer Science “For All”

By John T. McCrann — April 14, 2016 4 min read
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I am in a fellowship with MƒA, an amazing organization that is empowering math and science teachers to change math and science instruction in this country. As you will read below, this group is grappling with questions posed by the “Computer Science for All” initiative. Please read the message below by our executive director and share your thoughts and questions. We will hope to see all you New York City folks on April 18th! - JRTM

On April 18, MƒA will host, “MƒA Teachers Speak Up: Computer Science in NYC,” a panel discussion that will include in an in-depth conversation about teaching computer science in New York City Schools. Co-moderated by MƒA Executive Director Megan Roberts, members of the panel will critically analyze what is entailed in providing all NYC public schools with a meaningful, high-quality computer science education. Register now to attend the event and join the conversation.

In the following op-ed, MƒA Executive Director Megan Roberts addresses the unanswered questions surrounding the “Computer Science for All” initiative, highlighting the need for teacher supports and clarity regarding what we mean by computer science education.

The Common Core, standardized testing, teacher evaluations, Universal Pre-K - just about everything in education is controversial. And yet it seems that nearly everyone, from tech leaders to politicians, agree that K-12 students need access to computer science education. In New York City, public schools are in the process of applying to take part in Mayor de Blasio’s “Computer Science for All” initiative — a ten-year, $80 million public/private partnership aimed at bringing computer science to all New York City public school students. Meanwhile, President Obama announced earlier this month that he would include $4 billion in his proposed budget this year for his own “Computer Science for All” initiative.

While there may be general agreement that computer science education is important, there is far less consensus on how to make these initiatives a reality in our schools. From the philosophical question of how we should define computer science to the practical concern of how to provide access to the necessary hardware and broadband connectivity, realizing computer science “for all” will mean answering a number of fundamental questions.

First and foremost - we have to start with the teachers, the people who are actually charged with teaching computer science. Who is teaching computer science and what, exactly, do they teach?

Teachers in the United States are only just beginning to receive the respect they deserve as professionals- and many of us are working to change the conversation about how the public talks about teaching and teachers. But in general, there is agreement that teachers, in addition to their teaching skills, also need to know their subject area. Herein lies the conundrum with Computer Science. We don’t have agreement about what the subject is - and without a definition of what it means to teach computer science in schools, it’s unlikely that we’ll be successful in finding qualified teachers to teach it.

The Department of Education should be commended on its efforts thus far - they’ve launched and staffed a new computer science department, written and received large grants, and begun working with some of the best computer science organizations and university departments across the city. But their task is daunting -to ensure that all 1.1 million students take computer science in elementary, then middle and then high school regardless of the needs, strengths and interests of that child. So, when we say “for all,” what do we mean? The majority of our city’s neediest kids still attend schools that struggle to attract highly qualified math and science teachers. Without qualified teachers teaching computer science these students will be the ones who suffer a poorly enacted initiative no matter how well-intended. If we say “for all,” are we as a city (and a nation) really willing to do what it takes to make that real?

Despite all the press around computer science in New York State there is currently no certification or clear career path laid out to become a computer science teacher. Often highly accomplished math teachers or those with prior, related career experience find themselves teaching the subject. There are several schools in the city whose computer science programs are well designed and highly regarded. In many schools though, computer science, if offered at all, is programmed within a technology class, or a science class or even an art class. While none of these course options are bad necessarily, they all point to a lack of clarity about what we want our students to learn and who should be teaching them computer science.

Looking ahead, state certification may or may not be on the horizon in New York State, but if all 1.1 million students are expected to take computer science three times before they graduate high school, then within the city, we will have to support and retain a huge influx of computer science teachers as we would any other teacher in our schools.

The state will have to decide if it wants to certify teachers or if instead wants to otherwise signal what it means to be qualified and prepared to teach computer science - because teaching computer science in school is not a new idea; but making computer science “for all” certainly is.

Megan Roberts is the Executive Director of Math for America (MƒA), a non-profit organization that works to make teaching a viable, rewarding, and respected career choice for the best minds in math and science. Before joining MƒA, Roberts served as the Executive Director for the Office of Innovation at the NYC Department of Education. Roberts is a former science teacher and school administrator, and holds an Ed.D. in Science Education from Teachers’ College, Columbia University.

Follow John McCrann on Twitter and MƒA @mathforamerica

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