A CS State of Mind

In New York City, students and teachers well represented.

GUEST COLUMN | by Michael Preston

CREDIT CSNYC teacher training.jpgThe last several years have seen an unprecedented growth in computer science (CS) education. Arguably, 2013 was the turning point for CS in K-12 education, with the founding of local organizations such as CSNYC and national ones such as Code.org, whose explicit missions are to expand classroom access to CS.

Significantly, several state and district initiatives have gone beyond simply increasing access to CS to some students and declared CS a required subject for all students — effecting an unprecedented change to curriculum nationwide. Highly populated urban districts, including New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, as well as the states of Arkansas, Rhode Island and Utah, have each launched CSforAll initiatives, providing essential literacy for 21st century learning and an expanded pipeline to pathways in technology today’s public school students.

We recognize educating current teachers is only the first step in a long-term plan to create equitable, sustainable access to CS for all students.

A White House call to action established in January 2016 both acknowledged this growth and spurred additional commitments, and a new CSforAll Consortium was launched in September 2016 to help organize activity and track data across the country.

Teachers are integral to CS Success

In order to teach CS to as many public school students as possible, we need to produce a deep bench of teachers who are equipped with the skills and understanding they need to support student learning. Nurturing deep CS knowledge in a single teacher means that potentially hundreds of students per year will be able to learn CS.

Realistically, schools will seek to integrate CS in diverse ways that will evolve over time. This presents a need for at least two types of teachers: those who will formally be known as CS teachers in their schools; and those who will offer CS in the context of another subject area. Yet there are very few CS specialists for schools to hire, and few current teachers have been exposed to CS in ways that would enable them to teach it effectively in another context. The lack of (1) university programs in CS education — or even a general CS literacy requirement for all students — (2) certification pathways for teachers, and (3) a discernable job market have together produced a chicken-and-egg dilemma that has sustained years of inertia in K-12 CS education.

The tide is beginning to turn, however, with new CS initiatives in schools and districts creating sudden demand for CS teachers. Universities are slowly following suit, with a slate of new teacher preparation programs being implemented across the country, including several in New York City. In March 2016, CSNYC hosted a convening of local universities working on pre-service CS teacher programs and will continue to support their efforts to develop and scale their programs. In 2017, CSNYC will launch a National Science Foundation-funded project called “Finding a Home for CS in Schools of Education” in partnership with universities across the country.

While promising, these nascent programs will not produce qualified teachers overnight. In fact, to implement CS at scale for the foreseeable future, our central strategy must be to offer high-quality professional development (PD) for teachers already in classrooms. This is certainly the case in NYC, where our goal is to educate nearly 5,000 teachers over 10 years so we can reach 1.1 million students in 1,700 schools.

Who are these teachers?

Because of the dearth of qualified CS educators, the reality facing school districts is they must educate teachers from other subject area certifications. For example, the NYC Department of Education’s Software Engineering Program launched in 2013 with 40 teachers, but only 10 percent had any background in CS or a related field. Those teachers spent three years and about 350 hours in PD while teaching a curriculum that spanned computer programming, web and mobile development, robotics and electronics.

Educating teachers in CS from other disciplines comes with both benefits and constraints. The benefits include:

  • The teachers are already committed to careers in education and know how to manage a classroom;
  • They have demonstrated an interest in expanding their curriculum repertoire;
  • They are willing to manage a classroom focused on problem- and project-based learning; and
  • They are able to build connections back to their primary certification area.

Conversely, the constraints of in-service PD include:

  • The relatively small amount of time available, compared to pre-service learning and other higher education programs;
  • The lack of opportunity to develop strong fundamentals in CS; and
  • The challenge of developing CS-specific pedagogical content knowledge (how to teach) that may be very different from their primary certification.

The NYCDOE just announced a new slate of CS professional development opportunities for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years. By providing schools with a diverse range of options, they are making it possible for schools to implement CS in a way that aligns with their school vision and culture. The PD opportunities are designed to be accessible to teachers of varying backgrounds in CS, whether just starting out or building upon existing knowledge, and allowing teachers to continue to grow over time.

One of the most exciting aspects about the growth of CS in K-12 education is the continued growth of a diverse community comprised of teachers, CS content providers and higher education institutions. We recognize educating current teachers is only the first step in a long-term plan to create equitable, sustainable access to CS for all students. But the first phase of this work will be a sustained investment in our current teacher workforce.

Michael Preston is Executive Director of CSNYC, the New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education. CSNYC works to increase access to computer science in NYC public schools and is the city’s partner in the 10-year Computer Science for All (CS4All) initiative. Prior to joining CSNYC, Michael designed and led digital learning initiatives at the NYC Department of Education including programs in middle and high school computer science, personalized learning and digital literacy. Write to: info@csnyc.org

 

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